Vanity boosting prosperity and biodiversity?

The combination of the rapidly expanding global fashion and beauty industry and the internet is providing opportunities for developing countries.

It enables them to use their creative talents and cultural heritages to create jobs and sell products that are environmentally responsible. And even better, results can come swiftly thanks to the internet. Their ideas, designs, and products can be displayed online and sold rapidly around the world.

Small businesses leading the way

Experts at UNCTAD’s “Best of Nature” conference believe fashion, cosmetics and perfume can lead to significant increase of employment in developing countries. We are mainly talking about small businesses which there, as well as in the rest of the world, is an important component of progress. With the right marketing such creative work can be not only profitable but promote different cultures and biodiversity as well.

Scents of the developing world

Biodiversity is a source of creativity and new products for the perfume industry. It is vital for supply chains to be transparent so that natural ingredients are responsibly harvested to make sure that the supply of valuable plants is not exhausted, Michel Mane, President of Mane USA said. He added that “by establishing techniques for the growth of perfume ingredients in developing countries we are able to ensure the ecological viability of our ingredients. By using both cutting-edge, environmentally benign agricultural practices and providing local employment we are able to ensure the ecological viability of our ingredients”.

Sustainable use of water & soil

More than 40% of Unilever’s turnover is now in developing countries, said Giulia DiTommaso, Unilever’s Director of External Affairs for Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. They are one of the largest buyers in the world of ingredients such as palm oil and have noticed increased consumer interest in environmentally friendly products. Unilever is hence focusing on sustainable use of water, soils and, not to forget, respect for biodiversity.

A vital issue is how environmentally responsible products can be certified and traced. We want to be sure of what we are buying. According to Sean Ansett, Managing Partner of At Stake Advisors, “customers will want to be able to trace their purchases “from farm to fork and from mine to mobile phone”. Current technology is showing that such traceability is now possible, if difficult”.

“Environmentally transparent” supply chains

“There are “tool sets” to allow corporations to improve the transparency of their supply chains. Doing so generates brand trust and loyalty, especially as customers increasingly demand that products be environmentally responsible”, Tim Wilson of Historic Features said. They supply such tools to customers like Wal-Mart.

Definitions of “natural” and “organic” still have not been set by for instance the European Union, but are under development and definitions hence still vary from country to country.

Organic African fashion popular in the West

African fashion is increasingly popular in the developed world and is creating thousands of jobs in Africa. There is for instance a fashion school in Niger that’s helping 150 African designers develop their talents.

What Africa needs is the capacity to mass produce fashion, says Anggy Haif, a Cameroonian fashion designer. The continent lacks the infrastructure and industry needed for widespread production of natural-fibre clothes. But there is a huge market for that kind of clothes and many jobs depend on developing such facilities.

So now that concern over the environment is mounting, and words such as “green” and “sustainable” and “responsible” are heard widely, environmentally responsible fashion and beauty products have the opportunity to shift from niche products to being much more widely used. Environmentally responsible fashions can become cultural ambassadors that change global value sets and lead to other economic changes that also foster greater respect for the environment.

Wouldn’t it hence be an idea for aid and donor organisations to devote more time and money to assisting developing countries with getting the infrastructure and know-how needed to develop more such companies? To do so would lead to sustainable development that would enable the nations to gradually work and trade themselves to a better standard of living. As opposed to most aid it would not just have a temporary effect but would assist the developing world long term starting now.

photo: Ethan Allen Flickr

47 thoughts on “Vanity boosting prosperity and biodiversity?

  1. I like the concept of natural, and ingredients and fashion coming from Africa. I would like to know what kind of enforcement goes into this. Are there any regulations to ensure the product comes from the area it says it does? I would hate to see a knockoff getting the profit from manufacturing a fabric, instead of the profit going to the country it came from.

    1. William, that it comes from the country in question is easy to find out because it will be shipped from there to the customers:-) Does it matter if part of the product was made in Tanzania instead of Mozambiue? They are both African countries.

  2. This is wonderful. Imagine using,energy, skills and knowledge for sustainable growth and social purpose? Who would have thought? Do you think when mans intent is on humanity it makes a difference.? : )

    1. Glad you like what's going on in the developing world. It would definitely make a difference if mankind had a focus on humanity. Unfortunately however, money talks. Hence millions and millions of people to through hell to get to the West and be able to support themselves. Unfortunately they frequently also are under the impression they would become millionaires. Corruption doesn't help either.

  3. Don’t believe the US FDA has any definitions of “natural” and their stance on “organic” is not very comprehensive. The countries that create strong, concise standards and supply products that meet them and are transparent will find a world market willing to spend their money. Here’s to hoping.

  4. This is so very encouraging and I completely subscribe to helping people build businesses with the added bonus of being environmentally friendly. I believe that environmentally friendly products of all kinds will continue to gain in popularity.

    1. Yes, it's encouraging and positive, isn't it Jacqueline. We really need to help the deveoping world create jobs and prosperity in order to reduce the amount of economic migrants coming to the West.

  5. After reading your thread, a popular quote instantly came to mind;

    "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime".

    African clothing is growing popular in parts of Europe. There is certainly a market for it. I have seen prints in boutique shops for silly money knowing all the while that I could buy the material from Ghana/Nigeria and ask a talented, unknown seamstress to sew it at little cost. However, it is all about the name on the tag.

  6. Organizations devoted to micro finance in developing countries are helping thousands of entrepreneurs to start their own businesses — be it fashion, perfume or many other industries. With as little as $100 someone can start a business — many of these organizations target women. Research shows that financial institutions who make loans to these budding businesses are making money with very few defaults. All good news for those in developing countries and the people who buy their products.

  7. I, too, can speak out about the good work USAid is doing. When I was in Peru, it was very clear that the Peruvian cocoa industry would not have got off the ground without the guidance and resources of USAid.

    On a personal front, I always look for products with as few ingredients as possible as the simpler the recipe, the more likely it is pure, without additives, and very often organic a spud sustainable.
    My recent post Ste. Anne’s Spa nurtures your body & spirit

  8. I agree that environmentally responsible products are a high commodity these days. And I agree that it is important to verify that a product that makes certain claims is also living up to those standards. And as we move forward, I hope that it remains affordable for small companies to demonstrate that they meet the standards needed. I know certain farmers who follow "organic" standards for growing can't afford to get the organic certification. Obviously, this would be very important when working with developing countries.

    1. Glad you agree with me about the importance of environmentally friendly products, Erica. By the way you get your organic certificate in the country your company is in. If in India, you get it there. An interesting issue here is that the sooner developing countries generate more jobs and increase prosperity the better. It would for instance reduce the amount of economic migrants coming to the West. So what's more important? Organic products or less refugees? Am certain that there are companies in the West with organic certificates that are not producing organic products just charge higher prices.

  9. I think you have hit the nail on the head Catarina. To put aid to good use that will assist the growth of the country, and the people, in the long term, rather than placing a bandaid over a gaping wound (so to speak) would be the best way moving forward.

    My recent post Reawakening of Purpose

  10. I find that this information gives me hope that we can do both. Providing for viable opportunities without destroying the environment is something that REALLY resonates with me. To long has there been a situation where the only way a third world population could survive and provide for their families was to destroy the very thing that would give them the future they so longed for. The "now" was to pressing. This gives me hope. 🙂
    My recent post Healthy Baked Fried Chicken

  11. Thoughtful post Caterina, as always. In April a factory in Bangladesh that created clothing for Canada's Loblaw's chain collapsed killing more than 400 people. The factory was not creating local fashion, but the conditions the workers operated in is the concern I raise. It was not an isolated event but it caused Canadians to wake up to how we were investing in third world countries. It was a stark reminder of what happens when we see an opportunity, but don't allow the local voices of workers to determine investment. So, I think it isn't so much about donor organizations offering specific assistance based on our assessment of trends, but asking the people of those countries (not necessarily "official" voices) what kind of investment they want.

    The opportunities created by vanity and biodiversity are a natural fit and it may be that infrastructure is needed, but equally, an investment in education and an understanding of workers rights, safety issues etc.
    My recent post 5 Tips For Finding Joy in Your Work

    1. Agree with you Debra. Read about the factory collapsing. If I'm not mistaken the European Union made a big issue out of it with the Bangladeshi government. But recently there has been a lot of publicity about people from developing countries being ripped off in Sweden!! Yes, you got it right. They come here to work for employers, Swedish as well as immigrants, who rip them off and it's legal. You also have human slaves here. They are usually owned by crime syndicates that are into organised begging. Again, there is nothing that can be done from a legal point of view. One criminal gang took Sweden to the European Human right court and Sweden was told beggers the right to beg. So we now have human slaves here and nothing can be done about it. Personally think helping people in developing countries set up small businesses that can sell their produce abroad is a great idea. Far too many come to Europe thinking they will have a fantastic life to find out that they would have been better off back home. Some people from Ghana, I think it was, had borrowed money to come to Sweden and work for an employer that ripped them off. And the employer had not broken any law. That this kind of things happen in the developing world is one thing. When it happens in a country like Sweden it is simply unacceptable. Also, we should not forget, that there are people from developing countries kept as human sexual slaves in all developed countries. That's food for thought isn't it:-)

      1. We have similar concerns here in Canada about how we are treating foreign workers, but I think we are a little further ahead in terms of attitudes and legislation. We are seeing some movement, its slow but we have had about 50 convictions with the most recent happening earlier this week.

        As to sexual exploitation, unfortunately there is very little focus on it even though we are a destination and transit country. We have a few MPs who are trying to address the issue, notably Joy Smith, who has had this as a priority issue for many years now. When I first met with her a few years ago she was trying to raise the profile on the issue, but was a lone voice. I am pleased to say that earlier this month she led a Canadian delegation to a conference the Ukraine on the issue and has also released a national action plan. She is part of the sitting government, so while I don't expect massive change, she at least has the ear of those who can make change.
        My recent post 5 Tips For Finding Joy in Your Work

        1. Glad that Canada is doing something about such problems. What Joy Smith is doing is commendable. It's more difficult to do somthing in Europe though because of the open borders in the European Union. Once they are inside, they can move their human cargo anywhere they please, unfortunately. Criminals benefit enormously from the open borders.

  12. Hi Catarina. Yes, most companies are now using natural ingredients for their cosmetic or skin care products. This could be due to the popularity of spa treatments today. I never realized this has an impact in less-developed countries. Well, its good to know that actually. 🙂

  13. I have a magnet on my fridge that says "There's magic in thinking big." This post is full of magic! Everything you describe points to creating win win scenarios. And… I have to admit, I never thought about ingredients for perfumes actually being "farmed out."

  14. Just another of the ways that the internet has had a major impact on the entire world and changed how we look at ourselves and others. One of the biggest obstacles to getting started with a ground level business is getting yourself seen. It used to require a great deal of effort and cost just to get noticed on a global level. Now it's possible for anyone anywhere to get noticed and all it takes is some clever ideas and savvy targeting.

    As internet access expands, expect the face of business and marketing to change even more. Traditional forms of communication are already struggling to keep up and stay competitive, which in my opinion is a good thing. The internet has added a level of competition that can only help to reduce the costs for advertising.

    Great post.

  15. I love the idea of third world women and men creating their future by creating beautiful products from the resources in their environment. What a way to make a difference in our world.

  16. Catarina, I agree with your ideas. I think it is an example of the quote by Lao Tzu – "Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a Lifetime"

  17. Catarina, again a really interesting post. For companies or governments to do this would need long term commitment not only from them but also the countries involved. As with any business venture it takes time and fine tuning from lessons learnt to make sure it is worthwhile for all involved.

  18. Catarina, This is a wonderfully uplifting story. I’m continually amazed at the impact that the Internet has had globally. It makes it so easy to build awareness of causes and issues and unites people in developing countries with the rest of the world.

  19. EXCELLENT post Catarina. Though raised in the US, my roots are in India. I've witnessed charitable donations to women in villages in the form of sewing machines and tutorials on how to use them. What a win win situation to see these fine ladies sustain themselves and their families while also contributing to the local… and in some cases global markerts. I'm a big fan of supporting the hard working "little guy". I'm also inclined to think that the majority of these people are inclined to be honest about organic fabrics or ingredients.

  20. Catarina,
    USAID ( under "missions" at their website) is also doing a fantastic job of teaching people in developing countries how to be environmentally friendly and economically sustainable, such as teaching sewing skills, business classes, and more. As you read in one of my articles there is a huge problem with the Environment and Development and where we draw the line. This has been a pervasive problem throughout the world, so I agree, while USAID and UNCTAD may be making progress in this area there is a profound need for other organizations to get involved.

  21. An excellent idea, Catarina. Intellectual Property (IP) is a readily exportable commodity; couple it with access to raw materials (cotton, fragrances, natural dyes…) and a pool of affordable labour and you could certainly build an industry.

    What's more, "African Fashion" – as an example – doesn't have to be about indigenous patterns, etc., that might nor work in the big Western markets (although there will be a place for that, too). A good example of international fashion can be found at a place called YDE (Young Designers Emporium) in Jo'burg: young designers produce limited runs of their designs and people can purchase these off the peg. Some good, some bad – but it gives the opportunity to be noticed.

    Take this to the next level with an international show for the buyers from the western retailers and the results could be interesting, indeed.

    It all goes back to the "Teach a man to fish" proverb that I've mentioned before.

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