The Body Shop: beauty products with a positive impact

The Body Shop built its reputation on its fair trading programme and commitment to animal welfare. Sustainable Business hears how the company's responsible sourcing makes a difference to communities around the globe and helps protect the planet too.

Gaston Vizcarra feels under threat. The environment around him is slowly changing, little by little, bit by bit. The dirt track that passes through the steamy rainforest that is so crucial to his livelihood has been paved over. It is a sure sign that deforestation and degradation of the land 20 to 30 kilometres either side of the new road is not far away.

But this corner of the Peruvian rainforest is special. It is home to the Brazil nut tree, an important crop harvested by the communities that live and work there. It is also home to the Orchid Bee, the only species of bee able to pollinate the trees so that they keep delivering nuts.

“Legally, there is a law that protects the Brazil nut tree and, in general, people respect the Brazil nut tree. But the government doesn’t have the resources to control the encroachment,” says a worried Gaston.

As founder of the Peruvian-based Candela Community Fair Trade project, he is responsible for the management of a group of communities and individuals that collect the fruits that fall from the trees during rainy season, and then process it into viable raw materials.

Candela has concessions of around 1,000 hectares inside the state-owned forest and it works with families to help them pick the fruit. If the families need finance for fuel or food, or to hire more people, then Candela can help them out, with things like interest-free loans.

The Candela project currently supplies around 50,000 kilos of Brazil nut oil for a range of products produced by The Body Shop. And it is this partnership that offers the greatest protection to Gaston’s team of communities – and the rainforest in question.

It is 25 years since the company launched its Community Fair Trade programme. Inspired by founder Anita Roddick’s travels, this was her attempt to offer a commitment to trading fairly with suppliers, seeking out small-scale farmers, traditional artisans and rural co-ops that are experts their field.

In exchange, The Body Shop offers good trading practices and independence-building prices. The programme touches more than 300,000 people in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. The communities working with Candela are among them.

“Key to Community Fair Trade is trading directly with small producer groups,” says a proud Christina Archer, a senior buyer with the company operating throughout Latin America.

“The supply chain with Gaston and Candela shows the benefit of trade in a non-timber forest product, like Brazil nut oil, can have on the environment. It’s about protecting the planet, as well as providing employment for women working in the processing plant and providing an income for the people collecting the nuts.”

Gaston’s territory is a complex part of the world. Illegal logging continues apace and the environment is constantly changing. Locals continue to mine illegally for gold by shovelling their way through the river systems. But by harvesting products from the rainforest in an non-intrusive way, it puts a value on the forest and helps to protect the region.

“By Brazil-nut harvesting, you are providing an income for people from the forest standing. They can’t get Brazil nuts if the forest is cut down,” says Christina.

“And that’s one of the reasons we want to use Brazil nuts. Yes, it’s good for skin and hair. But it is also a non-timber forest product that has been shown to give value to the trees.

“The concession holders that Gaston works with know that if they chop down the tree they will get $30 for it. But then they won’t get any income from it in the future. If you maintain the forest, those trees still fruit and you will get income from that every year.”

The Body Shop’s relationship with Gaston and Candela is not unique to the company. Other Community Fair Trade projects range from sesame oil producers in Nicaragua and organic fair trade alcohol in Ecuador, to the growers of camomile, peppermint and hemp oil in the UK. And it has built its business on responsible sourcing and putting values at the heart of its operation.

As its recent ‘Values Report’ highlights: the company leads on ethical sourcing and was recognised by the Ethical Trading Initiative in 2011 as being the highest achiever in the beauty industry; and it has an on-going commitment to animal welfare, for which it continues to carry the BUAV’s stringent humane cosmetics standard.

Gaston wants to see more Body Shops emerge to engage with communities like those working as part of Candela. “When you find the right partners, you don’t sell, you build a relationship,” he says.

“I would love to see other Body Shops in the world, but it’s a management decision of value among these companies. Yes, there is more interest in new approaches to business, with things like environmental impact and CSR. But there is a big difference between doing it, and having to do it because everybody else is doing it.”

Christina argues that more companies will develop smarter supply chains in the future because consumers will demand it.

“Consumer pull is becoming a factor. There is a lot more interest in where things come from, how they are made, and the impact they are having,” she says.

In the meantime, The Body Shop-Candela relationship is working well. Gaston is happy. His people are paid a fair price and the supply contract is keeping his beloved rainforest as protected as can be. And Christina is happy in knowing exactly where her raw materials are coming from.

“We have an open relationship. A couple of years ago, there was a bad harvest. But Gaston told me about it way in advance so that I was prepared and able to work with him on contingency plans.

“We have always wanted to promote that link between our customers and our suppliers. Our customers know that by purchasing our products, it is having a positive impact on a community in a part of Africa or Latin America – as well as being confident about the provenance of Fair Trade ingredients.

“I’m able to tell our customers, ‘Look, I’ve been there. I’ve met the people that have been collecting the nuts which Gaston, Candela and his team have made into oil which is in the body butter you’ve just bought’. It feels good.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie