Where the Cannabis Industry Fails: The Environment

The first of four in a series by Toby Shillito

Prohibition has prevented the normal growth of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) issues in the cannabis industry. In this first of four articles, Shillito considers: (1) the effect on the Environment of ongoing clandestine practices in the cannabis growing industry. Later articles will look at: (2) the effects on the Workplace, (3) the Marketplace, and then (4) the effects on the Community, as well considering as the Future.

Prohibition does not only mean that horticulturalists can go to jail. It also means that business people find it hard to:

  • form partnerships
  • make long-term investment decisions
  • avoid a transactional sales mentality
  • develop a positive corporate culture and
  • manage a socially and environmentally sustainable business model.

In short – prohibition disrupts cannabis businesses from functioning healthily.

With prohibition in retreat, there are emerging opportunities for companies to show – and mean – how their operations both:

  • address the threats to the planet and people and
  • take advantage of the opportunities to do business in a considerate, conscious way.

To do this successfully, companies need to look beyond the traditional borders of the industry, to address their impacts on the wider environment and beyond this to their social responsibilities: to staff in the workplace, suppliers and customers in the marketplace and the communities that live around their areas of operation.  This first article looks at the changes in the environmental impact of the industry. Impacts on the workplace, the market place and the wider community are considered later.

Environmental impacts

Prohibition pushed cultivation indoors, resulting in a mass scale substitution of man-made raw materials for the natural world. The sun has been replaced by High Intensity Discharge lighting, the soil by artificial substrates, manure by artificial nutrients, the wind by extractors or air conditioners, and streams by potential pollutants pumped through plastic pipes. Currently several percentage points of the California grid’s capacity are used to grow marijuana indoors – often in climates perfectly suited to the natural growth of the plant. Even worse, in Spain, for example, most cultivators do not even pay for the electricity they use and are therefore impervious to its cost or environmental impact. Your bud may look green and smell of the forest, but it has been made entirely by burning fossil fuel.


In this Alice in Wonderland world of prohibition, even the soil is not soil. Rockwool is a very effective substrate, providing channels of air and water to support extensive root growth, especially in the early stages of a plant’s life. It appears natural. It is made from rock. But its manufacture is environmentally damaging: the recipe is to mine rocks, heat them to 1,600 C, spin them into fibres in giant industrial chambers, encase them in plastic and transport them thousands of kilometres. Anyone who has worked in enclosed grow rooms with dry rockwool knows the irritation caused to skin and lungs. The agro-chemical industry can only produce such environmentally devastating products so cheaply thanks to government subsidies on power and transport that mask their true value.

Other substrates

Coco substrates are arguably more sustainable. What could be sweeter than planting into the unused hairs on the husk of a coconut? Think of palm groves, swaying in the tropical breeze! The label says they are organic! What of the industrial manufacturing process, producing dust harmful to the health of local communities? Underpaid workers? Deploying land that could be used to feed some of the poorest people in the world? Or the carbon load embedded in transport from Sri Lanka or Thailand? Or the fact it will most likely be discarded after just one use?

Waste products

It is prohibition that prevents the environmentally conscious manufacturing of cannabis. Raw materials are packaged and often packaged again in further layers of black plastic for ‘stealth’ delivery. No sane illicit cultivator will signal the presence of their clandestine grow room by piling up used coco or soil to compost for a year so as to be used again. No clever closet grower will run the risk of having bags of substrate inspected at the municipal recycling yard. It will more likely be dumped, encased in plastic once more, often on the side of the road in the middle of the night.

So, prohibition turns us away from the natural resources that the plant has enjoyed for thousands of years: earth being used as earth.


Similarly, prohibition results in excess nutrient dumped secretly into watercourses, fire safety precautions abandoned, solar panels attracting unwanted attention, the prevention of vegan nutrients being trialled scientifically. Prohibition binds the hands of thoughtful cultivators, turning profits in the market in favour of those who seek quick, cheap and easy commercial inputs – regardless of the cost to the planet or the quality of the produce.

Carbon footprint

Similar industries have made significant progress in reducing their carbon footprints, once producers understand that reduced carbon emissions lead to increased profits. The Brewing Industry has seen the ratio of water used to final product decline from 9:1 to 3:1 by harnessing technology and by benchmarking progress in water use transparently between commercial rivals. There is no reason why the cannabis industry cannot challenge itself to do the same.

So now that prohibition is ending, can the producers of agricultural inputs work with cultivators to reduce environmentally damaging products? Can cultivators together lobby governments and the horticultural industry to rise to the challenge to our planet? At least now the conversations can start.

Our next article will look at the effects of prohibition on the Workplace.

1 Environment / 2 Workplace / 3 Marketplace / 4 Community & The Future

Toby Shillito has been cultivating cannabis for 28 years. He holds an MBA from London Business School and is currently CEO of Sunshine Labs, a provider of legal Cannabis flowers and derivatives based in Europe, which seeks to do business responsibly. He can be contacted on tobyshillitouk@gmail.com

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