On the Caribbean coast of Guatemala is 556 acres of land that seems like it has been left to nature’s devices. The untrained eye would not guess that this is actually a farm on a former cattle ranch, where vanilla, coconut, cacao, ylang-ylang and avocado are grown as naturally as possible, in line with the agroforestry ethos. This is one of Lush‘s regenerative farms, where they grow ingredients for their beauty products. Not only does this farm ensure that the ingredients are grown organically and ethically, but it also fights the environmental devastation that has taken a toll on Guatemala, a country torn apart by decades of deforestation and civil war.
Part of Lush’s larger mission, the brand has invested over $5.1 million in agroforestry over the last six years to help communities that have suffered from climate change, deforestation and conflict. “Agroforestry is a system of managing the land that combines forestry and agriculture,” explains Juan Bronson, Director of Izabel Agroforestry, who has partnered with Lush to oversee their local farm in Guatemala. “It’s a term that is very general—it’s sort of like the word ‘sustainable.’ There are many different interpretations of it, but my version of agroforestry is something that is going to have a certain level of biodiversity and long-term conservation, and annual crops that grow on the forest floor, like cacao and vanilla, so it’s the opposite of a monoculture. It’s a polyculture where we grow many things in one area. The core belief is that we can create something that is productive and provide food for the world and ingredients that we need for our products, while also adding a level of biodiversity that has been lost.”
By encouraging biodiversity, agroforestry helps reverse the effects of deforestation, including erosion, nutrient-deficient soil, and little wildlife. It also provides employment that pays a fair wage and provides training in sustainable agriculture. Outside of their own farms, Lush also partners with local farmers who grow their crops in the same standard, guaranteeing them a fair price for their produce. Lush has worked with 400 partner farmers around the globe since 2016 and continues to grow that number. These partnerships also enable farmers to boost their access to other buyers, and embrace environmentally beneficial practices that will nourish the land and be passed on. Eventually, the goal is that these practices will spread sustainable farming and allow the farmers to become more financially independent.
Lush’s efforts often raise the question of what do you put first: The planet or the people that you work with? “You have to do both in the end and I think it really depends on the context or place that you’re coming from,” says Lush Ethical Buying Manager Heather Deeth. “At Lush our platform is to look at all of the touch points. What is the impact of growing that material? Was it grown organically? Does it make a difference to be grown organically? We have lots of materials that are wild harvested, so getting organic certified or not actually doesn’t matter because it’s growing in the jungle. It’s not sprayed, there’s no pesticides added, so you don’t (need to) pay more to get organic certified—it actually is irrelevant. It’s just more money that is not going to producers, or that they are paying for in auditing. We want as much money going back to producer groups as possible.”
To ensure a fair standard of work and wages for farm workers, Lush has worked with external groups to train them how to do social audits to look for child or slave labor and other red flags. To remove as much risk as possible, they often buy 100% fair trade and organic ingredients, which is typically vetted through third parties. “We usually buy fair trade and organic as much as we can across as many ingredients as we can, because that pushes traceability back into the supply chain, and that means someone else is looking at practices,” Deeth says. “Then it’s usually how many players are in the supply chain and how transparent can they get, how is it grown, what’s happening, what’s their conditions, what are the origins? You can mitigate a lot of risk just managing those factors.”
By having their own farms, Lush is able to know the answer to those questions. “That’s why we wanted to have our own farm—it’s a lot more controlled,” says Gavin Hollett, Manager of the Sustainable Lush Fund. “What we’re doing isn’t that straightforward and a lot of people are a little bit hesitant, and so from our perspective it’s the best way to do it. Also, by having our own site, we are demonstrating to the broader industry that we are serious about this. In order to have a justifiable, successful project, we want to be the lead there, which will allow us to finance a much greater expansion and involve more people in turn.” Lush also has farms in northern Uganda, Peru and Arizona.
To ensure that their partner farms are on the same page, Lush often works with managers on the ground in each of the regions or countries, like they do with having Bronson work with nearby farmers in Guatemala. “Our job is to find people who are already doing good things and already have a set of standards,” Hollett says. “Lush can improve our understanding and the partner will have more opportunities to try things that maybe they haven’t been able to do before. There are opportunities for our partners to get development and training. Some of that is just through conversation, traveling and spending time with us, and through their own initiative that they are doing already on their own. We need to be trusting the partners on the ground for them to tell us what they think is right based on an existing broader framework and principles.” Lush provides guidelines and guiding principles on the key things they want to enable, which are the restoration of eco systems and better access to markets for farmers, especially those who are willing to make an extra effort and take care of the eco system. Each place is different, but all farms are expected to follow a set of standards of basic fair trade, ethical business standards, and obey the law.
A key component of Lush’s farm in Guatemala is that men and women are treated equally and there is a zero tolerance policy for harassment. “No matter how people feel in terms of gender and whether they’re married or not, or single mothers, we want to put a real effort out to make this something more equal,” Bronson says. “When somebody comes to the farm and they’re willing to work hard regardless of who they are, we will hire them. That’s turned it into a wonderful and very brotherly and sisterly atmosphere. Everybody is clear that these are co-workers and we’re going to treat each other with respect.” In Guatemala, it’s often assumed that only men will be hired for field work, but when word spread that they were hiring women, in just a few days nearly 50 women applied to the project.
However, agroforestry has other unique challenges, and many of those have to do with managing crops organically in the lowland tropics where they are so susceptible to humidity and insects. The toughest aspect is fighting exotic grasses that were introduced after the land was deforested and burned down, since the grasses are very aggressive and leach the soil of nitrogen, and so to get rid of those without using dangerous, damaging herbicides is extremely difficult. That’s an example of why Lush’s farms are a long-term investment with a lot of trial and error. “We can’t even think about it in terms of five or eight years; we have to think about it functioning in perpetuity—that’s the idea of the regenerative farming system,” Bronson says. “My short-term vision is that we are going to do things in a healthy, sustainable and organic way in the next few years and supply Lush’s customers and the company with the raw materials it needs. The bigger vision is other farmers in the area are going to see that there are better ways to do this, better use and management of the land, and it’s viable and very important that it be economic. This is something else that we’re trying to demonstrate, the vision of expansion, growth and emulation.”
Deeth confirms that Lush is in it for the long haul. “Fifty years from now I won’t even be around, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if we were planting the trails for something that actually made a difference?” she says. “Hopefully all people can move away from quarterly reporting and get a little bit deeper over what the total impact is. That would be good for society and the environment. We’ve never done any of these initiatives for marketing value and that’s why I feel that the work we’re doing is authentic and it’s correct.”
But in order for things to truly change, it’s not just the responsibility of brands—it’s also up to consumers. “As a society, we get really excited when we hear a simple answer to a very complicated problem and the messes that we’re in on an environmental and social level weren’t developed through a social media app and they’re not going to fixed through an app,” Hollett says. “It’s really important to be able to communicate with the broader community, specifically people who are purchasing products like what Lush sells, and ask them to be more thoughtful and take more time to understand and really connect with what they’re putting on and into their bodies, and appreciate that it’s worth an investment to spend a bit more on things that have come from a great place and that a lot of that money has gone to the right people who have produced it, rather than looking at a product and saying I want to get the cheap one, but then I’m going to feel good when I give money to a charity who helps farmers. That’s actually the worst way—you’re not fixing anything by doing that. People need to feel more comfortable spending the money on ethical goods if they do care about the broader community on the environmental and social level.”