Frontline Reports from the Lush Buying Team
This week, head of the buying team, Simon Constantine, reports the ongoing challenges of ethical sourcing of ingredients - especially when others are prepared to cut both corners and costs.
Flotillas of logs drift inconspicuously down Amazonian tributaries. Sometimes Indigenous families float along with them, on top, carrying themselves and their precious cargo into the nearest town. These huge rafts are made up of a multitude of hardwood tree species, logged indiscriminately and at very low value, sometimes as little as $50USD for 200 trees.
The reason I know the exact value of these trees is because some were stolen from Lush’s forest concession a few years ago.
The concession has the rights to log and protect a 6,000 hectare parcel of Peruvian tropical forest. We acquired this patch of forest - the comparative size of Auckland city in New Zealand - in 2013 and in a hurry. There were illegal loggers already knocking at the door and we had the unique opportunity to prevent them from clear-cutting the whole area.
It happened that this land was also home to the endangered Rosewood tree. Rosewood is synonymous with quality carpentry - think Stradivarius violins for instance - but maybe lesser known for its essential oil. Lush uses Rosewood essential oil and has deliberately continued to use it both for its quality and for the opportunity to play a role in bringing the plant back from the brink of extinction.
In 2013 we began the process of putting in a sustainable plan for logging the trees. It involved using a technique called pollarding - cutting the tree at chest height, which allows the tree itself to survive and grow back. If done correctly this can actually increase the lifespan of the tree and bring in income from forest whilst allowing it to remain standing. Some light clearance done sensitively would mean land rippling with life (when I visited jaguar and tapir prints littered the paths, as did baby anacondas) left almost untouched, possibly even enhanced.
Soon we had established a ‘Mother House’ employing Indigenous Shipibo and others from local communities. It felt pioneering. But the Amazon is as treacherous as it is beautiful and we weren’t always welcomed with open arms...
Shortly after a visit we were told: ‘gringos need to leave or you will suck a bullet.’ This was a scrawled warning message left by loggers, carved into a fallen tree stump. Nonetheless we were determined to do things the right way. Soon we had the local authorities over for a celebratory opening and we formed a plan to prune the trees in patches across the site over a 20-year period, harvesting where appropriate and returning no sooner than 20 years later to harvest again.
However, this also raised questions about just how many Rosewood trees were left in the wild and meant we needed to prove the relatively new harvesting techniques outside of a controlled plantation. It also coincided with CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) clamping down harder on the trade in Peruvian Rosewood. And so we’ve waited. And waited. Patiently pouring good money into the site with the hope that by playing by the rules and biding our time we can undertake a plan we truly believe is in the benefit of local community members, to international business and to the forest.
During this time we have had to defend the site. Illegal logging is rife and in 2015 we heard rumours that other essential oil companies had been scouting the area for Rosewood too. Not only that but that they had begun illegally logging.
Not far from our site, even from our site, Rosewood trees began to go missing.
When we came to send oil we had legally distilled prior to the CITES embargo, the port authorities said they recognised the smell as being that of Marjoram oil.
“No it’s definitely Rosewood” we said, but the fact they recognised it as a completely different oil made us suspicious.
And then more recently some news landed. Young Living, the billion dollar direct selling essential oils group, stood up and came clean. They had been sourcing Rosewood from Peru but had now realised it had been illegally obtained. The US Department of Justice handed out a hefty fine of $760,000 demanding that $125,000 go towards protecting the species.
Had they been responsible for the logging we had seen close to us? Who knows... but the fact is, this is one of too few litigations we’ve seen in the essential oils world and it should serve as a warning that consumers and authorities are becoming more aware of the wider impact these seemingly harmless sweet-smelling materials can have.
For us at Lush it forges our commitment to our approach to research and to source carefully, ensuring that we understand everything we can about materials whose future all too often hang in the balance. It’s not an easy commitment when around you those choosing a different approach seem to succeed but, as this recent news proves, maybe the world really is changing for the better.
Photo: A fallen rosewood tree, ready to be chopped for oil.