With the cannabis sector expected to grow to a $21.8 billion industry by 2020, and projected exponential expansion of the legal adult-use marijuana market into 17 additional states this year, sustainability is arguably the biggest opportunity and challenge for the burgeoning marijuana sector. As a newly emerging market, the cannabis industry often gets labeled an energy hog, but it is uniquely positioned to guide its own growth trajectory and weave sustainable standards and practices into the fabric of the business from the very beginning.
Laura Rivero, operations manager at Oregon cultivator Yerba Buena, believes that there are a select few sustainability leaders paving the way, but there’s a lot of work to be done on behalf of the industry as a whole. “The most sustainable practices have not been implemented across the board,” she said. “So many companies either don’t understand how to enhance their sustainability, or they don’t have the means or the resources to do so. Every aspect of the business can be more sustainable, from transportation, pest management, product packaging, and even how water is treated and used. This is not to say that there aren’t a number of beautiful, utopian farms that are doing things sustainably, but unfortunately that is not the whole picture.”
Possibly the greatest challenge facing the sustainability movement is the rate of industry expansion. Amy Andrle, co-owner of Denver dispensary and cultivation L’Eagle Services noted, “Unfortunately, this is an industry where cutting corners can offer much needed profit margins. But insecticides, herbicides and fungicides all affect the final product.” Andrle noted that resource use, methods of cultivation, and approaches to sustainability shift from market to market; the approach in one state cannot be the same as the route taken in another, due to climate, environment, resources and other agricultural inputs.
“Oregon for example, has done an impressive job with protecting its market from pesticides – it was the first state to require testing for these dangerous compounds,” Rivero said. “It’s incredibly unsafe to be smoking pesticides or other residual solvents. That’s why having regulations and standards are so important for health and safety, as well as sustainability. When Oregon first launched its protections, the outcry from growers claiming that cannabis cannot be grown without pesticides was alarming. While pesticide testing may seem like a challenge for many, for Oregon this weeds out the poor growers from the beginning.”
Andrle described L’Eagle’s approach to setting their own measure of sustainability in Colorado: “L’Eagle goes way beyond the state’s testing requirements. We conduct our own testing of each strain. Quality and purity extend beyond the cannabis flower and into every aspect of production. When you do extractions, you’re essentially concentrating any pesticides and residual inputs that remain on the plant. The extractions that are coming out of heavy pesticide-using grows are not safe, and no one has fully determined the side effects. We have to be ahead of the sustainability curve at all times for our customers.”
There are ample opportunities for businesses to enhance their sustainability practices. Rivero suggests, “It is important to choose your key people carefully and ensure they share your ethical and moral views. Corporate social responsibility is imperative to establishing the cannabis industry as an exemplary sector of legitimate business.”
It is also essential to aim to reduce waste and offset the environmental impact of the cultivation process – for instance, developing a strategic waste reduction plan and implementing safe disposal practices.
Both Andrle and Rivero believe that sustainability is of high importance for the entire cannabis industry. In looking to the future, Rivero believes there is a possibility to create the most innovative and sustainable industry to date.“We have the chance to design everything from the inside out. The decisions we make as individual companies affect the legitimacy and reputation of this industry as a whole. Why not make it a global leader in sustainability and ethical practices? We can.”
Both Rivero and Andrle will join other cannabis sustainability leaders to discuss best practices and the outlook for the industry at the 2nd annual Cannabis Sustainability Symposium in Denver on October 17-18. The Symposium is hosted by the Cannabis Certification Council with in-kind support from Denver Environmental Health.