Here's a question: What do you know about the women behind your beauty products? While transparency is in increasing demand from the industry, there are still a lot of unanswered questions as to where, how, and from whom our favorite ingredients are sourced. What good is a cruelty-free makeup brush or organic cleanser if the women who harvested or packaged your bathroom-shelf staples aren't being treated fairly, or paid well?
Of course, some organizations and brands have been advocating for this principle since their inception. The Fairtrade Foundation has been empowering farmers globally and setting social, economic, and environmental standards across industries since 1992, while vegan lip-color brand Axiology sources all its packaging from a woman-owned recycled-paper collective in Bali. Natural and organic favorite Neal's Yard Remedies lays out on its site where it sources its ingredients, whether it's frankincense oil from the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya or organic beeswax from Christchurch, New Zealand.
While it's important to know where and who our products come from, until you've heard the human stories behind each farmer-to-brand relationship, it's hard to get a sense of just how vital our beauty buys can be for communities across the globe. Anita Roddick, The Body Shop founder and lifelong environmentalist, established the brand's Community Trade back in 1987, a practice that ensured farmers could establish their independence through fair prices and sustained partnerships. Thirty years later, it's still going strong.
"We now have 31 suppliers, made up of 23 ingredient suppliers, and eight that supply into our gifts and accessories," Heather Ducharme, The Body Shop's sustainable sourcing manager, tells Refinery29. One of the brand's most recent success stories comes from Rwanda, where it is partnered with Asili Natural Oils. Asili works with 832 farmers across six of the country's eastern provinces, but it's the cold-pressed moringa seed oil from the Dufatanye Cooperative that The Body Shop buys en masse. The brand has been producing moringa products for some time now, but only from this summer will Dufatanye's harvests make their way into shops, ready to buy.
For the farmers of the Dufatanye Cooperative, the story of harvesting and selling their moringa isn't as straightforward as it could have been: In fact, it was a disaster that left a lot of the members feeling betrayed and economically devastated. "Fifteen years ago, there was a campaign to mass-plant moringa trees in Rwanda," Theo Hakizimana, Asili's general manager, explains. "Farmers were told that the moringa tree was a 'miracle tree', with promises of financial gain and stability. Many farmers sold their livestock and spent their savings to buy the moringa seedlings — they saw it as an investment. But when the trees began providing yield, there was no one to buy the seed. There was such a feeling of disappointment." Those involved began cutting down their trees in anger.
When Asili and The Body Shop approached the Rwandan farmers many years later, in 2015, at first they balked at the idea of yet another outside group telling them to give up their livelihoods for more moringa planting. "At one of the farms I went to, so deep was their disappointment that they had a local man on security, they took a note of my car's registration number, and they charged me," Hakizimana says. "Our manager had to come and rescue me." The first step to building a successful relationship, he concluded, was to first restore local trust.
It's important to note here that land in the east of Rwanda is dry and arid, and prone to drought, meaning that farming — including harvesting food crops — is extremely difficult. The harsh climate means that communities have to find smart, sustainable ways to earn their money; otherwise, food for their family, tuition fees, and medical insurance can't be covered. For many Rwandans, farming is their only viable source of income. Finding the right partner to work with isn't about choice or being selective, but something that their lives depend on.
After instilling trust and providing farmers with a written contract, Asili handed out the remaining seeds around various plots and provided onsite farming management to get the process moving. Asili's landholders make £16 per year (around $22) from moringa seed sales, although this depends on the yield. Considering most of them can't afford annual health insurance, which costs about £2.50 (around $3.50), this income is a huge boost to their yearly wages. It's also worth mentioning that these farmers grow other crops, too, not just moringa.
So how has the Community Trade relationship benefited members of the Dufatanye Cooperative since teaming up? "Moringa is no longer a waste," Marie Narame, one of the farmers, explains. "Our trust and love for it has been restored. Asili is our client and we get cash from them. We have medical insurance, we can pay tuition fees for our children, and we can buy fabric to make our clothes." Narame is 57 and a widow, so she's the only source of income for her family.
While Rwanda has seen incredible economic growth since the devastating genocide of 1994, for the majority of moringa farmers in the country, the money they're able to earn is only ever enough to buy the essentials. Farmers like Narame hope that with brands like The Body Shop expanding the world's demand for Rwandan moringa — or, for example, Indian soapstone and Brazilian babassu oil across its other Community Trade partnerships — their financial situation will improve, leading to a better life for their children.
"We are encouraging women from other parts of the country to grow moringa so that the client expands the market, and we can get more value for our moringa," Narame tells Refinery29. "Then we can develop more, preparing the future for our children so that when we are no longer here, they will take on the work. I want my children to live a better life. I dream about that always." Make no mistake: The women of the Dufatanye Cooperative are fierce. A lot of them are widows with up to five children, and their work is physically demanding. "We are self-reliant and strong and hardworking. We are local leaders," she says.
When beauty is so much about making women feel confident, powerful, and the best version of themselves, wouldn't it feel even better to know that your products were directly empowering other women? Whether you're slathering your skin in a Neal's Yard argan oil, which has boosted independence for the Tighanimine Women’s Cooperative in Morocco, or painting on your Axiology lipstick, knowing your purchase has supported that woman-owned collective in Bali, beauty becomes so much more enjoyable when its very foundations are rooted in female empowerment.