SETTING AN ETHICAL EXAMPLE

Beautycounter's New Lip Gloss Is a Declaration of Its Commitment to Ethically Sourced Ingredients

The brand did its homework on what "ethically sourced vanilla" really means — and you may be surprised by what it found.
A model applied Beautycounter Beyond Gloss lip gloss
Courtesy of brand

When you catch the scent of vanilla, soft and soothing and sugar-sweet, what does it bring back? Your first batch of fresh-baked cookies? That Yankee Candle your mom loved to burn? A saccharine spritz of an ex's perfume? For Edmond Albius, one could imagine it was the hot and humid rainforests of modern-day Madagascar, where the 12-year-old slave pioneered a system for hand-pollinating vanilla orchids in 1841. Vanilla was the smell of forced labor.

It's been nearly 200 years, and those as young as 12 may still be hand-pollinating Madagascar's vanilla orchids, gathering beans to later be fermented and funneled into fragrance, food, and flavored lip gloss, according to a December 2016 investigation by Danish independent media organization Danwatch.

"I think most people would say, 'I don't want children to be forced to pick my vanilla,' but it is so incredibly rampant," Mary Linnell-Simmons, the director of marketing at nonprofit organization Fairtrade America, tells Allure. The Danwatch investigation reported that in Madagascar, which produces 85 percent of the world's vanilla, children may account for approximately one-third of the vanilla-farming workforce in the country; this is according to estimates from the United Nations' International Labor organization, which would be a total of 20,000 laborers between the ages of 12 and 17 continually exposed to high temperatures, toxic chemicals, and physically demanding tasks.

While the Danwatch report initially inspired a small media storm of coverage, the industry's issue of child and forced labor hasn't gotten as much attention since 2017, according to Stephanie Gerteiser, a representative for Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit that works to make agriculture more sustainable. That doesn't mean it's necessarily over. "It means that they took very good care that it went undetected," says Gersteiser. "It went underground."

"The gap in people actually taking action is part of what led us wanting to responsibly source vanilla and to reinvigorate the public conversation about this particular ingredient," says Lindsay Dahl, the senior vice president of social mission at Beautycounter. To that end, the clean beauty brand has launched Beyond Gloss, a non-sticky, very shiny reimagining of Beautycounter's classic Lip Gloss, reformulated with conditioning castor oil, moisture-locking jojoba oil, and certified-organic vanilla that it says has been ethically sourced from small-holder farmers in Madagascar to ensure "fair compensation, clean drinking water, and access to healthcare and education for the farmers and their families," the company says.

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"This is our 2.0 as a way to say we've learned a lot since when we first started," Dahl tells Allure. "We asked, 'What can we do to make these formulas not only safer for people who are using them, but safer for people who are sourcing those ingredients?' It was a way for us to show our dedication to responsible sourcing and go beyond what people normally think of as 'clean.'"

The process of ethically sourcing vanilla is complex because the process of farming vanilla is complex. 

Vanilla is such a commonplace spice that the word itself is a synonym for "basic" — but the crop is anything but, from its history to how it's harvested.

The cultivation of vanilla can be traced back to Mesoamerica, where native vanilla grows wild and early Mayans used it to spice ceremonial cacao beverages. The Smithsonian notes that colonizers brought the plant to Europe in 1519. "They found that it wouldn't bud, it wouldn't develop a bean as we know it to do, because there's only one bee that pollinates vanilla naturally," Linnell-Simmons says — a bee that, like vanilla, is native to Mexico, Central America, and South America. But the industry blossomed after Edmond Albius developed his method for hand-pollination in Madagascar. 

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Today, "almost every single vanilla bean that is produced today is hand-pollinated," according to Fairtrade America’s Linnell-Simmons — a labor-intensive process, to say the least. What's more, the flowers themselves bloom for just one day a year, "so not only do you have to hand-pollinate, but you only have a day to do it," says Linnell-Simmons. Post-pollination, the vanilla-orchid life cycle lasts about 12 months, meaning vanilla farmers get one harvest per year and thus one payday per year. All of this factors into the sky-high price of vanilla (in 2013, it was worth more per pound than silver, according to a 2018 report by The New York Times).

Because the ingredient is expensive, it's easy to assume that vanilla farmers would earn liveable wages and, in turn, wouldn't exploit forced laborers. This is not necessarily the case.

"When the vanilla price is high, there is a lot of theft. They have children and farmers sleep in the field to protect their crop," says Gerteiser. The threat of theft leads to too-early harvests, which results in lower-quality goods, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Paired with the fact that the market price of vanilla is always in flux, farmers often prepare for the worst of times by cutting corners in the best of times. "With vanilla and other crop commodities, it's not a steady paycheck," says Linnell-Simmons. "While the farm might be doing really well, they've probably experienced bad days before. They're definitely thinking, 'What do I need to do to weather the next storm?'" 

Linnell-Simmons means that literally. Vanilla orchids are extremely sensitive to weather conditions, and experts warn the recent increase in climate change-related storms in the region puts the plants at risk. "These things don't magically go away when the price is high for a couple of years," she says.

"We also see that the increasing price for vanilla may motivate young people to drop out of school," says Rina Razanakolona, a representative for the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), who is based in Madagascar. "[Through UEBT], the industry is committed to fighting child labor, and there are good programs operating, such as the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, where they are training farmers on child rights, including types of work not allowed and age limitations."

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The large majority of consumer-goods companies that buy vanilla have no knowledge of any of this, thanks to vanilla's complicated and convoluted supply chain.

"[The harvest] is sold to collectors, then these collectors sell to export companies," Gerteiser says. In between, according to the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research, the vanilla supply chain includes stops for production, processing, and eventually, manufacturing. "There are a lot of middle men involved, and it is hardly ever a straight line."

On the sourcing side, Beautycounter's Dahl says it was difficult to find a supplier that met all of the brand's requirements: safety, preferred flavor profile, and responsible production. "We know there are certain suppliers that are going to meet our safety standards because that's our North Star. But the rubber always hit the road when we started asking about the traceability of where they actually get their [vanilla]" — and without that traceability, "human rights abuses [can] take place."

This is where organizations like Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance have stepped in. (Neither NGO is affiliated with Beautycounter.) Since 2010, Fairtrade has worked with local farmers in Madagascar to advocate for fair wages, sustainable practices, and human rights; it has certified 12 farmers' organizations in the region for meeting its ethical standards. This summer, Rainforest Alliance adopted an "assess and address" approach to "tackling human rights issues" within their certified farms across the world, including the Madagascan vanilla industry.

"In terms of human rights, there is more attention being paid to fair wages and minimum age for work across all parts of the vanilla supply chain in recent years," Razanakolona says. "What this means in terms of the market is that you are seeing more vanilla that is not only organic-certified but also is meeting standards such as the UEBT, Rainforest Alliance, and Fairtrade." She notes that the push for these ethical practices is primarily through demands from international vanilla buyers.

It seems that a handful of beauty brands are among the ethically-minded buyers in question. Rainforest Alliance offers a list of personal-care companies it works with on its site, including Palmer's, Pangea Organics, and Tom's of Maine. Lush Cosmetics, Kahina Giving Beauty, and Amala also claim to support fair-trade suppliers (you can find vanilla in their Vanillary Body Spray, Eye Cream, and Advanced Firming Complex, respectively) — but it's important to note that "fair trade" is not the same thing as Fairtrade America Certified. Brands that are officially certified by Fairtrade America will typically feature the organization's logo on their products and product pages.

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"[Some] farmers can't pay for…certifications. It's incredibly expensive," Dahl explains. (It's possible that farmers will be required to pay an upfront fee to be certified by a particular organization, annual fees to maintain said certification, or fees to license some certifiers' logos, whether it's a certification for ethical production, organic farming, or cruelty-free practices.) Understanding that certification is not always accessible, Beautycounter decided to work with independent, small-holder farmers in Madagascar.

Once the company found a seemingly transparent independent supplier, it hired a third-party auditing firm "to help us understand who we were sourcing from" by visiting the farm on the ground in Madagascar, Dahl says. "Thankfully, our auditing firm confirmed that the organic source, which is ECOCERT-certified, did have a transparent chain of custody." The search for fully traceable vanilla took the company two-and-a-half years.

Courtesy of brand

It begs the question: Why not opt for synthetic vanilla, which is readily available, inexpensive, and exploitation-free?

"There are synthetic vanillas that are perfectly safe, and sometimes you don't have to worry about these human-rights issues because they are lab-made," Dahl admits. (The majority of vanilla flavor used in food and fragrance is not real vanilla, says Linnell-Simmons.) The problem with choosing synthetic over natural, in this particular case, is that it pushes the vulnerable communities that grow and harvest vanilla deeper into poverty and keeps child and forced laborers in danger. "We've been on the ground and we've seen how industries pulling out of key agricultural economies, versus investing in those communities, can do more harm than good," Dahl says.

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Divesting from natural vanilla may also have a significant and negative impact on the environment. "Vanilla is a crop that requires cover and forestry, which is really great for continuing to buck the trend of deforestation," Linnell-Simmons tells Allure. "It is very much one with the natural landscape." But farmers who can no longer make a living wage from vanilla crops often choose to "sell their land or knock down all their trees for timber, destroying the ecosystem" and exacerbating the planet's climate crisis.

As Dahl says, "The intersection of responsible sourcing, human rights, and climate change cannot be ignored."

Still, it's important to note that, like "fair trade," marketing terms like "responsible" and "ethical" are murky and muddled and ultimately meaningless. These words are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so brands could be free to claim an "ethically sourced" ingredient or a "responsibly made" product without documentation or challenge from the FDA. 

"The more we do this work, the more we realize that the marketing terms are very misleading," says Beautycounter's Dahl. "In order to make deep claims like that, the amount of work you have to do is absolutely tremendous. Brands need to be invested in the work" — and consumers need to be invested in fact-checking brands.

If you're concerned that your favorite vanilla-flavored beauty product may be the product of child labor, confront the brand you bought it from, Dahl suggests. "The number one thing consumers can do is email customer service, asking them, 'Do you responsibly source your vanilla, and what steps do you take to make sure people are protected?'" she says. "Asking simple questions tremendously shapes how brands are responding and bringing products to market. Consumer power is transforming the beauty industry every single day."

Beautycounter's Beyond Gloss is available, beginning August 11, for $29 at beautycounter.com.


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