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Modern Day Slavery and the Natural Medicine Industry with Michelle Fernandez

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Modern Day Slavery and the Natural Medicine Industry with Michelle Fernandez

Would you be surprised to discover that slavery exists in the natural medicine industry?

From 2020, new legislation will come into effect in Australia which aims to increase the accountability of companies to ensure that no facet of their overall supply chain is involved in unethical employment practices that circumvent human rights.

Today we are joined by Michelle Fernandez, a nutritionist who works in strategic raw material sourcing within the natural medicine industry. A major aspect to Michelle's role is to identify hidden vulnerabilities in her suppliers and her suppliers' suppliers and work collaboratively with them to adopt changes that bring them into line with world standards.

Michelle shares with us some of the ways modern day slavery may impact our industry and more importantly, what can be done about it. This eye-opening podcast highlights the murky waters we need to be wary of when selecting the suppliers we choose to be in business with and why we need to be mindful of not only environmental sustainability but also human rights in ethical sustainability. 

Covered in this episode

[01:05] Welcoming Michelle Fernandez
[02:11] Bringing slavery to world attention
[05:50] It's not as simple as abandoning a questionable business
[08:59] What types of slavery presently exist?
[14:12] Ethical and environmental sustainability
[15:49] Real world stats on slavery and human trafficking
[18:43] New legislation: is this enough?
[22:15] Forging partnerships that benefit workers long-term
[27:59] Big business accountability
[32:58] Possibilities for the future.

    


Andrew: This is FX Medicine, I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook. Joining us on the line today is Michelle Fernandez, who is currently a Strategic Sourcing Quality Manager in the natural medicine industry. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry from the United States and holds a Master's in Human Nutrition with a concentration in paediatric nutrition which she obtained here in Australia. 

Her current work involves increasing visibility in her company supply chain to deeply understand where the ingredients are sourced from and more about the ethical practices of those suppliers. We are going to be delving into a very uncomfortable aspect of this today, and this is: slavery. 

And I'd like to warmly welcome Michelle Fernandez to FX Medicine today. How are you, Michelle?

Michelle: I'm wonderful. Thanks, Andrew, for having me.

Andrew: Look, thank you for joining us on FX Medicine. Because when I first heard you speak about this, I thought, "No way, this doesn't exist in Australia." 

Michelle: Hmm, I know. 

Andrew: I was in tears by the end of your talk. So I think we need to start right back at the beginning. Where has this interest in the human cost of procurement of raw ingredients come from?

Michelle: Look, that's a great question. And there probably hasn't been one specific instance that triggered interest throughout the industry, but probably more of a series of events. 

Do you remember...? It happened in Bangladesh back in 2013. Do you remember Rana Plaza? There was a collapse of a building. There was a large building that housed five clothing factories. It was called Rana Plaza, and it caught fire and collapsed. And if you were to YouTube this, you would end up in tears again. It is such a sad story, eleven hundred people lost their lives, twenty-five hundred people were injured. And I think that really opened the world's eyes to the conditions that these people were working in. 

These fires and collapses sadly happen all the time, but the scale of this one was just so large. So that really put it on… It just.. it opened our eyes and it showed that there's something more that we could be doing in this space. And it also brought up the whole cost of fashion. And we went through this thing, and we still actually have it now, and it's the concept of the $4 T-shirt. Where you walk into a clothing store and you see this T-shirt and it's amazing. It's $4, what a bargain. You know, you can be sure that the company is selling it to you is making a margin on that $4 T-shirt. 

Andrew: Yeah. 

Michelle: So the question is, who's missing out? Who's losing out there? And that's the term that it's... And it's always been known as modern-day slavery, but I think Rana Plaza probably put it on the front. It really turned the lens.

Andrew: We always think about, you know, economies of scale, if you like, where components or raw materials are procured from another country because it's cheaper to do so. Well, it's cheaper to do so only if they have a cheaper standard of living. A lesser standard of living. And it's sort of almost accepted that we, you know, procure raw materials from developing nations because it's cheaper to do so. But when you're mentioning the things like the $4 T-shirt, which is ridiculously cheap...

Michelle: It is.

Andrew: And you know, then you have to really wonder about who's getting paid along the way? And this is the thing that really worried me.

Michelle: I think the clothing industry got hit first, where the horror stories exposed by either, you know, the media or some human rights groups, but the agricultural sector has been hit, too. And that's obviously much closer to the natural health industry. 

You know, the question might be, where do we get our herbs from and our ingredients for our complementary medicines? Who's planting them? Who's harvesting them? And that's really led to the space that I'm working in right now. Around creating visibility in a supply chain so that we know that there's no modern-day slavery happening. 

Andrew: Yeah. 

Michelle: And there's been government legislation as well. The UK passed its Modern Day Slavery Act in 2015. Australia just passed ours last year. And this requires that companies of a certain size are going to be showing what they're doing in this space to create visibility. 

So, these government-led programs are great. Because they give us a reason to start. But the real power, I believe, lies in the supply chain. Because you can have the government legislation, but the supply chain is the one that makes the decisions, right? We decide who we're going to buy from. So, I believe the responsibility lies with the companies.

Andrew: But it also goes further in there. You were speaking... Something which really warmed my heart was that it wasn't just, "Oh, you are at risk of being involved in child slavery or slavery, and therefore we won't buy from you. See you later. Goodbye." Rather than that, it's more, "You are at risk. We're going to help you overcome this." That's something that I thought was...it really warmed my heart about that. Tell us more about this.

Michelle: Absolutely. So the one thing that I would love to acknowledge is that the company that I worked for has made a conscious decision that whenever we did start looking into our supply chain, if we did find something suspect and we investigated it and we had confirmed that it was, in fact, modern-day slavery, we will not run away. That is what we chose. We will not run away because running away does nothing for the person who's trapped in modern-day slavery. 

Andrew: No. 

Michelle: And, you know, that supplier is producing a product at probably a very attractive and a low price because they're not paying their employees what they deserve. But if we run away, another less educated company who doesn't know as much about this in this space, they're going to come in and say, "Oh, that's a great price. I'm going to buy from them." 

And so, even though you've done the work to identify, you haven't done anything about it. And that's where we believe that actually working with your supplier, building a stronger relationship, showing them there's a better way, and lifting their standard, that's our job. That's really our job. Do you want me to tell you a little bit about modern-day slavery? Do you want me to define it?

Andrew: Yes, I would love to because, you know, the examples you've given so far are in other countries, and so, it's very easy to people to turn a blind eye, but it's not so.

Michelle: It is. I was so shocked. First of all, can I just tell you I was so shocked when I first began working in this space. Because the first time I heard the term modern-day slavery, number one, I didn't understand it. And number two, I didn't even believe it. It just was such a foreign concept to me. But modern-day slavery is actually on the rise. So, since 2012, slave trafficking has increased 47%.

Andrew: Wow.

Michelle: That's... I know. Wow. There's a group out of Australia called the Walk Free Foundation, and I’d really encourage you to check out their website. They've got really good information there. 

But every year, they publish something called the Global Slavery Index. And in 2018, this index estimated that there are 40.3 million people around the world trapped in some form of modern-day slavery, 40.3 million. And you have to understand that modern-day slavery takes many different forms. So that number, that 40.3, it includes forced marriage, there's forced labour, bonded labour, child slavery, and it is rife in certain sectors. 

So the natural health industry is definitely no exception there. And I think bonded labour and forced labour are probably the most applicable to the natural health industry.

Andrew: Yeah. 

Michelle: Just, you know, due to our reliance on natural ingredients, grown in fields. And, of course, you do have a high risk of child slavery in the Asia Pacific region.

Andrew: Let's go through a couple of those definitions though. So, like what's forced labour and what bonded labour?

Michelle: Okay, so I'll start with bonded labour. So I say it's a really interesting concept, but interesting isn't the right word.

Andrew: No. Horrible.

Michelle: It's horrible. There are groups of people looking to make a profit in slave trade. And what they do is they seek out people who are down on their luck and they make them a promise. 

So, you've got people working in a third-world country, they're working seven days a week, their hours are really long, and they're not even making ends meet. So, they're down on their luck, and the slave traffickers will seek those people out and they make them a promise. The promise they make them is that, you know, maybe they're going to smuggle them into a country like Australia? And they say, "We're going to get you in there and then your opportunities are going to open up and you're going to be doing the similar work, but you're going to get paid so much more and I can help you get there." And the term bonded labour comes in because that person will have to pay money to their trafficker, but they don't pay them right away. The promise is that “you can pay me later,” once you're earning money. And that's attractive, right? If you're down on your luck, you're going to take that opportunity. You're going to see it as an opportunity.

Andrew: Interest-free loan, anyone?

Michelle: Basically. That's what they're offering.

Andrew: That's our equivalent, isn't it?

Michelle: Yes. Yes. So, let's say that person makes their way to Australia, and, you know, but once they're in there, they don't speak our language, they don't know their working rights. They are most likely underpaid and they're in a situation and a cycle that they're not going to be able to break, they're never going to be able to pay anybody back, and they've lost their identity. So, they lose their identity because now they are bonded to their employer and they owe them everything. 

So bonded labour, it's dangerous because it really...you get caught in the cycle and it perpetuates. And what if you have a child while you're in bonded labour? That child will very likely end up in child slavery.

Andrew: Right

Michelle: And because of the....

Andrew: So it perpetuates.

Michelle: It perpetuates. Exactly. Now, in the case of forced labour, forced labour is simply where somebody is told...they're usually abducted and they are then told, "This is what you're doing. You are now a slave and you're not paid. This is your life." And there's no way out of that. That's scary as well. 

But there's so many different forms of modern-day slavery. And you know what? I want to make it clear that slavery isn't always a woman and a child being abducted from the side of the road. 

So, picture this, okay? There is a mother who has to provide for her family. And in order to do that, she is working by picking herbs for a raw material supplier. She's paid so little for her hard work that in order to make ends meet, let's say she has to work seven days a week, and then she has a quota to hit to get paid a few extra dollars, and those extra dollars mean something. 

So, to hit that quota, that means she can't take a bathroom break from the fields. She then chooses not to drink water all day. She's out in the hot sun. She chooses not to drink water, so she doesn't have to go to the bathroom. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: So my question is, is that right? If you knew that was happening, would you still buy that product?

Andrew: Wow. This really goes back to like basic workers' rights, doesn't it?

Michelle: Exactly. Yes, it does. And it's not just...it's all over the world. Everybody deserves, human rights should be protected for everybody. That's what I believe.

Andrew: Okay. You also said something earlier about it's only companies of a certain size that have to do this reporting.

Michelle: That’s right. 

Andrew: Therefore the companies not of a certain size, smaller companies don't.

Michelle: That's true. Yeah. The companies under...there are certain thresholds that the Commonwealth has set in both the UK and the Commonwealth in Australia have set. If you fall underneath that, that threshold of annual revenue, then it's voluntary for you to report.

Andrew: So what practitioners might not realise is that, you know, a company doesn't grow the herbs, they go to a supplier, and indeed very often, they go to a supplier within their own company that has, you know, contacts for the raw materials. So there's these number of people along the way and, you know, it's got to do with procurement, with getting a product tested, making sure it's of a certain quality, and indeed in finishing the product for sale. Maybe it's encapsulation of the fish oil or something like that? 

Michelle: Yes, absolutely.

Andrew: So how far does this legislation go? I mean, obviously, the company that you work for has decided to investigate this down the whole supply chain. That's a lot of work.

Michelle: Oh, it's a ton of work. And I think that the important thing to recognise, you really hit the nail on the head, is that we are all part of the supply chain. So, it starts with the growers providing the ingredients, the harvesters, the manufacturers. What about the people that drive the trucks to get it to and from where it goes? They’re in the supply chain as well. And, you know, the retailers who sell, but the practitioners who recommend are also in the supply chain. 

So, I'm a nutritionist, and as a health practitioner, I know I develop really strong connections with my patients, and that's powerful. So, if I recommend a product to my patient, they're probably going to take it. And if sustainability is important to me, it's going to be important to them. Because I give them a reason to choose that sustainable approach, you know? 

I would just say that if my patient doesn't understand what sustainability means, that I feel it's my responsibility to educate them and to give them context just so that they know, they can make an educated decision.

Andrew: Yeah. But sustainability encompasses so much more than what I previously thought. This goes into so many areas, and this isn't just child slavery, but also, you know, wiping out of cultural knowledge as well. Oh, gosh, this is bigger than "Ben-Hur."

Michelle: It is. It is.

Andrew: It's so big.

Michelle: And I think sustainability, it's been divided into environmental sustainability and ethical sustainability. 

Andrew: Ahh, right. 

Michelle: So, yeah. So, environmental, whenever you're going to pick a material, you should be looking that the material you pick doesn't affect the longevity of the stock. It doesn't negatively impact biodiversity or use potentially destructive harvesting practices. That's environmental sustainability. 

But the ethical side is, does that company understand they have to respect the people who produce the products? You know, and that can apply at any stage in the supply chain. So that's so much more about taking care of the people that are getting that product to you.

Andrew: So, we've mentioned, you know, about issues in Bangladesh and things like that. But you were also alluding to, you know, with bonded labour, you are alluding to slavery in Australia. So, let's take a step into there. What happens there? What's the estimated issue of slavery, of bonded labour, or forced labour within Australia?

Michelle: Well, this is the thing. So modern-day slavery is an incredibly hidden crime. So, the statistics are… they use algorithms to call it with these numbers, but it's estimated that there are 15,000 people trapped in modern-day slavery in Australia. 

Andrew: Wow. 

Michelle: But then whenever you look at the data, I just told you, 15,000 is too low. I know there are more than that. But it's such a hidden crime that we can estimate based on the cases that have been brought forward and, you know, things where, you know, groups have been found out for human trafficking. That's where that 15,000 number comes from. But I can't actually give you true numbers because we don't know have them.

Andrew: We don't know them, No. 

Michelle: Yeah. 

Andrew: But 15,000 within Australia. You know, you can guarantee that's going to be bigger in the U.S.

Michelle: Oh, for sure. The human industry profits more than 150 billion, that's billion with a B, more than $150 billion a year. That's how much they profit on slave labour. Can I give you a history lesson?

Andrew: Yeah, please.

Michelle: Okay. So I'm American. I don't know if you can tell from my accent, and my country, we've had a rather deep and ugly history with slave trade. 

So, back in the 1850s, if you were a plantation owner in the south of the United States and you wanted to purchase another human life, it would have cost you around $3,900. So, if we convert that to today, it's equivalent to 40,000 U.S. dollars. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: So if somehow today, somehow you got involved in the human trafficking industry, how much do you think a human life costs today? Andrew, how much do you think?

Andrew: Oh, Ten thousand, fifteen thousand?

Michelle: Okay. It costs... I'm shaking just sitting here telling you this. It costs $90, ninety. Nine zero. 

Andrew: What?

Michelle: $90 to purchase another human life. That's how... I want to say that's how available this is. And that's how many people there are out there who are down on their luck and vulnerable. So, whenever I hear this number, that there's 15,000 people in Australia, I don't believe it. There's more. I believe that there's more.

Andrew: This is $90 in Australia.

Michelle: That’s.. yeah, around the world, it's $90 to purchase another human life. Whenever you have that person in captivity and you're either in slavery, you have to pay for, obviously, their food and wherever you're going to house them. But it's $90, the transaction, that's what the slave trafficker asks for. So it's...

Andrew: Okay. So, like, I'm going to get a really emotional if I don't go on another tack. So you were talking about the government has introduced legislation. 

Michelle: Yes. 

Andrew: So what does this legislation involve? Is the choice to help other suppliers with the issues of slavery only a choice for your company or is this mandated by the legislation?

Michelle: So the legislation is very, I want to say it's high level, it's very... And this is why I think the power lies with the supply chain for action.

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: The legislation says, and I'm speaking about Australia, the UK has different thresholds, but for the Commonwealth of York, if your company brings in more than 100 million a year in revenue, you're required to publicly report that you're ‘doing something’ to create visibility in your supply chain. But we're not really guided on what's required for us to do. So each company then needs to make a decision on how far they're going to take this.

Andrew: Doing something seems very political in nature, i.e. we're discussing, we're learning, we're not doing anything.

Michelle: Exactly. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: So it starts for me, it starts with... First thing you have to do is you got to get your own house in order. So that's what the government's requiring, is it's requiring me and my company to get our own house in order. That's governance, that's systems, making sure that if we were to find something, what do we do? What kind of questions are we going to ask? And just getting that system and a consistent approach in place. But then the other side of that that's so important and arguably more important is building strong relationships. 

Andrew: Yeah. 

Michelle: So, with our suppliers, you can't just... The fastest way to burn a bridge is to walk in and ask your supplier if they have slaves. 

Andrew: Yep. 

Michelle: That's not going to get you anywhere. So it's more about asking them about their practices, getting to know what they do and having a good relationship with them.

And also whenever we ask these questions, we always let them know that there's no wrong answer. We just want you to be open, and honest, and transparent with us. I don't expect any company to come back and say, "We're absolutely perfect." In fact, if everybody's absolutely perfect, I'm going to question that. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: So it's more, "I want you to have a transparent path forward to addressing the issues." And from my experience, from whenever I started working in this space, companies have never even heard of ethical business practices before. The questions I'm asking about, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, they've never even heard of it. 

So it's just educating them right now to say, "This is important to us. I actually care how you treat your employees. Do you have a social responsibility program?" Some companies call it a wellness program.

Andrew: Right.

Michelle: Things like that. And if they say, "No, what is that?" I can educate them. How great is it that I'm in a position where they want to know more. 

Or maybe I'm asking them around, tell me how you bring on a new supplier. So, we have suppliers, our suppliers have suppliers, and thus that's how the supply chain is created. 

Andrew: Got you. 

Michelle: And honestly, it's a massive spider web. So whenever we... I have a great relationship with my suppliers, but I need to somehow influence them to have good relationships with their suppliers. And that requires me to...sometimes I hold their hands and I help them. But it makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference.

Andrew: You… I remember you said something in your talk about you indeed ‘holding their hand’ and that that was something that you promised yourself. Tell us a little bit about that promise. Where did that start?

Michelle: I think whenever you're working in a space like this, you feel good coming to work because you're making a difference. One of our suppliers, they are one of our... You know, we have a very strong relationship with them. And we started asking some of these questions, and through the questions that we ask and learning more about how they operate, we found that some of their workers were working longer hours than what we felt was safe or healthy. It made us... We just wanted them to review the hours because we felt that they were just weren't safe and they weren't healthy for their people. 

And that company, they reviewed it within a month, within 30 days, they hired more people so that they didn't have...they weren't putting the strain. They didn't even realise it was happening. This is the thing. You know, good companies, they don't necessarily review the hours worked. I know that sounds crazy, doesn't it?

Andrew: Yes, it does.

Michelle: But if the workers are...they seem happy and things are going well, you know, you don't always look at that. But sometimes, overtime, back to back to back, we feel that can be unhealthy. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: That's not necessarily safe. So we just had a conversation with the supplier and they said, "You know what? You're right. We agree with you." And we had open communication the whole time. They hired 23 more employees. It's a massive company. They hired 23 more employees to alleviate some of the over.... The overtime kept ramping up and they just weren't aware of it. It just kept happening. 

So this is something where, when you have a really strong relationship, you can influence change. And that's just, you know, one of, what I consider to be a success story. Because we improved the working lives, like we made...you know, they're safer. They are safer, those employees.

Andrew: I want to ask a devil's advocate question, and that is, okay, if that person was doing back to back overtime, they were doing it so that they could get more money. If the company hires more employees, what happens to that person's money, that person's income, who was doing back to back overtime?

Michelle: Okay. Great question. We actually thought of that at the time and we asked the company to undertake a living wage assessment. 

So, a lot of countries talk about minimum wage, but what we're starting to see now is that minimum wage is sometimes less than a living wage.

Andrew: Yeah. 

Michelle: So that's where... So we asked them to undertake a living wage assessment, and these employees were paid...they're paid well. So even with reduction in hours, they are still X percent. I think it was 42% over living wage. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: So it was okay. It was more about the health of their employees. And you know what? If you're working that much over time, you're going to be tired.

Andrew: Yeah. You're going to get burnout.

Michelle: There's danger. Yeah. So we did. We considered that as well because we were worried that, "Okay, we're taking these hours off them." And I'm not saying ‘we,’ because we didn't do that. But we were talking with the company about this. But we were suggesting that and they said, you know, "Well, does that just mean they're going to go pick up another job so that they can...?" And then that wasn't the case. So that's good.

Andrew: Am I being really insular? I was actually thinking about fishing and, you know, I'm aware that, say, Peru has a major fishing industry, supplying not just fish for eating for their population, which was actually a government mandate, if you like, a government choice, you know, use the fruits of the sea to maintain health, but indeed, a byproduct of that is fish oil. So it's a major industry that the government wants to take advantage of, and indeed suppliers want to take advantage of. I had no idea that there may be slavery involved on the fishing boats. I thought they would all be reasonably employed.

Michelle: Oh yes. No, that's... The fisheries are targeted constantly.

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: Because it's so easy to hide. Sometimes those fishing boats can be out for 24 hours, 48 hours, they're out to sea. It's a very hidden crime. But because we know that the fisheries are high risk, you can build stronger relationships with those suppliers, there's unannounced audits that you can do. There are things you can do in this space that are starting to look at ethical business practices, and it's really in the best interest of Peru to increase their legislation to require more of these companies because it's such a high-risk area. But absolutely, the fisheries in Peru are targeted constantly.

Andrew: Wow. And indeed with Peru as well. You know, a modern health notion to have our quinoa, and indeed much of the quinoa comes from Peru. So you're not just having an environmental issue there because we are taking away their food, but indeed for profit margins, they might be involved in slavery as well?

Michelle: They could be. It's everywhere. There's actually a website called slaveryfootprint.org that you should check out. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: And it's just a survey. It takes maybe five minutes, but at the end, it'll tell you personally how many slaves are probably in your personal supply chain. And this goes through how many laptops do you have, how many mobile phones. But it's, oh, the numbers are just so...the numbers are really scary. So slaveryfootprint.org is an interesting eye-opener.

Andrew: So with regards to reporting on this, what's happening with reporting? When does this have to happen?

Michelle: Yep. So from the Australia perspective, we have until December 2020. And that's when companies of a certain size need to publicly state, you know, on a website and we also have to submit a statement to the commissioner who's running this program with the government, what we're doing in this space. So that's around... And also if you found anything, what you've done about it. 

So right now it's all about building policies within your system, or, sorry, building policies within your company and systems in place. So that's happening now with a lot of companies. And the great thing is, is we're all in this together. There is no competition here. Everybody wants to do better in this space. So even you can talk to anybody who, you know, has a revenue greater than 100 million a year and say, "What are you doing? Can we help? Can we share some ideas?" And it really is a collaborative space because nobody is finding this acceptable. This is unacceptable, and we have to do better. So if we can share ideas, it's great. 

But what you're mostly going to see is you're going to see statements going up on websites and, personally, as a health practitioner that I am, I'm asking, anytime somebody comes to me, proposing a new product that they want me to recommend, I ask them about it. I ask them about sustainability, and if they don't understand, I educate them.

Andrew: Yeah. So not just environmental sustainability, but ethical sustainability. 

Michelle: Ethical. 

Andrew: This is something that, really, we need to expose. 

Michelle: Yes. 

Andrew: We need to bring this to the attention of all-natural health practitioners so that they make, not just a wise decision, but the right decision for humans.

Michelle: And just understanding that health practitioners, we are part of the supply chain. Because we're recommending the products before the person buys it. 

Andrew: Yes. 

Michelle: So, yes, it matters that it's effective, totally matters it's effective, matters that it's of good quality, that still matters. That hasn't changed. But there's this new component that's just as important, and that's, how was it made?

Andrew: Okay. So, a company that has a large turnover, like you said, 100 million, for a company that was saying that, say, has a turnover of 40 million, way below that 100 million threshold, is there anything that you can or are doing to help those smaller companies in realising that there's an issue here, in helping them to understand the issues of slavery?

Michelle: Yeah. So the first thing we start by building these strong relationships so that we can start to ask questions. And I think the first thing is, is I would ask if their company...well, what do they know about sustainability? And then if they don't know anything, I go through environmental and I'll go through ethical, explain it. And for the most part, if they don't understand... Sorry, if they don't have anything in place, they'll tell me, "Let me go back to my group, let me talk to them, I'll get back to you." And that's great. 

Andrew: Got you. 

Michelle: I'm happy because what I've done is I've planted the seed, now they're thinking about it. But assuming they're really proactive and they do know about sustainability, then I start talking to them about, you know, have they done a review to understand the impact of harvesting? Let's say it was cranberry or something, that's harvesting or whatever they're proposing, what's the impact that has on the environment? If they are doing risk assessments, that's a good sign. And just because they're, you know, 40 million a year companies, they might still be doing risk assessments. It really depends on who they have working for them.

So, I like to ask suppliers about their social responsibility program and then I also find out systems they have in place to create visibility in their supply chain. So, this helps me understand if they've even thought about protection of human rights. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: And if they haven't, that's whenever I come in and I offer my help and I say, "Here are some questions that you can start asking your supply chain." 

Because for the most part, what I've found is that the companies I work with, they do, the suppliers I work with, they do have some kind of a template that they follow whenever they start working with somebody new in their supply chain. 

Andrew: Right. 

Michelle: And so, I then propose, "Let me add… can I add an ethical section to that?" Maybe it's an audit you're doing, a desktop questionnaire.”

Andrew: Yep. 

Michelle: “Can I add an ethical section? And not one person who said no to that. 

Andrew: Got you .

Michelle: Everybody says, "Yes. Yes, you can. Can you tell me what you want me to ask?" "Absolutely, I can tell you. I'm happy to help in any way." And going in with radiating positivity and kindness and a helpful nature, you can achieve so much by being kind. It just gets you so far.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely.

Michelle: So that's how it starts with me.

Andrew: I will always remember your words about I don't want to go and browbeat them, I want to hold their hand. 

Michelle: Yes. 

Andrew: Michelle, there's one last question before we go, and that is with regards to the finished product suppliers in Australia that are supplying the practitioners, is there any grouping of them or any association that's saying, "Hey, guys, we all have this issue. Big and small, can we get together and move on this?" Is there anybody pulling everybody together?

Michelle: No, there isn't. Not that I know of. But if anybody contacts you and says they're interested, I am on board. The more we can collaborate in this space, the better.

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. I wonder if...

Michelle: I really feel like we're all in this together. I really do.

Andrew: I wonder if this might be under the auspices of, in Australia, the Complementary Medicines Association? You know, Council for Responsible Nutrition in the U.S. Somebody like that.

Michelle: Maybe. Oh, you're giving me so many good ideas. Maybe we could do that?

Andrew: Goodie. Coffee?

Michelle: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Andrew: Ethically produced coffee.

Michelle: So if my answer is, no, not that I know of, but yes, let's do it. I'm on board.

Andrew: Michelle, I have to thank you for opening our eyes today on what is... I mean, it's obviously tragic, but you radiate such positivity in that we can change this, and it's not going to break the bank to do so. You know, you do it in such a way that you really care. You care about the person in the field, you care about their outcome, their life, their family. I got to thank you for helping us to understand these real issues facing, not just the industry, but the practice of natural medicine. And indeed, you know, we do this because we care. So we really need to care about the people supplying those medicine for us.

Michelle: Yes, I couldn't agree more. And, Andrew, there is no time to waste. We are talking about people's lives. So thank you for allowing me to share my passion with your community.

Andrew: This is FX Medicine, I'm Andrew Whitfield-Cook.



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Michelle Fernandez

Michelle Fernandez holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry from the United States as well a Masters in Human Nutrition with a concentration in paediatric nutrition, which she obtained in Australia. Michelle has worked in a variety of industries over the years including pharma, the fitness industry as a personal trainer and she is still a practicing, registered nutritionist in New South Wales. Michelle's current role is as the strategic sourcing quality manager for the Blackmores Group where she is responsible for increasing visibility in her company's supply chain to deeply understand where the ingredients are sourced from and more about the ethical practices of those suppliers.