A TYPICAL day at work for Christina Archer, a senior buyer with The Body Shop's Community Fair Trade team, is anything but typical for anybody else, unless you happen to be Bear Grylls. She has trekked to remote corners of the world, travelling for hours on rough roads or in canoes, walking in knee-deep mud or getting stuck on the wrong side of a flooded river.
"Once, I was stuck in the rainforest for three days with no e-mail, no telephone. We had travelled into the Amazon in dugout canoes, where the men and women spend a few months in a year collecting brazil nuts. But there was a huge strike in the nearby port so there were no boats for three days," recounted the animated Ms Archer, who camped in the jungle with nut collectors to better understand the difficulties that they face, before determining a fair price for the ingredient.
During her five-year tenure at The Body Shop, Ms Archer has established partnerships with communities in Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Ecuador, Samoa, and Italy, and has set up fair trade supply chains for organic alcohol, honey and beeswax. Started in 1987, The Body Shop's Community Fair Trade programme sources for ingredients and accessories from farmers, traditional artisans and rural co-ops, way before slapping the "fair trade" label on special products became de rigueur for large beauty corporations.
"We have been doing it for 26 years and it still hasn't become unfashionable," laughed Ms Archer, when asked if the current proliferation of fair trade products is just a fad. "And we've grown tremendously in terms of the volume of ingredients that we buy. We introduce new product groups into the programme every few years. It just so happens that now, fair trade is becoming more mainstream in other companies."
And rather than simply retail goods with Fairtrade certification, Ms Archer and her team of buyers visit suppliers at least once every three years to understand their work processes, examine the quality of the products and basically learn about the communities they work with to share their stories with customers - a priceless marketing and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy that has been working for the company for decades.
Most recently, the organically hand-harvested honey that she sourced from the rainforests of Ethiopia has been incorporated as a key ingredient in the brand's Honeymania range of bath and bodycare products.
"When we returned and the community of beekeepers saw the products, they were so proud. They asked, 'my honey is really in here?' and tell us how they can now afford to rebuild their houses and buy school uniforms," said Ms Archer, who spent over a decade as a development worker for children's charities before being approached to join The Body Shop.
Moreover, the initiative promotes environmental sustainability. The African honey bees that produce the honey are free to roam the Sheka rainforest in the Ethiopian Highlands, creating a light floral aroma distinct from dense hives in bee factories. Every day, the bees communicate through a kind of dance to direct one another to the tastiest flowers. Beekeepers employ "barefoot beekeeping" or "bee whispering" techniques, passed down from generations that work in harmony with the bees' natural cycles and do not disrupt the natural habitat. Because the bees harvest nectar from and pollinate thousands of flowers in the rainforest, the preservation of this traditional beekeeping method helps preserve the ecosystem of the UNESCO-protected area.
"By trading with these beekeepers, we help them understand that there is a demand for the honey, and give them a reason to protect the rainforest," added Ms Archer.
And once such ingredients garner worldwide attention after being incorporated into star product lines of The Body Shop, other potential buyers naturally come knocking on the doors of the farmers and producers. "Most companies think, 'I have to protect my supplier and my ingredients'," said Ms Archer. "We try to promote other companies to use these ingredients, but of course the suppliers always trust us and make sure our demands are met first."
Apart from paying fair prices for products, the Community Fair Trade programme also provides training for farmers to trade within a global market, such as literacy initiatives to enable them to process export forms, and keeping stocks on stand-by so that the independent suppliers are not under pressure when unforeseen challenges such landslides and other climate changes occur.
"When Anita Roddick (the late founder of The Body Shop) first went to Ghana, she discovered that the women there had great skin because of shea butter, and at that time, nobody had heard of shea butter," said Ms Archer, who also revealed that the company now uses "hundreds of thousands of kilos of shea butter each year". "When she first went, the women had to share a dress among themselves and wait for their turn to wear the dress to go into town. Now they own a few dresses each. They can read and write. The men respect them more. And everywhere I visit, I hear stories like that. It makes it all worthwhile."