The production of vanilla can be fairly unsustainable, with issues of deforestation, soil erosion, and wildlife endangerment. The vanilla industry has been touched on less regarding sustainability than has been the case for other agricultural products in recent, more environmentally-focused years, and so understanding how it can be sustainable is a gap to be filled.
Nielsen-Massey is one of the largest vanilla-product brands in the UK and the US - they claim to be trailblazers for more sustainable vanilla production, taking a ‘leadership role’ in the improvement of the industry’s health. Their website briefly outlines that the SDGs they are looking at are: No Poverty; Zero Hunger; Good Health and Well-being; Quality Education; Gender Equality; and Responsible Consumption and Production.
Overall, Nielsen-Massey are generally quite transparent and have put a great deal of thought into their social aspect of sustainability. However, they somewhat lack the key element of environmental sustainability, which I was even initially distracted from by their abundance of information on social responsibility. This is not to look a gift horse in the mouth - it’s great that they’ve been so attentive to their employees and supply chain - but, ultimately, the environmental impacts that vanilla production might have should be targeted more than they have been in this case.
There are few ingredients in this vanilla extract, with just water, alcohol, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives listed. The vanilla used is from Madagascar, but it’s unclear from exactly where here it is farmed. The sugar’s origins also are unclear, but Nielsen-Massey has developed a Supplier Code of Conduct, so we can hope that it is as ethical/sustainable as possible. In their suppliers signing this, a pledge is made to, among other things, not use any form of child labour or subject workers to any kind of abuse, not use operations to conceal illegal activities such as human trafficking, not engage in bribery with elected officials, and not knowingly participate in the destruction of protected natural areas or habitats.
It’s good to see both social and environmental elements being incorporated into these requirements, but I’d like to see more environmental considerations throughout the rest of their website’s sustainability sections. Nielsen-Massey expresses that if they hear of any company in their supply chain breaching their pledge, termination in the use of the suppliers will occur immediately, which is reassuring; it’s not unusual for other companies to end this relationship in a slower process due to contractual obligations, or just as a result of a general lack of urgency. It would be beneficial to know whether independent audits are carried out regularly to ensure no breaches of this pledge in the companies Nielsen-Massey uses.
This vanilla extract is not marked as organic or Fair Trade in the same way that another type of their extracts is. Although Nielsen-Massey has some ethically-sound requirements in their Supplier Code of Conduct, it is unclear why they have not expressed an interest in making all their products Fair Trade certified. It implies that this extract involves unfair trading, despite the support in livelihood stability that Nielsen-Massey claims to provide for their farmers’ communities. However, the reason not every product is Fair Trade certified could be due to the expenses involved in carrying this certification. Ultimately, though, perhaps being able to afford these fees should be made a priority by Nielsen-Massey for the sake of being a more concretely ethical company.
The extract is marked as non-GMO Project Verified, which means the product contains none, or minimal (less than 0.9%) genetically engineered organisms. The non-GMO Project is a non-profit organisation that has been very highly rated on Consumer Reports due to its independence and clear, enforceable rules behind its verification.
Packaging-wise, the bottle holding the extract is made of glass, and the cap is metal. In the UK, these can be recycled. Glass isn’t always a better environmental alternative as we often might think; high levels of fossil fuels required for production and shipping render it sometimes worse for the environment than plastic containers. Mining of metals for the cap is also required in this process, and can be very energy-intensive as well.
Relative to other foods, the growth of vanilla can be very water-intensive; it can take about 126,505 litres of water to product one kilogramme of vanilla beans. I struggled to find much information on the agricultural processes of growing the vanilla beans for Nielsen-Massey's extract, so it is unclear whether the plants Nielsen-Massey use have as large a water footprint as is normal for most vanilla. This makes it pretty difficult to rate the extract highly on how it’s made, unfortunately.
After harvesting by hand, the curing process for the pods involves the immersion of the green beans in hot water for a short period of time, followed by storing them in sweat boxes. The beans are then spread in the sun and packed away once night falls. The use of the sun in curing the beans is a great energy-saving technique as opposed to using artificially-generated heat for this process.
A cold extraction process is used to draw out the vanilla’s flavour compounds for this vanilla extract. Nielsen-Massey doesn't detail what goes into this process, but external resources show that this involves the washing and soaking of ground vanilla beans in an alcohol-water solution, which can take up to a month to complete. Heat or pressure stages are not included in this process, therefore the cold process presumably uses significantly less energy. The extract’s country of origin is listed as the Netherlands, so it is possible that the extraction and/or bottling processes might happen here, but the details here are unspecified.
Nielsen-Massey is very transparent in their Sustainability Report with their emissions breakdown of three scopes: Scope 1 - emissions produced directly by their facility, Scope 2 - emissions produced by the production of electricity they purchase, and Scope 3 - emissions produced by company activities (raw materials being imported, shipping final products, and employee travel). The vast majority of their emissions stem from the latter scope. Nielsen-Massey explain that they are exploring how they can reduce their emissions, particularly in the transportation area, by learning from peer companies and collaborating with trusted partners. They have goals to reduce the emissions of Scope 1 and 2 by 20% by 2023, and reduce Scope 3’s emissions by 25% by 2024. The transparency and detail here is something I greatly appreciate, and something I’d like to see more of from companies. As important as it is to discuss future emission reductions, in an ideal world, we would also see Nielsen-Massey discuss current carbon offsets that can be made. The key movements for tackling the issue of carbon emissions would essentially be balancing out the emissions already made, as well as reducing the amount of future emissions made in the first place.
Nielsen-Massey are founding members of the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, which places emphasis on the reduction of child labour in the industry. They also wish to establish a reforestation program with vanilla farmers.
Nielsen-Massey has placed a focus on the improvement of the economic prospects of vanilla farmers and their families. They have introduced initiatives such as strengthening security for growers and boosting ‘professionalism’ in the industry through the encouragement of ‘proper’ farming and curing methods. Although, this begs the question of what ‘professionalism’ means... it feels a bit like Nielsen-Massey might be imposing Western thoughts onto non-Western practices. Alternatively, this term might have been meant in the sense of just streamlining their farming practices to create a more consistent crop.
Nielsen-Massey claims to support their global neighbours in vanilla-growing regions, supporting the access of clean water in Madagascar’s Andranovato, for instance, through building a new well and latrines for the village home to 55 vanilla farmers. This is just one of the several consistent support systems Nielsen-Massey has going on with their employees’ local communities.
An issue with Nielsen-Massey that I have is their inconsistency with transparency: for most of their tubes of whole vanilla beans sold, they are clear with the region from which they originate. But, with their extracts and pastes, there is less transparency with ingredients other than the vanilla beans. However, they note on their sustainability webpages that they are happy to be contacted if anyone wishes to have more information in this area, showing understanding of the importance of companies being as open as possible. That being said, it would clearly be preferable that all key information was laid out already, rather than having to contact the company or crawl through a sixteen-page sustainability report PDF.
Ultimately, Nielsen-Massey is more sustainability-focused than I had initially presumed. This doesn’t change the facts that it isn’t made particularly clear how sustainably-grown their vanilla beans are, and that step-by-step details on their processes is another major element that is missing. It does seem like Nielsen-Massey is geared up for tackling the social issues that have been associated with agriculture, but in the balance of social and environmental issues that companies should look at, their focus seems rather narrow.