Beautiful Thing

Years ago, Aveda and a struggling Brazilian tribe forged a trading relationship both sides hoped would produce a profit. The result? A business that makes dollars and sense.

Evan Miller was packed and prepared. His luggage contained only the necessities. He’d invested in multiple vaccinations and bug spray that was 100-percent DEET. But Miller, the director of global communications for the beauty-products maker Aveda, based in Blaine, knew that nearly everything he’d packed could vanish in a moment. The rule was, if the canoe tips, camera gear gets saved first. The rest was expendable.

It was the summer of 2010, and Miller and three colleagues were journeying through Acre, a state in far-western Brazil. Approximately the size of Tunisia, Acre (pronounced AH-cray) is covered mostly with rainforest. Its population numbers roughly half a million. The capital, Rio Branco, is large enough to have an airport, but travelers touching down there soon discover that reaching Acre’s smaller towns and villages involves bumping down dirt roads and boating up Rio Gregório, an Amazon tributary. Below the river’s clay-muddied surface lurk piranhas and crocodile, while above it, insects swarm. Gregório wends its way through 190,000 hectares of protected rainforest, a unique habitat that may hold up to one-third of all of the earth’s species—and that’s just an estimate. Scientists believe many of the rainforest’s inhabitants remain undiscovered.

Eventually, Miller and his entourage arrived at their destination: a remote village established centuries ago by an indigenous tribe known as the Yawanawa. The Yawanawa have resisted many modern developments and made an effort to preserve their culture and sacred land. On special occasions, members adorn their bodies with a vibrant red-orange pigment, derived from the seeds of the locally grown urukum plant. The color is rich, bright, and beautiful, and it is this alluring red hue that has drawn Miller—and Aveda—to Acre.

Aveda first connected with the Yawanawa in the early 1990s, when the company’s founder, Horst Rechelbacher, was introduced to the tribe’s former chief at a climate summit in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly thereafter, hoping to stimulate local production of urukum, a crop that might provide income to the tribe and could serve as an ingredient in the company’s organic product lines, Rechelbacher gave the Yawanawa people some 13,000 urukum-palm seedlings. The tribe intermixed the seedlings with their Brazil nut trees, banana trees, guarana, and mahogany. Each December, they harvest the seed pods from the mature trees and dry them in the sun.

Aveda uses seeds bought from the Yawanawa to make pigments for coloring in shampoos, cosmetics, and packaging. Over the last 33 years, the company has made a name for itself by making products with organic and plant-derived ingredients. But working with the Yawanawa also fulfilled Rechelbacher’s dream of assisting communities around the world that might not have the resources to help themselves. The company says it pays the Yawanawa roughly $5.50 a kilogram for the urukum seeds, instead of the standard market price of 50 cents per kilo.

The relationship has helped the Yawanawa revive their dying culture. (At one point, the tribe numbered less than 200. The current population is approximately 800 members.) Income from urukum sales to Aveda has built schools and medical clinics. Aveda has also helped the tribe convert engines from diesel to bio-diesel models, reducing the Yawanawa’s dependence on petroleum and outside energy sources. Additionally, the Yawanawa have been beneficiaries of Aveda’s annual Earth Month fundraising campaign, held each April. With money raised during Earth Month, the tribe was able to dig wells—a vital source of clean water in a region where many waterways and reservoirs are polluted.

The tribe’s relationship with Aveda has not only allowed the tribe to survive, it has also aided the Yawanawa in fending off advances that might erode their culture. When Tinderacre, a development company, sought access to resources on land the tribe considers sacred, Aveda backed the tribe’s decision to stage a peaceful canoe face-off with the firm. The company often intervenes on the Yawanawa’s behalf with the government and special-interest lobbies. “Aveda is our bodyguard,” says Tashka, the tribe’s current chief.

Tashka, who has led the Yawanawa since 2001, is proud of the relationship his tribe has forged with Aveda. Named as chief by the tribe’s shaman at age 26 and given the task of saving his tribe from extinction, Tashka attended college in the United States on Aveda funds, and he has become an international spokesman for the Yawanawa and other native tribes worldwide. He occupies a seat on the Council for Indigenous People with the United Nations, has met Prince Charles, and has spoken alongside former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He has a Facebook page. (When Miller left Brazil last summer, he asked Tashka, “When do you think we will see each other again?” Tashka replied, “How about Denver? I’m speaking with the Dalai Lama then.”)

The Yawanawa was the first community Aveda partnered with, but today it is just one initiative in a diverse portfolio of social justice and environmentally conscious projects that Aveda manages. For instance, Aveda has maintained a relationship with a Bulgarian family that produces lavender for the company. Aveda paid to have the family trained in organic farming practices and compensated them for the time their farmland lay fallow so it could be certified for organic production. And Aveda has promoted fair-trade purchasing of sandalwood from an aboriginal tribe in Australia. The company now buys all of its sandalwood-oil supply from this tribe.

Overall, through partnerships or grant funding, Aveda supports projects in 30 countries on six continents. Much of the money is managed by Global Greengrants, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado. Jessica Sherman, director of special initiatives at Global Greengrants, says that the nonprofit usually eschews corporate donations, relying instead on individuals for funding. But when Aveda asked the organization to serve as the primary administrator for disbursing company funds to global projects, Global Greengrants asked more than 120 advisors—including human-rights activists, lawyers, and environmental scientists—to review the Minnesota company’s labor practices, supply-chain ethics, and sourcing. Ultimately, Aveda passed the purity test. Today, Aveda is Global Greengrants’s largest donor. “Many corporations get caught up in short-term outcomes,” Sherman says, “but Aveda is committed to doing the right thing long-term. These successes develop over generations.”

In 1997, when Horst Rechelbacher sold his business to cosmetics giant Estée Lauder for $300 million, many customers worried that Aveda’s commitment to environmental and social causes, including its trade with the Yawanawa, would deteriorate. Things have changed, says Gigi Abbadie, marketing director for Aveda’s Earth Month campaign, but in a way that makes it easier to map successes: “Estée Lauder wants us to quantify and unify our results,” she says. Tashka says the ties between Aveda’s corporate headquarters in Blaine and his village in Acre have been improved by the ownership change. “We talk chief-to-chief,” Tashka says of his direct line to Aveda president Dominique Conseil.

Indeed, the bosses at Estée Lauder have begun looking to Aveda for direction on environmental issues. For example, Clinique, La Mer, and the brand’s namesake product line all use very high-end packaging, Miller says, including lots of glass and plastic. The corporation recently turned its eye to creating packaging out of post-consumer recycled content, appointing Aveda’s head of packaging to oversee packaging for all Estée Lauder brands. Following Aveda’s lead, Estée Lauder has also begun purchasing carbon offsets for manufacturing facilities.

The community and environmental investments are important, says Aveda Natural Resources advisor David Hircock. He calls them intangible economies—things that don’t visibly impact corporate profits, but in the long run make for a better world and better products. The benefits may not always be directly measurable, but they are real: “The thing that ends conflict anywhere long term is access to decent food, health, education, and water,” Hircock says. “And if you can provide that kind of security through your buying, I mean…wow. It would make a huge difference.”

Even skeptics agree that Aveda seems to walk its talk. In 2000, at an international conference, Tashka met filmmaker and social-advocacy activist Josh Thome. Impressed by the chief, Thome struck a deal to make a film about the Yawanawa, told from the tribe’s vantage point. Thome visited the tribe in 2002, 2003, and 2006 to film and edit the movie and future TV show with Tashka and Tashka’s wife, Laura, by his side.

Aveda only gets a brief mention in the movie, and Thome admits he wasn’t sure at first if the company’s involvement with the tribe was a good thing. He worried about exploitation. But eventually, he says, he was won over. “This is a new model for helping communities. The languages, the cultures being lost are epic; we need all those ways of living in this world….” Thome trails off. “Aveda has been so real and committed to the community—and it’s helped bring Tashka and Laura, who are superstar indigenous activists in their own right, to bring back pride in their culture and maintain it. Aveda has prepared the Yawanawa to be sustainable people. It proves that these partnerships can work.”

Aveda now uses red pigment from the urukum seeds in dozens of products, and those products are sold around the globe. Tashka isn’t surprised by the success of the whole venture—and the popularity of the products. “This red,” he says, “is a natural color for beauty.”

Katie Dohman is Minnesota Monthly‘s style editor.