There is now little doubt in our minds that our every-day actions and the decisions we make do matter and do leave their mark on the environment, sometimes in a disproportionately large way. Just like the butterfly that flapped its wings and caused a hurricane, our choice of moisturiser can, potentially clear a forest.
The Cosmetic Industry, being inseparably linked to how we look and feel, has, since its inception used our aspirations as a means of selling us more and edging us closer to a reality that is more desirable for ourselves. Increasingly this narrative has been underpinned by our love for and our desire to protect the natural world while, at the same time taking from it in the form of plant-derived ingredients. The issue now facing us is that plant-derived ingredients require farming, that successful farming requires a predictable climate or, at the very least, a run of amiable weather and what the future is promising us is nothing short of chaos.
Global increases in temperatures are just one aspect of the challenges being faced by farmers of cosmetic ingredients and food alike. This, paired with variations in rainfall, often manifesting as flooding summer rains followed by high evaporation rates as opposed to steady winter showers are adding immense pressure to an agricultural system that is already struggling to respond to the food needs of a growing population. A growing population equals more mouths to feed and as many cosmetic ingredients are edible this can end up in a battle for resources - food versus face!
In addition to rain pattern and volume changes and an upward trend in global temperatures the modern-day farmer faces a very real challenge when it comes to finding suitable land, both in terms of space to farm and of soil quality. The competition between farmland and urban sprawl plays out at the edges of our global cities while, in the background the fight for forest over farms causes global indignation - disputing policies over land use and rezoning for agriculture being a key factor behind the palm oil free movement. Add to that the rising costs of energy including fuel to run tractors and processing facilities, the impacts of air pollution on crop yields and the financial instability faced by many in the farming community and it becomes obvious that we need to sit up and pay attention now.
Climate related events have been impacting on the cosmetic industry supply chain with increasing frequency over the past few years and, at a time when more and more members of the public are wanting to have a relationship with a particular farm as part of their marketing strategy and brand integrity promise - the farm-to-face movement. However, it looks increasingly likely that single farm supply relationships will become less viable as we move into the future. A diverse and flexible supply chain may be the only tangible way forward.
Below are some examples of how we, at New Directions, have been impacted by climate events over the last year of running our business in sourcing ingredients for you and your brands.
Australia - Olive Oil, Honey, Beeswax and Essential Oils
Australia is still the only place in the world to be free of the veroa mite and as such our beeswax, honey and bee products are highly sought after on the global market place. However, drought conditions across Australia have been so severe that bee product yields are down and supply is short. Pollen levels out in farming communities have been very low thanks in part to the dry weather but also due to increased land clearing and mono-cropping which can often mean that there is actually more pollen for bees in the cities than there is out in the country. This has implications for how we farm bees in future and how the supply chain for honey and wax works with it becoming increasingly likely that honey and wax will come from many small producers or co-ops than one large supplier as has typically been the case, especially with speciality honeys that rely on bees foraging predominantly on one crop such as jellybush or manuka.
It isn't just Australia that is suffering on the bee front, California has been in prolonged drought also and beekeeper losses have been reported as high as 50-60%. Meanwhile Kentucky has had record-breaking rains that have also resulted in hive losses as the bees don't forage and aren't as healthy in flood conditions.
Agonis Fragrans Essential Oil
In 2016 bushfires raged through a key Agonis Fragrans essential oil production area razing it to the ground. While bushfires are a feature of the Australian landscape and a weather event that many native species of tree and animal rely on as part of their lifecycle fires are becoming increasingly frequent and many are burning hotter thanks to changes in the way land is managed and in how the climate is responding. The crops have started to recover since then but it was a stark reminder of how fragile some of our supply chains really are, especially with something as specialised as a boutique essential oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The production of Extra Virgin Olive Oil involves some sacrifices, specifically around yield so while you do get a better price for your product (if it measures up), the amount of oil you produce is lower than it would otherwise be. This is because olives are picked earlier when their oil levels are lower and they also have to be processed quicker to reduce the change of oxidation while the oil sits waiting in the fruit. These tighter production requirements put added stress on the farmer and make the production of this grade more weather-critical than it is with other grades of oil, there are simply less days that one can hold off on harvesting thus meaning that bad weather on or around that time can affect a whole crop. In Australia total olive oil production was at its highest ever in 2014-2015 but has since dropped somewhat and it is those depleted reserves plus harsher weather conditions that have contributed to a tightening of supply this season.
Globally Olive Oil is growing in popularity for its health and wellbeing benefits and of course, it's the highest-grade oil that is most desirable meaning stocks can often run tight even without the weather being an issue. This year there are predictions that Italy will run out of olive oil by April due to a disastrous harvest that saw prices of what oil there was available rise by 31%. Italy's woes were climate related thanks to heavy rains, the early onset of winter and infestation by a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa which stunts crop growth. This tightening of supply in a time when demand is booming is seeing prices rise and the product run short globally.
West Africa - Shea Butter
Shea grows across the dry savanna belt of west Africa and as such it is well accustomed to life in a dry environment. However, the climate is shifting towards higher average temperatures which are leading to higher levels of water evaporation thus pushing the area closer to desertification. On the ground, these changes are already taking effect with the rain that is around typically falling as sudden heavy rain rather than the smaller, more regular showers that used to be typical of this region. This has started to impact the harvest of Shea Nuts leading to delays, lower stock levels and, as a consequence prices are again rising.
Sri Lanka - Flooding Affecting Trade In Spices
Sri Lanka is no stranger to flooding rain and in December 2018 they were hit with a flood event that displaced 75,000 people in the northern province. This disaster came only two years after a similar flood event affected over 300,000 people in 2016 and caused a 40% drop in rice production the following year as flooding rain was followed by drought conditions into 2017. Sri Lanka is a supplier of various spices including Ginger, Cinnamon, Lemongrass, Clove, Vanilla and Turmeric to the cosmetic industry and along with the excessive rains came landslides which destroy crops not just for one season but for many as top soil is eroded and moved downstream.
South Africa - National Emergency
South Africa's productive Western Cape has been under severe climate stress over recent years due to prolonged drought. Farm yields are predicted to be down by 20% across the board this year with wheat, apple, grapes and pear crops being most affected. South Africa has declared it a national emergency and has diverted more money into immediately trying to secure water supplies for its cities which are perilously close to running dry - water security, especially fresh, clean, water security is an emerging issue for everywhere across the globe as the climate becomes increasingly unpredictable. New Directions sources a range of essential oils from this region and these too are affected by a reduction in rainfall in the region.
Natural Cosmetics, an Uncertain Future?
There is no doubt that the climate is becoming increasingly unstable and that with the instability comes variability in supply and quality of some of the ingredients we rely on to produce our cosmetics. We would be wise not to forget that we are often competing for cosmetic stock with food markets both globally and domestically - Shea Butter is a common food staple in West Africa as is Palm Oil in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is tempting to see these exotic global specialities as just exciting novelties for our amusement and pleasure when the reality can be one of life or death for the nations that produce them and I'm not just talking about the far-flung ingredients here. Farmers all over the world struggle mentally and financially to survive when nature, the hardest task master, plays up on them.
There is a small movement starting in the cosmetic industry away from primary or virgin food crops. Ingredients are being created from food waste, materials that we currently see as weeds, non-edible sea-based plants and crops that can thrive on marginal pasture as a way of decreasing our reliance on tying up prime food producing land. There is also a rising movement concerning water use, especially at the consumer end of the supply chain with brands looking increasingly at waterless products, concentrates and fast-rising formulations as a way of preserving fresh water stock. In addition, brand owners are looking more and more closely at how their finished products impact the waterways they are inevitably washed away into. These actions all play a part in creating a buffer against an uncertain climate.
As a final word it seems to me that as an industry we have tended towards viewing the natural world as a sort of novelty box that we pop our hand into a pull out a miracle ingredient whenever we need a new point-of-difference or story to tell. We have allowed ourselves to fantasise about how these ingredients came to be whilst not having to engage in the day-to-day dramas that hide in their flesh, leaves, oil or seeds. I believe that time is now over and that in order to maintain the industry and our brand diversity in a time of increasing global climate chaos we have to wake up to the reality of the world and truly appreciate and understand the journey of our ingredients from cradle to grave. Not just so that we can become instafamous but so we can be part of a movement that truly is investing in our future.
The climate is changing and we should too.
12 April 2019