It’s easy to think that only niche brands are doing good things via the world of beauty, but big brands have a conscience too. I traveled to Vietnam to meet the women who harvest the ginger leaf, a key ingredient the Kiehl’s Ginger Leaf & Hibiscus Firming Mask. And while shipping ingredients from the Vietnamese countryside is definitely not carbon-neutral, the farm is supporting local women and putting money back into the community while being both sustainable and organic. This raises an important question when it comes to beauty products: What’s important to you? Because with every purchase, you’re essentially voting with your hard-earned money.
A Woman’s Touch
But back to the farm. In 2017, Kiehl’s and Green Development Products, a company specializing in the organic certification of production, partnered up to produce ginger leaf for its new mask. What’s so interesting about this farm is that it’s all women. There are 14 of them aged 21 to 73 years old, and their work in the ginger field is supplementing their household income.
And, yes, I did say 73. “Older women continue to have a very important place in Vietnamese society, they are highly respected,” explains GDP’s Polonia Forero. “We developed our production method by integrating the elder women of the community who wanted to continue working. They’re in charge of easier tasks such as choosing the leaves, doing the packing, preparing labels, rather than the more intense fieldwork.”
While we were stood in the field and I was watching the team at work, I asked why it was all women. “According to the Vietnamese tradition, harvests are usually done by women. This work requires good dexterity and patience, the plants are fragile and the women are gentle,” our guide told me. “The collectors select each leaf according to their maturity, size, color. This is a way also to preserve the field and the ground.”
GDP ensures that the farm doesn’t use any pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In fact, this year they are undertaking a FairTrade certification process called “For Life,” which ensures sustainable development through respect for Human Rights, dignified working conditions, respect for the ecosystems, promotion of biodiversity and sustainable farming practices, as well as contribution to local development.
“The project allows us also to improve their working conditions by providing new tools and helping them to buy electric bicycles to facilitate their transport. We wanted the team to be identified in their own community as being a source that brings a new modern vision on agriculture, and the electric bikes represent that,” Forero tells me.
All the women I met on the day come from Chuong My’s village, and some are related. In Vietnam, women are encouraged to go out to work, and women can work in sectors that are traditionally viewed as being “male,” such as construction. Women with a good education tend to work in the city in an office, with agriculture often being the last resort. But GDP wants to change that view. “We want to show that university degree women and men, like GDP’s managers, can choose to dedicate their working life to the farming sector and that there is an entire world to change. The agricultural sector is a wonderful sector,” says Forero.
The women are responsible for the ginger leaf but also other crops like medicinal plants. They are paid for the hours they work, but they are also given a €5 bonus for every kilo of ginger leaf that they generate. This money goes into a common fund and is intended to reinforce the team mentality and further help to empower the women—they decide, as a team, how they want to spend the money earned.
Outside of the harvest season, there are fewer days of work available (around five to 10 tending to the plants), so the women will go to work on other farms, in factories, offices or schools. Of course, when you work with nature, it’s not always kind. Climates are changing, and crop yields can vary or in some cases be wiped out entirely. “There is no negotiation about the women’s salary, and whatever is the yield of a crop, they are paid for the hours they worked. It’s GDP who takes all risks from production to final distribution of products,” assures Forero.
Away From the Farm
A typical day on the farm in summer is from 7 to 11 a.m., then 2:30 to 5 p.m. They will manually tackle any weeds, arrange the field, multiply the plants, as well as water and clean them.
When women aren’t working, they will spend time with their family, which is important in Vietnam. Forero tells me spiritual trips, like visiting the Pagodes (a Buddhist temple) continue to be an important aspect of all Vietnamese people’s free time. “One important aspect of Vietnamese women’s lives is that it’s very common to benefit from skincare ‘soins’ (treatments) and massages. This is not reserved for the wealthy class, and it’s very common that at the end of the day they will go to a hair salon or to a massage center to have a relaxing moment.” In fact, that’s something I noticed in the capital of Hanoi, that is beauty trips are jaw-droppingly affordable, around $8 for a 60-minute massage that is comparable to many that you would pay upwards of $80.
There is a real sense of pride and community spirit on the farm, and every time I reach for a pot of the Kiehl’s Ginger Leaf & Hibiscus Mask, I’ll now think of those women. And while it’s just one ingredient, it symbolises for me a need for us all to question and understand more about the provenance of the ingredients contained in the products we use every day.