Especially in the current political climate, writing about fashion and beauty can, at times, feel a bit futile. But exploring some of the ways in which fashion and beauty companies are trying to do good in the world — say, by suing the Trump administration to protect national landmarks or launching a transgender rights campaign — can be a refreshing antidote.
One such organization hoping to affect positive change in the world is The Body Shop. Earlier this winter, I traveled with the company to become fully immersed in its newest Community Trade initiative program launch, this time for Moringa oil, one of The Body Shop's star ingredients harvested from trees in the East African country of Rwanda.
For the uninitiated, The Body Shop was founded by a travel-loving hippie, Anita Roddick, in 1976 in the U.K.; she created its Community Trade initiative in 1987, originally dubbing it "Trade Not Aid." The initiative seeks out what The Body Shop describes as "small-scale farmers, traditional artisans and rural co-ops," all of whom are experts in their given fields, and offering them good trading practices and independence-building prices. For The Body Shop, much of this takes the form of ingredients (like hemp, tea tree oil and honey) or accessories, reportedly benefiting more than 300,000 people worldwide.
Now, 31 years later, Community Trade has expanded into 23 countries and works with 31 different suppliers. In the words of Heather Ducharme, The Body Shop's sustainable sourcing manager, the core ethos of Community Trade is simply "doing good through business — or doing good through a supply chain relationship."
To be sure, The Body Shop isn't the only beauty company focused on this type of ethical trade programming; Community Trade is similar to initiatives that are also in place at the likes of L'Occitane, Lush Cosmetics and Dr. Bronner's, each of which have implemented Fair Trade certification and charitable practices as they've grown. In the case of L'Occitane, the company's founder Olivier Baussan established a trade structure that's similar to The Body Shop's, but instead focuses on drawing attention to the ingredients native to its home region of Provence. Another of L'Occitane's Fair Trade initiatives involves the brand's shea butter, sourced from a group of women in Burkina Faso and to whom L'Occitane ensures fair wages. Now, as far as The Body Shop goes, its own goal is to establish a well-rounded relationship that will help the community set itself up for future successes.
Since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 Rwandans died in the course of a 100-day ethnic cleansing, the country has been working to rebuild and achieve financial stability. The Body Shop's new Moringa Community Trade program, kicking off this year, aims to be one small step toward financial security for some of those currently living and working in Rwanda
Moringa has been one of The Body Shop's top-selling ingredients since 2010, and for good reason: The plant itself is among the most antioxidant-rich in the world, and is also heaping with omega-3 fatty acids and iron. The brand's Moringa seed oil is cold-pressed twice in order to maintain these properties, ensuring their efficacy.
In order to determine whether an ingredient will enter The Body Shop's Community Trade initiative, the company waits until it's being used across items in a range. "We look at how many products we could put it in, if there's a sufficient number and if they have some longevity," says Ducharme. "With Moringa, it's the lead ingredient in a full range of products, and they sell pretty well so, it's a classic candidate."
Considering that the program is designed to aid underserved — whether economically or environmentally — communities in bringing their ingredients to market in situations where they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so, The Body Shop also wants to ensure that the ingredients it chooses for Community Trade will stay in demand on a long-term basis.
In the beginning stages of each individual Community Trade development, the brand susses out what might need to be adjusted with a local supplier in order to make it truly sustainable. "The approach we take is really one of changing the world," says Ducharme. "We feel like in Community Trade, you can work with anything as long as there's a relationship of trust and shared value. So, if we are working with a local supplier and we think they have the same sustainability aims, we would put out a charter that says some detail about what we want to achieve socially and environmentally through the trade." Of course, the brand has zero tolerance regarding certain practices, like child labor, which, unfortunately, it has uncovered with suppliers in the past.
As for how the Moringa Community Trade initiative came about, Ducharme was tipped off to a social enterprise company, Asili Natural Oils, which had worked to rebuild trust with Moringa farmers in the community — more on that later — and had ensured that they were given fair benefits to inspire a great working relationship, as well as to truly support the local community. "Everyone in this country has been through something extraordinarily horrific, and at the same time, since 1994 and since the genocide, this country as a whole has taken this very determined, very strong path towards improving their own lot — whether it's improving economic development, improving livelihoods, or through trade and through business," she says. "That's the whole model of Rwanda post-genocide; it has been fiercely focused on development through private sector investment, and giving job opportunities and making it possible to participate in business."
Founded in 2012, Asili helps to connect a critical link in the supply chain in Rwanda. It works with 2,137 local farmers, all of whom focus on Moringa seeds, to connect them with international markets. While the Moringa tree is actually quite self-sustaining (its nickname is "The Miracle Tree"), Moringa itself has had a rocky history in Rwanda. After the genocide, many farmers had to sell their livestock in order to afford new saplings. They were promised that when the trees started to show yield, they would be paid substantially for their crop, but this didn't come to fruition. Farmers ended up disappointed, with many cutting down their trees and abandoning Moringa as a means of earning a livelihood.
Theo Hakizimana, the general manager of Asili, wanted to find a tangible solution. He took it upon himself to travel around Rwanda, meet with farmers, sit down in their homes and explain his intent of turning the trees into something positive and future-serving. He laid out a contract, showing the farmers that they would earn cash up front. Thanks to Hakizimana, that trust was rebuilt, and is a key reason why Moringa farmers began replanting trees in the first place. Asili expanded the tree count (which, in 2012, had gone from 1 million to only 50,000), and trees have been regrown across the country — back up to 100,000 and counting.
Aside from the promise of a stable income, farmers are given other benefits, like the option of medical insurance, free saplings to increase their yield, transport agents for their crops and even livestock or jobs depending on their contracts with Asili. With this new partnership with The Body Shop, Hakizimana notes that the program has had an especially strong impact on the community's women. "Looking at the genocide and the aftermath and the consequences — the materialistic and emotional [ones] — the women were the most affected, and even before that, the most marginalized," he says. "So, having a greater percentage of women in our company is something that we are proud of to help with the reconstruction post-war."
As for the farmers themselves, they're optimistic about the impact The Body Shop's initiative will have on their lives. "One of the most exciting things is that we no longer have to throw away our seed," says Veredian Uwisabaye, a widowed farmer raising four children on her own. The farmers also see Moringa as a means of empowering women on a larger scale. Marie Narame, another widow raising five children, adds: "We are encouraging other women from other parts to grow Moringa — we want to expand the market so that we can get more value for our own Moringa, preparing for the future for our children's lives."
"I hope that the trade damn well works," says Ducharme. "What do I hope for? Just that we can buy a sustainable, business-level amount [of Moringa] from Asili over a period of time that these people's lives can continue to improve. That's exactly how Community Trade is supposed to work."
Disclosure: The Body Shop paid for my travel and accommodations to visit Rwanda with the company.