V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, November 2008

For years now, without fully understanding the consequences of my purchases, it seems I've been contributing to the slow extinction of orangutangs in Indonesia, and the clearcutting of the world's rainforests. How? By washing my hands of the situation -- literally.

One of the main ingredients in soap is palm oil, an ingredient often purchased from the commodity markets, says Shelley Simmons, a spokesman for The Body Shop. The ingredient can't be traced back to its origin, and oftentimes valuable rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia are burned down and left for dead.

"That means habitats are devastated and orangutans are on the edge of extinction because of the sourcing of palm oil," Simmons said.

The Body Shop, however, sources the palm oil for their soaps -- their bestselling item at 14 million a year -- from family-run farms in Columbia, bound by strict guidelines as set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The Body Shop worked with NGOs to form the roundtable in response to the problem.

"That way, we know that the trees are replanted and the forests will continue to thrive," Simmons said.

The chain had humble beginnings before it grew to become an internationally recognized brand name with 2,265 stores worldwide.

Founder Anita Roddick had a simple vision 32 years ago when she set up the first store in the sea-side town of Brighton, England -- long before the likes of An Inconvenient Truth came along to press the urgency of climate change.

The eco-activist wanted women to return to the earth for their beauty, and to provide that service in a "socially responsible way," Simmons said.

Now, a big part of that mandate is found in the company's community trade program which sources ingredients from suppliers in a conscionable way.

A co-operative from Zambia, for example, supplies the company with the organic honey for their honey shampoo, a moisturizing balm for dry hair.

Wild beekeepers create a friendly home environment for the bees by carving out a hive from a tree trunk. They then climb to the top of a tree, place the hive at its summit out of reach of honey badgers, and the bees are left to do their work.

"It's a very beautiful process...you watch as a beekeeper climbs to the top of the tree, puts his hand into the beehive, takes the honey out, leaves some for the bees, puts it in his bucket and goes down the tree," Simmons said.

Similarly, a co-operative of 400 women in Namibia supplies the company with marula oil. The women collect the marula nuts, sourced for their moisturizing properties, and process the oils which are then used to make eye shadows. That was 10 years ago. Today, the co-operative has grown to a small army of 5,000 strong, and have opened a factory. They know how much of the oil the company will be buying in the next year and can plan accordingly. They enjoy a predictability in business which helps them build for a future.

But aside from their socially responsible practices, there are concerns that the 2006 takeover by cosmetic giant L'Oreal will weaken The Body Shop values.

In the 2007 Values Report, a stakeholders' group made up of consultants like Greenpeace and Oxfam, challenge the company's trajectory, saying the environment has slipped off its agenda and is now playing catch-up. It's a report the company posts online as part of its commitment to be transparent, Simmons said.

While some of the targets include raising the amount of post-consumer material in plastic bottles from 30 per cent to 100 per cent by 2010, and using plastic bags that are degradable, the panel calls for a return to the basic tenets of Roddick's vision.

"In some areas where the company used to be leading, we find that the company has fallen behind other ethical businesses, most notably within the environmental area," they write.

It's an assessment the company is listening to, Simmons said, just as they acknowledge customer complaints.

"We continue to look at customer concerns and address it," Simmons said.

Like every other business, which must negotiate profits with ethical choices, The Body Shop must tread this fine line. But with multi-national corporation L'Oreal at the helm, it's also up to consumers to keep one of the oldest and most successful sustainable companies accountable and as close to its original vision as possible.

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