I can still remember my first-ever beauty purchase. A pot of good-enough-to-eat strawberry lip balm from The Body Shop, picked up on a Saturday afternoon jaunt at my local shopping mall. It was the start of a love affair with the brand’s fun and feel-good products: bubbly body gels, buttery moisturisers and my first signature scent (the cult White Musk perfume).
This foray into beauty came with a handy lesson in ethical consumption. It was the mid-90s and the global juggernaut was blazing a trail with its strong stance on recycling, animal welfare and human trafficking. I could slather my skin in Brazil Nut oil knowing that I wasn’t wiping out the Amazon. And my beloved blue mascara? It came with a cruelty-free guarantee.
Yet as the years passed and my bathroom vanity became cluttered with lotions, potions, serums and scrubs, it got all too easy to (literally) gloss over the origins and impact of my beauty buys.
I’m in the tiny village of Tirumangalam, southern India, to visit Teddy Exports, The Body Shop’s first Community Trade partner. The organisation was founded in 1987 by Amanda Murphy, a former employee of the beauty business who was backpacking in the area. Distressed by the poverty and corruption she witnessed, she was stirred to make a change.
Since then, Teddy has produced The Body Shop's textiles and wooden accessories – footsie rollers, cosmetics bags and screen-printed shopping totes – with profits funnelled back into the local community.
Two things are immediately clear on arrival at the sprawling 48–acre property, the staff of 650 lined up to greet us – one, the mood is more upbeat than a Mardi Gras playlist, and two, the power of a social welfare organisation to change lives is real.
There are the women, who make up 71 per cent of the Teddy workforce, receive equal pay and hold the vast majority of management positions. All the more remarkable when you consider this is a country where women often struggle to gain employment (the result of deeply rooted gender norms).
There are the employees with disabilities and AIDs – typically “pariahs” of Indian society – who are granted not only work but basic healthcare, too.
And there are the beaming faces of 1000 children, whose lives may have been changed most of all. Teddy provides free education from crèche through to secondary school (including care for disabled students) and tops the national average with a 100 per cent pass rate.
The organisation’s latest initiative is a program helping sex workers forge a new path. I meet 17-year-old Meera*, who was pushed into prostitution by her mother at 15. Now, thanks to this six-month course in tailoring and behavioural change, she’s wide-eyed and filled with hope for her future.
Since partnering with Teddy Exports 30 years ago, The Body Shop has worked with communities spanning from Morocco to Mexico. By 2020, it aims to help 40,000 economically vulnerable people across the globe access work, and ensure 100 per cent of its natural ingredients are sustainably sourced.
The business is not alone in proving that beauty can be a force for better: today, a new generation of skincare and cosmetics companies are committed to not only giving good face, but giving back, too (ones to watch: Humanite and Ilia).
Of course, in a world where corporate social responsibility is sometimes more spin than substance, it’s easy to become desensitised to terms like Fair Trade and ethical – even disillusioned. But here under the sweltering Indian sun, their impact is impossible to ignore. Much more than words plastered across a shampoo bottle, they represent the lives of people like Meera.
I’m struck with a firm reminder: to detox my beauty cabinet. Sure, I’m not quite ready to overhaul my entire regime, but starting now, I plan to study ingredients labels, investigate the social policies of my favourite brands, and make responsible, considered choices.
Because that humble strawberry lip balm? It could actually make a difference.
*Name has been changed.