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What The Rainforest Taught Me About Beauty
23 Jul 2016 12:30 AM
When I was a child, my favourite movie was FernGully: The Last Rainforest, a magical animated tale that brought the devastation of deforestation into our living rooms and, in turn, made faraway forests a sacred place like no other.
And I’m not alone: If Generation Z came of age with the unfolding reality of global warming, the millennials’ issue is most certainly our disappearing rainforests. To me, it still feels like our issue. While many of us have adjusted our international news focus — the heartbreaking state of so many parts of the world give us no shortage of things to worry about — it’s still a crucial issue in countless ways.
Fast-forward to this spring, when my childhood dream came to fruition: I’m standing in the middle of the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon rainforest in Peru, just west of the Bolivian border, in one of the most pristine jungles in the world. Read on for what a visit to the Amazon is really like — and how brands (and you!) are protecting and supporting the rainforest.
We're Not In FernGully Anymore... It took four flights, many nauseating bus rides down dirt roads, and numerous half-day boat rides up the Amazon. At this point, I’ll admit the conditions are hard. My anti-malaria pills are making me ill; my arms are still sore from pre-travel vaccinations; and even with near-toxic levels of DEET-laced bug repellant and clothing spray that my doctor prescribed me (yes, this is a thing), I've racked up over 50 mosquitos bites by the first night. Fun fact: I'm one of those people who didn't think mosquitoes "liked me" until I met the relentless swarms of the Amazon jungle.
I also didn’t realise how sick I was until I quit the OTC drug ring that was our travel group: “I’ll trade you an anti-cramping pill for a anti-diarrhoea tablet,” was common conversation in the bus. I had to go on a round of antibiotics upon my return. (Stateside, this common stomach ailment is all-to-affectionately referred to as "traveler’s sickness.")
A slight misstep in the forest can also leave you debilitated. An unlucky journalist I traveled with was bitten by an ant that was hanging out in her rain boot and received waves of excruciating pain through her body for hours. To add literal insult to injury, she missed the sun setting from an observation deck that was, easily, the most amazing sight during my journey.
The forest is a particularly inhospitable place for those not accustomed to it — but I’m no wimp. 90-degree temps mixed with 90% humidity was child's play compared to the emotional toll the visit took. The lowlights: A heartbreaking interview with a woman my age who's had such limited opportunity that when we talk about her life, she can’t help but break down crying. To put it in perspective, she has one of the better jobs in Puerto Maldonado, the small town that marks the entry point to the forest. Then, there were the guides at Posada Amazonas, a truly magical eco-lodge where I stayed one night, who expressed their concern to stay open, as they’re on a limited grant from the Peruvian government. Or, the men we see (openly!) illegally mining in the Amazon, a rapidly growing problem spurred by a gold rush, that leaves the river polluted.
The Reality But even with these struggles, this forest is thriving in contrast to others. The Indonesian rainforest has fallen on devastating times thanks to farmers burning the forests to make way for fields of palm trees. This feeds an insatiable international demand for palm oil, which is in nearly every consumer product you can think of, from packaged cookies to beauty products. I don’t have to tell you why this is an issue: Rainforests covered around 14% of Earth once, now we're at 6 or 7% — or even lower, depending who you ask. Yet, they house around half the world's living creatures, act at the "lungs of earth," and are vital hunting grounds for new drugs, which are desperately needed right now. (The issues are complex, but this isn't a doomsday article — hold on just one more minute!)
Back to my childhood dream of saving the rainforest — or at least helping a little: trying to figure out how to help is daunting. After all, I’m just like you. I work hard to make rent, pay back my student loans, visit my family, and have money left over to have a little fun with my friends when Friday arrives. How can I, soon to be a world away in the States, help this area or the people that live here in a real, sustainable way?
Then, I learned this: One of the many reasons why this forest I'm standing in — and many other valuable ecosystems — is still intact is because the governments have realised that the natural forests could, just maybe, be more valuable untouched than if they were cleared to make way for livestock or en vogue cash crops, like palm oil. It's a brick-by-brick approach — ecotourism helps, and so do conservation groups, but there's also something the average person can do.
Fair-Trade Beauty Chances are, you've seen the term Fair Trade thrown around a lot. "Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency, and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade," explains Michele Loeper, former marketing manager of Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit organisation that sells exclusively fair trade merchandise. "[Fair trade] contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalised producers and workers."
That sounds warm and fuzzy, but for me, it took traveling to somewhere deeply impacted by the practice to realise how how important it truly is. Honestly, before this trip I wasn't excited to pay a few dollars more for a pound of fair-trade coffee or tube of hand cream, because I didn't really know what it meant — until now.
The explosion of natural and organic products hitting the market means that brands are constantly looking for the next big ingredient to meet that uptick in demand. That's where fair trade comes in. To wit: Brands like Lush, L'Occitane, and Caudalie all feature fair-trade ingredients in some of their most-popular products.
Leading the pack in innovation and reach is a brand you may not expect: The Body Shop. Over the past 30 years, the U.K.-based company has helped create a model of what fair trade in the beauty industry actually looks like.
Today, The Body Shop fairly and ethically trades with 26 supplier groups in 22 countries. A whopping 94% of the brand’s products feature fair-trade ingredients and the brand's movements are monitored by a third party Swiss organisation, IMO, to ensure transparency in its ethical operations.
The Body Shop has also made a commitment to do even better. This year, the company turns 40 and marked the anniversary with a goal dubbed Enrich, Not Exploit: By 2020, it aims to make massive strides towards being "the world's most ethical and truly sustainable global business." Not just a beauty business, but a business in general. That includes more than doubling the range of ingredients it sources, increasing the groups it trades with, helping 40,000 economically vulnerable people across the developing world — the list goes on.
Meet Candela My trip to the Amazon jungle was framed around a visit to one of these 26 supplier groups, Candela. It happens to be one of the oldest relationships The Body Shop has. The partnership began when one of Candela's founders hopped a flight to the U.K. in the '90s and showed up at The Body Shop’s HQ with a sample of oil.
“I brought a glass Coca-Cola bottle of Brazil-nut oil with a cork in the top and asked for a meeting with The Body Shop,” Gaston Vizcarra, one of the founders of Candela, told me. “They recommended I change my bottle for the next time [laughs], but they were interested in trying to work with us.” The ethos aligned: “I was interested in selling it, yes, but the goal was to create a sustainable model, a business supply chain."
Translation: Then and now, fair trade isn't a charity — it doesn't contribute X amount of money per sale to developing communities. Instead, it's about creating a supply chain that allows locals to do what they've done for generations (trade) without being exploited (fair). Back then, The Body Shop called the movement "Trade Not Aid," which basically sums it up.
“I’m not going to call a supply chain a community supply chain if I am going to buy 15 kilos one year then nothing the next,” said Christina Archer, senior manager of sustainable sourcing at The Body Shop. “Because what have you done? Nothing. You don’t have a relationship, you haven’t made an impact.”
Of course, The Body Shop has clout — it was purchased by L’Oreal in 2006 and has over 3,000 stores in 65 countries. But delivering large orders every year still takes thought. For example: “We use Brazil-nut oil in over 60 different formulas,” Archer says. "So, as customers stop buying one product, we can start using it in another one. We have a rolling demand, because we have been working with Candela for over 20 years.”
The need for big, recurring orders isn't just valuable at The Body Shop. Heather Deeth, manager of ethical buying at Lush, echoes the sentiment: “When our volumes increase, we can become really powerful in how we buy," she explains. "That’s what we’re always looking for in our supply chain: How do we hit a critical volume? As we get bigger that’s where the opportunity is."
Fitting Brazil nuts into this model, however, isn't easy.
A Nut In A Nut Before I stepped off the plane in Puerto Maldonado, I had no idea what a Brazil nut was. My itinerary included a journey deep into the jungle — where tourists aren’t allowed to go — to see how Candela’s fleet of castañeros (the people who camp out to collect the nuts from January to March) bring in the nuts, how the concession owners function (the men and women who manage the collection points), and how the nuts are cracked, sorted, and processed back in town.
In the trading community of Lago Valencia, I met Elda Luz Vera Gonzales, a woman who practically has Brazil-nut oil running through her veins: Her father owned a concession before her and she’s made it her life’s work. Unlike women of previous generations, there’s “no machismo” needed to secure the job. Slowly changing ideals in the region means that this year, 34% of the concessions managed by Candela are legally held by a woman.
The way these nuts are collected, however, hasn’t changed much over the decades. Brazil-nut trees are some of the tallest in the rainforest, which means they couldn’t be farmed, even if you wanted to. The trees take over a decade to come to maturity and cannot be within around a half mile or so of another, or the roots won’t be able to stretch out. It's worth the wait; the nuts are delicious and the oil that is made from them is used in body, skin, and hair products to protect, hydrate, and add smoothness and shine, respectively.
The nuts aren’t what you expect, either. In fact, they’re more of a nutin a nut. They’re about the size of a coconut. Once you break open the shell, you'll find it’s packed with more nuts, each in another shell. They also make biting insects look harmless — if a falling nut hits you on the head, it can kill you.
Collecting the nuts is a summer job. The castañeros are normally men and usually bring their families with them to camp out; the women cook and the children are on break from school, so they're likely helping, too. The camps have no running water or electricity, but sometimes a generator for evening light. The castañeros normally have other jobs in the rest of the year.
For Gonzales, however, this is her main gig and it works a bit like this: At the beginning of each season, Candela furnishes pre-payments for concession holders, like Gonzales, to pay her employees to make the trek (the ones I met were from the Andes) and get their supplies sorted, like a loan with no interest or an advance on your check.
A committee within Candela also set the prices for the nuts based on fair market value for that year. Prior to this system Gonzales would be at the mercy of traveling traders — and their pricing — who would, quite literally, wash up on shore unexpectedly. “They’d show up and say ‘I’ll buy your nuts’ offering whatever price they wanted,” Mr. Vizcarra says. Or, what’s worse, they wouldn’t show up at all and the perishable Brazil nuts would become a convenient feast for cute-and-colourful macaws with the munchies.
“They would be held captive of what the traders would give you,” Archer explains. “Where as here they have a contract with Candela and whatever they produce they are guaranteed to sell at X price.”
Although the trading is becoming more sophisticated, Vizcarra notes that “people here have little information about how the market works; we have to be the link for the people of the rainforest.”
From Soup To Nuts The concession owners weren't the only ones held captive in the old system. Do a little poking around and you'll hear stories of indentured workers and massive exploitation of castañeros, something Deeth found when Lush began its entry into sourcing Brazil-nut oil from this part of Peru.
"We got a tip from our Amazonian butter supplier that there are issues around indentured labor," she explains, again pointing to the need to make big buys to ensure you know the whole story, from soup to nuts. "The source of this is people who are buying the nuts from brokers. How do you get traceability back [when you’re buying like that]? You can't.”
Mr. Vizcarra agrees: "It would be easy to work with a middleman, but then I don’t know where the nuts come from or how much have you paid to the producers," he says. "Have you cheated them in the weight? What have you done to get the nuts?" Mr. Vizcarra is the first to admit that this isn't the easiest way — but it's vital.
Navigating the sustainable sourcing of the nuts from the forest is a logistical puzzle: Candela had to win the grant to legally remove the nuts from the forest, organise a way to get the nuts out of regions without roads (tractors and boats must travel on the weather's schedule, not Candela's), and get a lot of workers "on the books."
On a five-hour boat ride up the Amazon river to a collection point, Lupe Vizcarra, another Candela cofounder, explained that getting workers to become “formal” (i.e., have their incomes recorded and taxed by the government) is like a game of chess. It’s cultural, she tells me.
However, thanks to clever manoeuvring by the Candela team, the company currently employs more than 500 people and, in turn, has become the guardians of sorts to 10,000 hectares of land home to roughly 10,000 Brazil-nut trees — which are a bit like the anchors of the rainforest. That’s roughly 38 square miles that form a playground for howler monkeys, exotic birds, alligators, and giant river otters. I can tell you firsthand that when you watch an endangered river otter playing with her cub on the banks of a lake at dawn, the heat, bug bites, and stomach cramps all fade away. It’s as close to FernGully as I’ll ever get — and every moment was pure childhood bliss.
“Fair trade gives the governments an economic incentive to maintain the forests,” Archer says. “We’re not going to solve the problems of deforestation and we’re not going to compete with the forces that are driving that, but we are giving another economic reason to help the communities living in and around those areas to try to combat it.”
If that isn't a reason to pick fair trade when given the option when selecting a body cream or shower gel, I don't know what is.
The late Anita Roddick, the visionary that started The Body Shop back in 1976, once said: “If you think you’re too small to make an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” Today, I can officially say I’ve gone to bed with many, but I no longer think I’m too small to make a difference.