From Forest to Face: Beauty seeking sustainable supply-chains


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Flowers of Candeia tree containing natural skin anti-irritant

For decades Brazil has been the butt of international criticism for its aggressive and often illegal deforestation of the Amazon forest.

But the nation is now turning the page on this smoke-wreathed past by emphasizing its new credentials as the guardian of around 20% of global biodiversity – and a sustainable provider of some of the world’s most desirable natural products for enhancing health, beauty and wellness.

A recent article in the Journal of Natural Products cited the development of a  database from the biodiversity of Brazil, as proof the country was coming of age as a major product source. The database,  designed  by the universities of  Sao Paulo (USP) and Sao Paulo state (UNESP), contains an index of 640 natural compounds,  compiled by researchers  Vanderlan Bolzani and Adriano Defini Andricopulo. Eventually, researchers say, the database will contain all Brazilian natural compounds with pharmaceutical  or wellness characteristics.

This  scholarly article, in a publication sponsored by  the American Chemical Society and the American Society of Pharmacognosy, shows how Brazilian academics are getting behind the new commercial impetus of bringing forest products to world  notice. The University of California’s ZINC database of  natural pharmaceuticals, is also carrying the Brazilian data. You can examine the new database (still in test phase) by clicking here.

In more commercial terms, Brazil is giving itself the mother of all cosmetic makeovers.

For centuries, the extraction of forest products followed chaotic and often-destructive patterns. Thousands of products including rubber, Brazil nuts, Açaí berries, hearts of palm, guarana energy additive, urucum food dye, cupuaçu pulp for ice-cream still make their way to export markets without proper certification.

Urucum natural food dye
Urucum natural food dye

But now, when talk turns to exploiting the forest, charm has replaced chainsaws and slash-and-burn is out. Beauty is in, and beauty is big business. Already, Brazil is the world’s third largest market for health and beauty products – and its potential has only barely been tapped.

From superfood fruit formulas charged with antioxidants, to subtle tropical fragrances, or those deep moisturizing oils that magic away wrinkles without relying on hidden chemicals, this is a natural beauty industry on a roll.

Thanks to its diverse climatic habitats, still-untapped flora, and rich community plant lore, Brazil looks like a beauty cream formulator’s paradise. What’s yet to be proven, however, is just how sustainable or robust are the supply chains for each one of these exciting new essences.

Brazil’s emerging talent for discovering, producing and delivering supplies of natural ingredients that are friendly to both face, physique and forest, is creating a new generation of eco-entrepreneurs who are building a sophisticated new industry.

No wonder then that L’Occitane, the French cosmetic brand, has played a pioneering role by singling out Brazil for plush spa treatment, as the source of its new global line of biodiversity-based products to be launched by 2014.

Mandacaru cactus and blossom
Mandacaru cactus and blossom

L’Occitane’s perfumiers spent two years scouting Brazil’s backlands to come up with a novel range of natural essences including creams based on the mandacaru cactus of the dry Northeast, and the fragrance of the jenipapo fruit. None of the products L’Occitane gathered from six distinct bio-zones, had ever been used before by the Brazilian natural cosmetics industry.

That’s not to say that Brazil’s own home-grown national champions are slouches. Local  retail giants Natura and O Boticário have both grasped the ethos pioneered by the UK’s Body Shop and taken it further, exploiting the engagement and enthusiasm of urban Brazilians for all things natural.

Jenipapo fruit
Jenipapo fruit

Founded in 1969, Natura is regularly voted the nation’s most admired brand, while its door-to-door, Avon-style army of female sales representatives totals almost 1.3 million across the length and breadth of Latin America.

Natura’s 2011 sales topped R$6.3 billion.  Leading a range of 1,000 products, Natura’s  Ekos cosmetic and fragrance lines based on Brazilian fruits, oils  and herbs, including Buriti palm, Brazil nuts,  passion fruit, cocoa butter and maté tea, have become national favorites.

In its home market, Natura is pushing at an open door. Recently, a market survey of 6,000 consumers worldwide (Re:Thinking Consumption: Consumers and the Future of Sustainability) found Brazilians to be the most idealistic andcause-based of all shoppers for natural products, so much so they were labelled as “advocates.” Radically different to pragmatic Americans or status-conscious Chinese, Brazilian women say they buy cosmetics “to make a difference” to the world and the environment.

Against this seemingly-smiling backdrop, it’s perhaps surprising to find some puzzled and frustrated voices inside the world of Brazilian natural cosmetics, especially for those working hard to produce truly certifiable natural ingredients that benefit local communities and the environment.

What’s happening is that the country’s bad old reputation for all things ecological is taking quite some time to shake off.  However squeaky-clean some of its supply chains may be, and however robust its sustainability regulators, from the foreign perspective a single rogue farmer busy with a matchbox during Amazonia’s dry season, can drag the country’s reputation back years.

Brazil is working hard to become fully sustainable, but not everyone’s quite there yet, and so the country remains an easy target. Why? Not surprisingly, this brash young newcomer on the global beauty scene is inciting some jealous commercial rivalry from those players it is beginning to displace.

On one side of the battle-line stand the international beauty industry’s traditional providers of artificial, petrochemical-based ingredients — that for years have discreetly formed the mainstay of “natural” cosmetics and beauty aids. On the other side stand Brazilians, with their natural, forest-based products. Once the supply chains for all these products are 100% proven sustainable, consumers will demand what’s truly natural.

Take the case of Brazil’s home-grown answer to the age-old problem of skin irritation.  For centuries, European herbalists have known that oil of the camomile flower contains a natural soothing ingredient. Widely used in concentrations of 1% after-shave creams, after-sun lotions and cosmetics, it acts as a powerful anti-irritant.

However, a kilo of the oil requires two hectare’s worth of flowering plants, and when refined to contain 100% Alpha-Bisabolol, this amount of active ingredient costs around US$4,500.

Camomile produces costly Alpha-Bisabolol
Camomile produces costly Alpha-Bisabolol

In the 1970s Brazilian chemists discovered that Candeia, a tree commonly found at the margins of the Atlantic rainforest, could produce oil containing 95% pure Alpha -Bisabolol at a cost today of just EUR 150 a kilo.

Demand for the Brazilian product grew steadily, as trade customers were channeled through a single buying agent, a German multinational named Symrise AG.  The world’s fourth largest supplier of cosmetic ingredients, Symrise had sales of EUR 1.58 billion in 2011.

The industry had grown to export an annual 100 tonnes of the refined oil, when European NGOs began raising questions about the role Symrise indirectly played in spurring Brazilian deforestation, although it had said the product was 100% sustainable.

Oil-bearing Candeia tree in Brazil's Atlantic coastal region
Oil-bearing Candeia tree in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal region

Local sources say Symrise at first made efforts to encourage its Brazilian producers to develop more sustainable practices. But then, fearful for its own reputation, the German company opted to expand its existing sales of artificial Alpha Bisabolol alternatives.

It funded the development of Dragosantol, an new synthetic compound.  Then, in late 2011, Symrise informed markets that had stopped harvesting oil from Brazilian Candeia trees, as production of natural Alpha Bisabolol was not sustainable.

It recommended customers switch to its Dragosantol product, even though this contained only 50% of the active ingredient in the natural formulation, gram for gram. Furthermore, earlier synthetic formulations contained farnesol, a substance that can provoke adverse skin reactions.

After the switch, Brazil’s export volumes shrank dramatically and export volumes for the EUR 100 million industry collapsed, leaving local producers of Bisabolol smarting. Without ongoing sales to Brazil’s own Natura, the industry would have ceased to function.

One company, Atina Natural Assets, a business based at Pouso Alegre in the Candeia tree producing regions, went ahead to secure internationally-recognised organic and sustainability certifications from ECOCERT and the Forestry Stewardship Council. Atina’s field teams ensure the highest level of compliance in harvesting, replanting and responsible management of woodlands.

11 year-old sector market leader Atina, which was producing some 25% of Brazil’s Alpha Bisabolol, believes it has now shown all the rigor necessary to reopen the export market, and that formulators should now listen to other voices besides that of Symrise.

Atina has, its executives claim, completely solved the supply chain problem and is offering a natural product technically superior to the  synthetic one, for a comparable wholesale price.

“Atina is leading the Brazilian industry for natural forest ingredients out of a period of disorganization and uncertainty,” said Juan Piazza, the company’s CEO. “Thanks to our own very high standard-setting on sustainability matters, markets can be sure that our all natural products are truly world class, while our supply chain is robust and reliable.”

Now, said Piazza: “European buyers who had switched to using synthetic Alpha-Bisabolol, can resume using the more effective natural product. We can give absolute confidence to buyers that our product is the best for skin, the best for the environment, and the best for reputation.”

During 2013 Atina plans to start exports of its own certified organic and sustainable natural product, and is actively marketing to cosmetic companies in Europe.  Its executives are touring leading cosmetics and natural beauty fairs, pitching their products – and their arguments – to formulators and buyers for  big companies like L’Oreal, Clarins, Beiersdorf and Body Shop.

As well as the natural anti-irritant, it has a diversified range of essential oils, dry extracts and cold-pressed oils from what it called “natural assets” — fruits, herbs, spices and forest plants.

There’s no doubt the supply chain for Alpha-Bisabolol is highly complex. Nor is there doubt that, when pressed, Brazilians are showing the world’s sustainability watchdogs they are well able to turn the page on centuries of bad old extractivist traditions, in order to deploy world-class rigor in supply chains.

Acai anti-oxidant "superberries" from Amazon palm.
Acai anti-oxidant “superberries” from Amazon palm.

Atina’s experience and the Alpha Bisabolol case has wider implications, suggesting that if Brazil’s natural products industry is to fulfill its promise, the supply chains for every active ingredient being sold overseas will need follow this company’s lead.

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