Women and men around the world have used perfumes for centuries and in the UK alone there are now 631 fragrances* to choose from. But as we spritz our favourite scent do we really know the wider impact we are having from our purchasing choice? Do we know what our fragrances are made of, where the key ingredient comes from and how this is made, or the impact it has on both the people who produce it and the environment?
At The Body Shop the answers lie in our Community Fair Trade programme and farmers from high up in the Andes of Ecuador in Latin America who supply us organic alcohol that is contained in our fragrances such as White Musk Libertine and Love Etc.
The Body Shop pioneered fair trade in the beauty industry 25 years ago, and through Community Fair Trade - our own sourcing programme for quality ingredients and accessories - more than 300,000 people in marginalised communities around the world have benefited from long term trade with our company. Our partnership with 'Consorcio Agro-Artesanal Dulce Organico' (CADO), a cooperative in Ecuador of over 150 farming families who produce organic alcohol, is a great example.
Ecuador in South America is on the Equator and its location on the tropics makes it perfect for growing sugar cane, the raw ingredient for the production of organic alcohol that is now used in many of our fragrances. Using fairly-traded, organic alcohol is a fairly new thing for us and I'm pretty sure it's a first for our industry as well.
I first visited the remote rural community of traditional organic sugar cane farmers in Cotopaxi province, high in the lush foothills of the Andes back in 2008. That visit marked the start of the relationship between The Body Shop and the farmers of CADO. Back then, they were sceptical of the 'foreign woman' who wanted to buy their alcohol but since that first order, the relationship has gone from strength to strength. I return nearly every year to discuss how the project is going, review the positive impacts on their community, support the gradual expansion of production and learn about how they'd like to progress the relationship.
Getting to CADO is a challenge in itself and it takes just under six hours from the coastal town of Guayaquil to reach the remote villages where the members live. It is a very interesting journey to say the least, and on route we pass huge commercial sugar cane plantations which are dense, stunted and blackened where they had been burnt in order to clear the dead outer cane leaves. The farmers work long hours to harvest the cane with old t-shirts wrapped around their heads and faces for protection and are covered in soot. In short, this is sugar cane farming on an industrial scale and definitely not the style of farming we at The Body Shop want to support.
The farmers that we work with in the mountains farm organically. They use no pesticides or chemicals, the weeding is done by hand and the cane plants are never burnt, the parent plant being left to grow and protect the soil. The cane plants grow much larger and look healthier than the ones we see in the commercial plantations. The CADO farmers walk between the plants, only selecting the ripe stalks for harvesting, leaving the parent plant alive with no scorched earth or burnt leaves in sight. In fact, the cane leaves are harvested and used as organic mulch on the fields, or as fuel for the small distilleries, to ensure that nothing goes to waste. Some farmers grow beans or corn between the sugar cane and even the chickens roam about merrily. This is altogether a better practice and a more sustainable, biodiversity-friendly form of agriculture, and we are proud to be supporting a group of progressive farmers who passionately believe in protecting their environment.
Farmers here have been making alcohol using home mills and stills for generations, which means some of the equipment used in this artesanal processing is quite basic. During my first visit I worked with the CADO members to think through how they could improve health and safety on their farms and we set out some practical actions they could take such as machinery being fitted with safety guards. Now they are very proud to show me that many farms have replaced old stills with new stainless steel ones. The farmers also tell me how their self-esteem has increased as a result of working with The body shop, and they can now negotiate fairer prices for their produce with the local traders, who until now were paying low and unpredictable prices. They are reinvesting the income from the trade, not only in improving their production capacity, but also in other things which until now were out of reach - from small things like repairing their fridge and buying a snake bite kit, to being able to afford to send older children to university.
The Body Shop relationship with CADO is still in its infancy as many other Community Fair Trade suppliers have been selling to The Body Shop for 15-25 years. As with our other producers we are looking to create a long term partnership with CADO, offering a fair price for their produce that recognises quality of their product and their skill in production and which helps the farming families plan for their future. For me it's always a sad farewell to the cane farmers of Moraspungo, but as I said, this is just the start of the project. I'll be back again soon so we can continue building our relationship. You might say - that's the (organic) spirit!
For more information about how The Body Shop integrate ethical and social responsibility into everyday workings visit their latest Values Report, "Striving to be a Force for Good" www.thebodyshop.com/forceforgood
*June 2012 Mymarketmonitor.com