The Sustainable Herbs Program Learning Lab – Part 1

By Ann Armbrecht, PhD

This post outlines a process I began in the fall of 2022 using the tools and practices of The Presencing Institute to explore the question: How can sourcing medicinal plants enhance wellbeing and prosperity for people and plants around the world? The journey begins with listening, listening to ourselves, to the voices in the room and those not in the room, to the plants, and to the future that is emerging.

What is at Stake

“We are in a moment of crisis,” Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr., a minister and community activist who is also an influential member of political hip hop, told the crowd gathered for Climate Day at Expo West 2022.

“You can ignore it if you want. But we are having wildfires, flooding, and worse across this amazing planet earth. And we live in a world where a few people have made lots and lots of money. This is the lunch counter moment for the 21st century. But now,” he said, “It is not just equality at stake. It is existence.”

“Business leaders can do a lot to make a difference,” he continued. “They can either have business plans that are in the service of life. Or they can have business plans that are death sentences for the people doing the work and for the planet.”

His words resonated deeply. Yet later I wondered, what does it even mean to have a business plan in service of life? What metrics do you use? And what in the world do you measure?

How to seed something that embodies a different kind of connection?

Because plants are at the center of the botanical industry, of any industry, the herb industry has the potential to offer insights into answering the question of what a business plan in the service of life might look like. Plants are living entities that, in the systems of healing that use herbal medicines, invite a deeper relationship with the natural world. And there are places in the botanical industry where those plants are sourced in ways that respect the people and the plants all the way from source to shelf. But these types of practices too often are the exception.

How can the industry inspire and empower more stakeholders to see their responsibility for tending life? How can we all water those places and practices that nurture and steward those encounters and interactions and relationships?

Sustainable Herbs Program Learning Lab

As the Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, I’ve participated in industry-led workshops and discussions about ethical and responsible sourcing. I’ve interviewed collectors and farmers, primary processors, traders, ingredient supplier, contract manufacturers, brands, and more. For the most part, people know what is needed: transparency, trust, fairness, and respect. Pay fairly. Set contracts. Establish longterm relationships. To me, these are the components of a business plan in the service of life. And yet, as far as I can see, these changes either aren’t being implemented or aren’t being implemented as fast or on the scale needed to have enough impact.

As I have been observing these patterns, I have been learning more about the tools and approach of the Presencing Institute, a model of awareness-based systems change.

Changing the System Begins with Listening

In particular, I have found what is called Theory U, a framework offered by the Presencing Institute, to be especially powerful at addressing the seemingly intractable systemic problems around our ecological, economic, social, and spiritual crises. Otto Sharmer, the founder, says that we collectively create results that no one wants. Changing the system beings with asking what are the structural factors that make us act in ways that are misaligned with our intentions and identifying key steps to address those causes.

The process is both deeply personal and highly systemic. It requires reflecting on how we listen, on recognizing our own blind spots, listening to the edges of the system, to ourselves, and to the future that is trying to emerge. And then prototyping action steps based on what we discover. In the language of Theory U, that means acting with an open mind, open heart, and open will. And it is highly systemic: Through a series of exercises we are taken on a journey to see the system from different perspectives, looking beneath surface symptoms to understand the root causes and underlying belief patterns that keep those symptoms in place. We then identify leverage points – or acupuncture points – where transformation becomes possible. And prototype action steps to quickly take steps to address those leverage points.

The Process

I was impressed with the depth of the practices and their potential for change. And so in the fall of 2021, I launched the SHP Learning Lab: Conversations on Sustainability in the Botanical Industry, structured around the practices of the Presencing Institute. I am offering a similar series in the fall of 2022 to continue this exploration.

The core question we are exploring is whether it is possible to create an industry that is truly rooted in respect for the plants, people, and the planet. One that is rooted in life. And if so, to explore how to get there.

In the first year, we hosted four sessions, two hours each, co-facilitated by myself and Aerin Dunford, who brought experience moderating groups using the tools of the Presencing Institute. I invited 35 Sustainable Herbs Program Donors as well as individuals who worked at NGOs or producer companies in different regions of the world. This group is now the core of the second Learning Lab, co-facilitated with Julie Arts, Senior Faculty for the Presencing Institute, which began in early September, 2022.


One goal of the series was to build more trust and collaboration among SHP donors. Poverty, biodiversity loss, and the climate crisis – issues that all companies must confront and address – can’t be solved by individual companies working in their silos. However, collaboration is challenging in an industry where much of what companies have to offer is their uniqueness: the uniqueness of their formulas, their sourcing relationships, and their vision. I wanted to invite them on a journey of trying to step outside the box and see what might arise.

More personally, my goal was to create a way for people to connect in a deeper way. I wanted to see what emerges if we came together in a different way.


The work of the Presencing Institute is based on the principle that the same thinking that got us into these problems is not going to solve those problems because there are underlying structures that keep things stuck in the first place. Until and unless we address those issues, we aren’t going to make progress. And so instead of focusing on technical details, like how to do an environmental audit, which, while important, doesn’t get to those root causes, we began with practices like stillness, listening, interviewing those whose perspective was different from our own, guided journaling, spending time in nature.

This was where the courage came in, at least for me. It is one thing to do these practices at an herb conference when that is what brings people to those gatherings in the first place. It is another to ask CEOs, heads of trade of sourcing and sustainability departments to take time in the middle of a day filled with long to-do lists to sit together in stillness. Or to share with a group of relative strangers what keeps them awake at night, or what, through a guided journaling exercise, they discovered is one courageous act they can take.

Mapping the System

A particular powerful session was a practice called 3-D mapping. We each took objects in our homes and mapped the current 3D Mapping The Presencing Institutereality of the supply network. We then looked at that map from each cardinal direction and reflected on a particular question: If this model could speak, what advice would it give you? What are the hard truths that need to be spoken? What’s at risk if this situation changes or if it remains the same? What is ending in this system? And what wants to emerge? The questions reflect the type of approach that Theory U invites, in terms of how we respond to the world around us.

After reflecting on the questions, we took time to move the objects on our map toward the future we hoped to create, taking note of the first action we took. We then discussed the process.

More Connection. More Simplicity

Everyone’s second map was simpler. More connected to the communities, more connected to the plants. There were fewer steps between the plants and the finished products. One participant commented that, because of the questions, we thought harder about how we would like to see things rather than just working with what is happening now. We don’t do this enough, she said.

Another who works at an ingredient supplier commented that in making his map, he saw that the world would be fine without their ingredients. And so, in his second map, he thought about what it would be like to have fewer ingredients and instead focus on creating more value for all of the stakeholders for the ingredients they do have.

Putting Plants at the Center

Finally, an herbalist working for a company said she wanted plants to be at the center of her first map. But she realized that that just isn’t how the industry is set up. And so, for the second map, she moved plants to the center. And then she noticed what other changes happened. The map became more circular, less linear, and a lot less top-heavy, she said. In the second map, all of the stakeholders were holding and caring for the plants at the center.

We shared the first move we made in shifting from sculpture 1 to sculpture 2. This move offers insight into the acupuncture points, key leverage points to try to begin changing the system in ways that address root causes so that the changes actually lead to the systemic transformations hoped for.


A key step in Theory U is to prototype action steps, to pick something quickly, and do it to get concrete feedback on what works. This part of the process is still evolving for the Sustainable Herbs Learning Lab. A group of ten continued to meet monthly and identified a number of actions to take. We identified our mission:

The SHP Learning Lab 2022 is committed to pushing the boundaries of partnership in the botanical industry. We are committed to nurturing relationships based on trust, on telling the truth, on respect (for people, for plants, for the planet), and on cooperation. We are aligned in our commitment to growing companies that source high quality botanicals in ways that enhance biodiversity, support smallholder farmers and wild collector communities, and reduce our carbon impact. And we are committed to sharing resources and ideas, asking hard questions, and exploring out of the box solutions around the values of earthcare and ethical partnerships along the value chain.

We developed a series of case studies of small projects and partnerships that reflect these values. This group and this mission forms the foundation for the second SHP Learning Lab. This series includes participants from Nepal, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, the UK, Germany, the US, Peru, and Guatemala. I will share more about the outcomes of this process in late November once we complete the four sessions.

Bringing the Values of Herbalism into the Industry

As importantly, this circle has offered a way to deepen relationships between the participants. One participant said, that the circle is unique in the industry for building the heart energy around the plants. Connecting with the plants and this circle makes the work he is doing in the industry much easier. “It brings the values at the heart of herbalism into the industry,” he said.

To me, this process offers a pathway to designing business plans in the service of life.