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Fair Trade: A Beautiful Way to Do Business
Fair Trade: A Beautiful Way to Do Business

The ingredients inside your beauty products are often grown in beautiful, exotic locations, but all too often they have a dirty little secret: The workers farming the fields and growing the ingredients are suffering. Products grown by companies employing fair-trade standards are different.

You’ve probably seen fair-trade certified logos in the grocery store aisle, on foods like sugar, coffee and chocolate. Now they’re showing up in the beauty aisle, too. Some beauty companies, especially those who use natural ingredients, are realizing how important fair trade can be — for the farmers, the environment and for business. Now more than ever, people want to know where ingredients come from, how they were grown and how people were treated along the way. The health of the environment and the livelihood of workers in developing countries isn’t something people take for granted. Beauty, it seems, isn’t just about a pretty face; it’s about being fair inside and out.

There are many different fair-trade labels with different focuses, but in general, a fair-trade certifier helps companies ensure that the farm workers at the beginning of the supply chain have safe conditions and are paid fair wages. Fair-trade philosophy also advocates using non-GMO ingredients, making certain that farmers have the tools and education they need, and giving back to the local community.

Fair trade goes hand-in-hand with the environmental movement. Sustainable, organic or Biodynamic® growing practices, as well as toxin-free production methods, are common components of a company’s fair-trade strategy. After all, chemicals and pesticides aren’t safe for the people who farm or process ingredients.

Fair-trade practices are particularly important in countries where labor laws don’t exist or aren’t strictly regulated. “Many wonderful ingredients can be sourced incredibly inexpensively in other countries, where laws may not prohibit the exploitation of workers, or where those laws are murky and unenforceable,” says Siobhan O’Connor, who co-authored the book No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics. “By working with a third-party fair-trade certifier, companies can ensure that workers across their supply chain are paid a fair wage, even if those workers are employed in farms and factories around the world.”

Fair Trade and Weleda

Fair trade has been central to Weleda’s ingredient sourcing practices since the Swiss-based company was founded 91 years ago. Today Weleda’s ingredients are grown all over the world, and its skin- and body-care products are sold in more than 50 countries. Utilizing fair-trade practices, Weleda pre-finances its harvests, pays a fair price for crops and guarantees purchase quantities from year to year to help farmers — and the communities around them — thrive.

When it came to choosing a fair-trade label, Fair Trade USA, one of largest certifiers in the states, wasn’t the right fit because the international company needed a label that is recognized around the world. According to Bas Schneiders, head of international strategic sourcing at Weleda, it was important that the certifier have a biodiversity criteria. “Biodynamic® farming encourages the development of a diverse ecosystem and is based on the studies of Weleda co-founder Dr. Rudolf Steiner,” says Schneiders. “That’s why Weleda decided to partner with the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), a non-profit certifier that includes the perfect blend of both social and biodiversity criteria.”

Before joining UEBT, all of Weleda’s suppliers had to agree to Weleda’s own Social Trade Guidelines, but there were challenges to the transparency across the supply chain. In becoming a member of UEBT, Weleda applies the organization’s Ethical BioTrade Standard to its projects, ensuring that all of its sourcing practices promote the conservation of biodiversity and that benefits are shared equally throughout the supply chain.

According to Rik Kutsch Lojenga, executive director of the UEBT, “It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to improve the social and ecological practices of all its suppliers. This requires investments through training, technical advice, or engaging in long-term commitments.”

Currently, 25 of Weleda’s active projects follow fair-trade principles. For example, the company purchases organic beeswax from traditional African fair-trade certified beekeepers, who use log hives in forested areas. There’s also the Rosa damascene project in Turkey, where Weleda sources rose absolute, the purest rose essential oil and the one that Weleda uses to fragrance its Wild Rose skin- and body-care products. That project started in 2001, when the company partnered with Sebat rose oil distillery and 30 rose farmers in Turkey. Weleda provided equipment and guidance to help the farmers convert their rose farms from conventional to organic. Inspired by their success, more than 300 farmers eventually signed on. A stable partnership developed over the past decade that brings many advantages to everyone involved. Weleda guarantees purchase of rose absolute and gets a plentiful supply, while the farmers have the security of a fair and stable income from year to year.

Weleda and Sebat have used the income from the project to finance a village kindergarten for 50 children from local farms. Scholarships are awarded to local students who wish to continue researching the organic cultivation of roses; this academic support contributes to the future sustainability of the project.

Weleda’s rose project is now the world’s largest organic rose project. In fact, “one third of the worldwide crop for the sought after rose absolute is produced in Turkey for Weleda from organic roses,” says Schneiders. “The cooperation between Weleda, the Sebat rose oil distillery and the local farmers provides a good example of a sustainable and fair-trade business practice.”

Bringing It Home

Increasingly, companies are finding that fair trade makes good business sense. By studying consumer behavior, UEBT discovered that many people are aware and concerned about such topics as biodiversity and ethical standards. “Customers are better informed and are much more demanding of companies when it comes to things like health, human rights, biodiversity and fair trade,” says Schneiders. “In other words, sustainability is not a trend but part of a global change in mindset.” The companies that don’t change — that don’t become more sustainable and socially responsible — those are the companies that will become dinosaurs.

Says O’Connor, “We’ve seen explosive growth and interest in the last three or four years in natural and fair-trade products, and it seems to be growing all of the time.” Gloria Dawson

Sourcing with Respect: A Q&A with Weleda’s Head of Strategic Sourcing, Bas Schneiders

Q. Under its partnership with UEBT, Weleda will change and improve sourcing practices to promote conservation and biodiversity and to ensure fair-labor practices along the supply chain. What changes has Weleda made since joining UEBT ?

Schneiders: The company has had all suppliers provide information about social standards, labor conditions and biodiversity, as well as worker issues like access and benefit sharing, respecting local rights and food resources. Weleda also trains its employees on the importance of fair-trade practices.

Q. How would you describe the importance of fair trade and UEBT membership to a skeptical consumer?

Schneiders: Conservation of biodiversity and fair trade are key to any natural product. They not only guarantee a long-term supply of ingredients, but also provide regular income for thousands of plant collectors and farmers worldwide. Becoming a member of an organization like UEBT is, without question, an important step. But globally, it’s a small effort. Only a common effort between politics, enterprises and the end consumer can make supply chains worldwide fairer and more sustainable.

Q. What’s in the fair-trade future for Weleda?

Schneiders: I see us even more in the role of “incubator” or funders of social and environmental initiatives in developing and emerging countries. Our activities will promote businesses directly on a local level in agriculture and production, and do so in financial cooperation with NGOs and banks. You could call it “Sustainability 2.0.” I think the business model will move more toward social entrepreneurship.