Written By Rachel Phipps
Making sustainable choices when it comes to our weekly grocery shop is getting easier. More information is available every day to help us make better choices by choosing sustainable meat, responsibly farmed fish, and vegetable boxes grown by our local farmers. But how sustainable are the dried herbs and spices in our spice rack, and how easy is it to find the information on sustainability and fair farming practices relating to the spices we buy?
I write recipes for a living, so it follows that I spend a lot more time sourcing my ingredients than might be considered normal. I’m gradually locating independent butchers where I can source sustainable and traceable meat. Most of my fish comes directly from the family who owns the day boats. And, I buy the fruits and vegetables I don’t grow myself, from the local farm shops.
However, I have never once considered the provenience of any of the dried herbs and spices nestled in my spice rack.
I write an ingredient-focused newsletter (called ingredient), and in my July edition, I focused on sumac. Doing my research, I was fascinated by an article I stumbled upon by a blogger in Canada who harvested his own sumac for culinary use. This got me thinking, should our approach to be more sustainable when sourcing our herbs and spices be twofold? Should we not just be taking more of an interest into where and how our herbs and spices are sourced, but also, if we have the space available, be making more of an effort to cultivate our own?
First, what are the sustainability issues surrounding dried herbs and spices that we should be considering? Well, obviously there are the usual agricultural questions as herbs and spices are, after all, a crop: if they’re grown and harvested using sustainable and non intensive or invasive farming techniques with the lowest environmental impact as possible. But, when it comes to spices especially, I think the question is more of an ethical, rather than an environmental one. For centuries the global spice supply chain has relied on middle man after middle man, often exploiting the people and ecosystems of spice-rich countries for financial gain. In choosing our dried herbs and spices the biggest question we really ought to be asking ourselves is if the farmer who produced our little jar of spice has fair working conditions, and if they are receiving a fair price for the spices they grow and harvest? Looking after our planet is important, but looking after the people who live on it is important too.
Grocery Store Spices
In an ideal world, we would all be buying everything we eat directly from the producer, but, realistically, most of our dried herbs and spices come from the grocery store.
"Sustainability" is the buzz word all grocery stores are putting at the heart of their corporate mission, and pretty much every company website has an easy to find sustainability policy, quite a few of them broken down across areas such as pork and dairy farming, fish and shellfish, soy, coffee, tea and cocoa. I searched and browsed statements from every grocery store I can think of here in the UK and every one I used to shop at in the US (to cover the whole of America I’d be reading sustainability statements long into next week!) Consumer demand for more transparency in the food chain has forced the big names to make this information available, even if the quality and extent of this information varies wildly.
Everyone has different pressures on their time and budget, so if buying store branded spices from the grocery store is what works for you, take the time to see what information is available for where you shop as in most cases it is possible to find information about the general sustainability of all of the products sold at most stores, if not the individual products, so it is possible to make a more informed choice about where you want to send your custom. I’ll delve a bit more into this in a moment, but shopping organic and fairtrade is always a good place to start as at least you can be sure of a basic set of standards your spices will need to have reached.
So what about name brands? Most all of my non-own brand herbs and spices are sold by Barts and Schwartz, which is the UK brand name for McCormick products, that I used in my Los Angeles kitchen. I know Frontier Co-op, and Simply Organic are pretty popular US brands, the former owning the latter.
- Barts seemed the best bet from my own kitchen, noting on some labels if the product is Fairtrade and or organic, which is both encouraging and organic certification is something that is at least legally protected. The only spice where they dive a little deeper into on their website - because there is a lot more press surrounding the issues - was to clarify that their cinnamon is sourced in Sri Lanka, and that it is pure cinnamon, rather than cassia bark.
- Schwartz / McCormick had more impressive sustainability practices. The information on their spice products was much easier to find on their website. Schwartz / McCormick put more of an emphasis on their UK website on how their involvement in the food chain and work with farmers helps improve quality rather than sustainability, but they do encourage consumers to get in touch about any further sourcing questions they may have. Also, on the US based McCormick corporate website there is more of a specific focus on environmental sustainability, with case studies actually diving into some of the more popular herbs and spices in our kitchens.
- Frontier Co-op are very clear both on their website about their sustainability practices, and in as much detail as could fit on their actual packaging, too, so you can be confident shopping in store.
Overwhelmingly, I’ve discovered that if we want more information about the dried herbs and spices we buy from big vendors, we need to ask for it. The information is already there for big-issue products such as coca, coffee and bananas. With a sustainability focused mission statement now an essential for these businesses, they will put the information out there if enough people ask for it.
So we’ve covered the big brands, but if you’re happy to go small and independent, how easy is it to find what we’re looking for?
Twitter and Instagram shout outs to my followers landed me with so many websites for spices packaged here in the UK, some of which claim to be sustainable, but without much information on their websites about how their spices are sourced. The Fairtrade label was helpful tracking ethical sourcing (the Fairtrade label I’m used to, as well as many others appear on US products, but be careful a label actually means what you think it does). But, once I started to dig into places I was already a customer I was pleasantly surprised to find Steenbergs commit to ethically sourcing organic and eco-friendly products across their range of herbs, spiced and teas, and state that they are a carbon-neutral company.
- Diaspora, a company that ships across the US focuses on sourcing single origin spices using regenerative farming techniques, and on creating a fair and equatable supply chain for Indian spice farmers. Their website is so clear and informative, also explaining why sourcing sustainable spices are so important. Their spice jars are super cute, too.
- Burlap & Barrel also seems to be an excellent shout if you want to properly dig into the human impact of the supply chain and support equitable sourcing.
- Daphnis and Chloe, founded in Athens, are another supplier I’m bookmarking - they ship across the US, EU and to the UK - you can point to their Mediterranean grown herbs and spices almost exactly on a map.
- Pinch Spice Market may not have the fancy branding, but they also look like a fantastic option if you’re into buying blends as well as whole and ground spices. They are impressibly transparent about their practices, sourcing and ethos. Also, I like that you can choose big refill bags or tins for the lowest packaging option that works for you, and that if you’re based near Louisville, Kentucky you can also shop their spice vending machine!
I’ve purposely focused on independent storefronts that stock a wide range of sustainable spices here because while some fantastic brands out there specialize in single spices, I wholeheartedly believe that you should be focusing on buying these when you come across them in brick and mortar stores. Not only do these tremendous physical stores need our support, but there is less of an environmental impact without the packaging required to ship individual items from online stores.
Cultivating Your Own Dried Herbs & Spices
As for producing your own, it depends on the resources and climate available to you. Herbs are the obvious easy choice; most of you reading this English language article will live in an environment where almost all herbs can easily be grown outside at least some of the year, and fresh herb pots also thrive indoors on a kitchen windowsill or using a herb planter with a fitted UV light.
There is also a range of drying options available to fit your space and budget, from investing in a dehydrator to drying them in your oven or by simply hanging them in a bunch to dry in a suitable spot. Gardening Know How has some great tips.
Cultivating your own spices is where it gets a bit tricky, as most spices are not really suited to a Western climate. However, there are a few starting points, some of which are simpler than others.
- I rather like the idea of trying to produce my own coriander seeds; as us Brits who call cilantro coriander will know they’re the same plant, and something I can happily grow in England.
- Mustard seeds are also an obvious one as mustard plants are already popular in borders.
- All it would take to make your own chili powder from home grown chillies would be to dry or dehydrate them using an oven or dehydrator before going at them with a good spice grinder.
- If you’re a keen vegetable gardener, you might already be growing fennel which you can then again harvest the seeds from.
So what have we learned?
If we want to make truly sustainable choices when it comes to our spice racks, there are a few options. As I’ve just discovered, with a little time set aside - perfect if you’re one of those Sunday meal prep people - it is possible to cultivate some of your own herbs and spices at home without special equipment and very little space, and also to do some basic research on the things you can’t grow yourself so that you can make informed choices about ethical and sustainable sourcing regardless of your personal circumstances.
For me, it is going to be about making more informed choices leading to a gradual change. I’m going to make more of an effort to source my spices from more sustainable independent options when I’m able to cut down on unnecessary packaging by placing a big order. Otherwise I am going to carry on buying grocery store dried herbs and spices, trying to focus on brands who have shared as much information as possible to reassure me about sustainability. I’m also going to attempt a few dried herbs towards the end of the summer with plants that will die back once we hit winter here in our changeable British climate.
If you want to learn more about choosing and storing spices, check out TMF Resources - Spices.