Times change, and nowhere more impactfully than within industries whose practices have an effect on the environment. Climate change is the issue of the next decade and beyond, and the cannabis industry will be affected like any other. Agricultural products of all kinds are front and center in discussions about sustainable cultivation and environmental impacts.
As cannabis is legalized in more and more states across America and becomes a mainstream consumer product, the industry is taking a closer look at cultivation and product manufacturing. Eco-friendly production is important to many consumers, and their decision about where to spend their dollars — given a fairly extensive range of competition — will be dictated in part by those interests.
Consumers and the environment
For producers, it’s fortunate cannabis can be grown with a relatively low environmental impact, but some don’t adhere to sustainable practices for the very simple reason that yesterday’s cannabis business was all about profit, with no view to marketability. Those growers often set up indoor grow facilities that pay little heed to electricity use, water consumption, or waste disposal. Chemicals and pesticides were the norm, and even packaging was reduced to cheap plastics in an effort to maximize profit margins.
The problem with focusing on profit over marketability is the aforementioned expansion of the industry to mainstream consumers. The target customer is no longer the guy who buys six joints out behind the local store; today’s consumers are more aware of what they ingest and use, the provenances of the products, and the practices of the companies who make them. Organic produce aisles are expanding in cities large and small because customers increasingly demand sustainably grown items, for the benefit of both the individual and the planet as a whole. These same consumers are shaping what demand looks like in the cannabis industry, and they are doing it with their wallets.
Research by Nielsen and others strongly supports cannabis growers and manufacturers moving toward sustainable practices in their operations, even if it means a higher consumer price. Millennials — a core constituency for cannabis businesses — are by far the most environmentally conscious, with 73 percent indicating they would pay more for goods grown, produced, and sold in sustainable ways. Generation Z is also on board, with as many as 62 percent willing to pay more. Increasingly, consumers want to know the companies they buy from have sustainable practices in all elements of their operation.
While a grow with little view to maintaining environmentally friendly practices will use up to 200 gallons of water to get a single plant to bud, a sustainable one will find ways to reduce environmental impact for all stages of plant production and management, right down to the packaging. It’s a more expensive operation to set up, but the downstream effects on long-term profitability are worth the investment.
Sustainability is achievable
Creating an environmentally sustainable operation capable of producing a high-quality product for planet-conscious, health-conscious customers is very achievable. In fact, quality growers and producers have specific ways to get the job done:
- Air-drying plants with an oven, in which any exhaust (hexane, for example) is recycled instead of being ejected into the atmosphere.
- Employing newer light sources that use less power than older bulbs and nurture plant growth as effectively as natural sources.
- Using less water by improving irrigation methods and putting in filtration systems that ensure whatever wastewater is produced is clean.
- Employing Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)-listed soil and USDA-approved organic fertilizers. When the elements used are approved by OMRI for organic food production, clearly they are good enough for cannabis production.
- Swapping energy-intensive HVAC systems for water-chilled systems that control climate just as effectively using 30 percent less energy.
Organic growers have taken the next step. After realizing their operations do not have to impact the earth, they developed an understanding that the consumer is also interested in the cleanest possible experience. By avoiding the use of pesticides, which become part of the plant structure and therefore would be ingested when the product is consumed, the benefits of sustainable practices extend to the end users.
Industrial farming, with a view to mass production, traditionally has used pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic substances, all of which have a massive impact on the earth. Even wastewater is damaging, as it is returned to groundwater sources along with toxins, metals, and salts. These sources eventually drain into the earth’s lakes and oceans, potentially damaging them beyond repair.
An increasing number of cannabis cultivators now adhere to organic soil practices that allow plants to grow in a natural way, with the nutrients and water that are naturally present at the grow site. The result? Groundwater and the systems into which it feeds are impacted far less, because no chemicals leach in. Formal organic standards currently don’t exist within the cannabis industry, because cannabis has not been legalized at the federal level. However, this hasn’t stopped conscientious cultivators from adjusting their practices to produce a clean, sustainably grown product.
Organic agricultural goods once were seen as a luxury meant for the wealthy, but growing interest from a wider cross section of the purchasing population has brought organic production into the mainstream. The cannabis industry is no different from the food industry in this respect, and players are embracing the notion that sustainable, environmentally friendly practices are the way forward.
Serge Chistov is chief financial partner at Honest Marijuana Company, an eco-conscious cannabis cultivator that employs an organic, pure approach to growth, production, and packaging. The company’s patented Nanobidiol technology nano-encapsulates each cannabinoid molecule, making it much smaller to increase bioavailability and deliver an ultra-quick and clean onset of effects.