You probably first heard the term “Fair Trade” when shopping for coffee, ice cream or bananas. Just like the organic movement, concerned consumers want to make sure that the people who actually produce the products they buy — like coffee beans — are paid a fare wage and have decent living conditions.
Those producers should also be encouraged to engage in sustainable, earth-friendly practices that end up being good for all of us. Fair trade is taking hold in the grooming and personal care world, too; particularly as more brands rely on organic or natural botanic ingredients for their formulations. The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of us more aware of the vagaries of modern supply chains, and much like obtaining PPE and ventilators, grooming manufacturers face challenges of their own when trying to source the most ethical ingredients they can for the products that end up in your medicine cabinet.
Not just anyone can slap a Fair Trade label on their brand. There are several organizations that certify producers in fair trade practices, including Fair Trade, EcoCert, Fair for Life, Naturland Fair, and the Utz Standard for sustainable agriculture. According to Fair Trade International, producers of a given product agree to organize into cooperatives that agree on minimum pricing designed to cover the average costs of sustainable production, and use the “fair trade premium” (an extra sum of money paid on top of the selling price) to build community needs for workers like wells or hospitals, invest in equipment, and incentivize brands to switch to organic farming. (The concept is explained in an animated video here.)
They also agree to provide decent working conditions while banning discrimination and forced or child labor. By organizing, producers also have access to advance credit ahead of harvest time, can make plans for the future with more security, and build stronger relationships with buyers.
One notable Fair Trade company is South African grooming line Terres D’Afrique, founded by Dr. Stephan Helary, who was born in Madagascar to French parents. He grew up being very open to using natural remedies and essential oils. After becoming a veterinarian in Belgium, he got his PhD in Nutritional Ecology in South Africa, where he studied black rhinos. His on-the-ground experience led him to develop an organic, fair trade, eco-friendly product, but with a specifically African viewpoint. His initial offerings were holistic treatments developed for spas at the renowned Four Seasons luxury hotel chain, working with Africans who have a deep ancestral knowledge of plants and their uses.
“We use plants based on the traditional knowledge of Africans as much as we can,” says Helary. “That’s always a challenge because when you start a brand you have all these ideologies that you want to follow, but when it comes down to the practical side of things — finding the ingredients, the suppliers, the supply chain — it’s always a bit more complicated. We always try to find a fair trade source to produce the ingredients that we use, but sometimes you cannot find the quality that you want. If we can’t, we try to at least find the quality we want from the same community and work with that.”
Helary works with Fair Trade Africa, part of the international Fair Trade organization, to identify suppliers that follow the required standards, based on the Nagoya Protocol from the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. “It’s about ethical sourcing, paying a fair price, protecting the intellectual property of the indigenous people, sustainability, and promoting biodiversity,” says Helary. “We try to apply these principles everywhere we can.”
While it’s worth checking in with your favorite grooming brand about its policies, some companies that identify fair trade products on their shelves include The Body Shop, Lush, Oars+Alps, and Caldera+Lab. Dr. Bronner’s, another Fair Trade champion, has been certified for its major raw materials since 2008 by an EcoCert subsidiary. The family-owned maker of natural soap also sources its entire supply of USDA Organic hemp seed oil from U.S. farmers. An anecdotal Google search indicates that shea butter and tea tree oil seem to top the list of popular fair trade ingredients used in various formulations.
Helary attempts to keep Terres D’Afrique as transparent as possible by including infographics on its packaging that show where in Africa key ingredients are from, as well as the percentage of fair trade, organic, or natural components in the formulation.
“For instance, if we use coconut oil that doesn’t come from Africa, then we don’t show the map of the continent,” Helary says. “You have to make compromises between the quality of the end product, its stability, and what you want to achieve ideologically. Today’s consumers want transparency and honesty, and they get annoyed with brands who try to misguide them.”
Terres D’Afrique includes everything from spa-inspired body oils and scrubs to cleansers and moisturizers, as well as aromatherapy products and teas. Helary suggests that men try the brand’s calming cleanser, face scrub, and face oil for a gentle shave; finishing with a repairing serum and moisturizing cream.
What would Helary like to see change? “The main issue is packaging, especially for single use products. A lot of brands claim to be ethical, and probably intend well, but then they package everything in plastic tubes. We will take the challenge of working with glass — which is very heavy and therefore adds to the shipping costs — and aluminum — which is very expensive — because we don’t want to use plastic. I get annoyed with brands pretending to be eco-friendly but that still use plastic because it’s cheap. I’d like to see that change, or at least some regulations made on the words one can use to market these brands.”
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