How Lush is supporting cocoa butter farmers in the Congo

cocoa butter
© Lush Cosmetics

It's a mutually beneficial arrangement. Lush gets luxurious fair-trade cocoa butter, while farmers earn income in a low-risk way, not threatened by violence.

For Lush Cosmetics, sourcing ingredients ethically is a top priority. Not only does the company want top-notch ingredients to make high-quality products, but it also wants those ingredients to be good for both the people who use them and the people who make them. This means that Lush's buyers travel all around the world, meeting and talking directly with the farmers, producers, and local organizations to set up fair contracts.

The search for cocoa butter is a good example of the company's diligence. Cocoa butter is a main ingredient for Lush, used in 77 of its products. It is a key moisturizing agent, as it melts into the skin and conditions beautifully, and blends well with other natural butters. In an effort to source cocoa butter from a place that would maximally benefit from Lush's buying power, the company has set up a new partnership with cocoa farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). (The company buys from additional fair-trade-certified suppliers in Uganda, Guatemala, and Colombia, though DRC is set to be its most significant supplier.)

Lush is working with the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), a non-governmental organization founded by Ben Affleck that's striving to create economic and educative opportunities for people living in eastern Congo. The region has been wracked by warfare and poverty for the past three decades, and violent militia groups continue to harass civilians, even though the war is supposed to be over. As a result, it can be difficult for individuals to know where and how to start rebuilding their communities, as the threat of seizure by militants is always present.

Interestingly, cocoa butter is one commodity that's considered conflict-proof. This is because it has no value until it is fermented and dried, a process that takes time and knowledge that the armed militia groups do not have. Baraka Kasali is a Congolese man who spent years studying and living in the United States before returning to DRC to work with the ECI. He saw cocoa butter as a promising low-risk option for farmers to build a sustainable and viable future and has been doing precisely that in recent years through the ECI's Farmer Trust program.

While cocoa is commonly grown in Africa, and the DRC's soil is perfectly suited to the crop, it was not a well-developed industry when Kasali began working on this project. The ECI website says farmers have "limited awareness of relevant good agricultural practices, and limited connection with the rest of the value chain." Kasali now helps farmers to improve the quality of their cocoa butter and gain better access to international buyers. The cocoa butter is also appealing for its fair-trade certification from Fair For Life, a certifying body that examines the entire chain of custody, from producer to manufacturer to trader.

cocoa butter chunks© Lush Cosmetics

Enter Lush Cosmetics and its insatiable appetite for cocoa butter. The mutually beneficial relationship began in 2016, when one of Lush's Ethical Buyers, Greg Pinch, went to Congo to meet with ECI and farmers. This was the first time an international cosmetics company had engaged with cocoa producers in eastern Congo and Kasali was delighted. He said:

"There was a sustainable opportunity for rural farmers if Congolese communities could develop business relationships with clients who valued not only quality, but the people behind the quality. Companies must listen to the farmers and work with them as partners. Lush’s respect for the farmers in eastern Congo is setting a new standard for how companies should engage in the region."

Greg Pinch© Lush Cosmetics -- Greg Pinch stands next to a tray of Snow Angel bath oils in a Lush factory.

Greg Pinch was also impressed with what he found. From a Lush-written article about his visit:

"[Pinch] learned they had used their fair trade premiums to build a school for their children and infrastructure for storing and sorting cocoa beans. He saw firsthand how doing business with these farmers contributes directly to improving their communities."

In 2017, Lush purchased 80 metric tons of Congolese cocoa butter; it went so well that the company more than doubled its order for 2018, committing to purchase 200 metric tons.

What's really interesting about cocoa butter (especially for this zero-waste-pushing, anti-plastic TreeHugger) is that it replaces water in many of Lush's recipes. Adding cocoa butter to a product gives it a solid form and inhibits bacterial growth, allowing it to remain unpackaged, a.k.a. 'naked' in Lush lingo. So it's largely thanks to cocoa butter (and other solid oils) that you can walk into a Lush store and pluck massage bars, body lotion, and bath oils right off the shelves, package-free. And speaking of minimal packaging, more than 80 percent of Lush's holiday-themed items qualify as naked, which is pretty impressive.

Lush tree D bath oil© Lush Cosmetics -- Making a Tree D bath melt with Congolese cocoa butter

If you're interested in trying out some of this fair-trade Congolese cocoa butter yourself, then treat yourself to a Tree-D bath melt, a Sparkle Jar body powder that leaves a shimmery sheen on the skin, a Snowman bubblebath, or 'Sleepy' lotion that's meant to help you relax and sleep. See a longer list of cocoa-containing products here.

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