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Fair Enough? Absolutely

Introducing the world’s first certified Fair Trade vanilla absolute. So what is the real meaning behind 'Fair Trade?'*

*Lush are currently unable to buy vanilla from this source due to poor crops and bad harvests, but we look forward to receiving this beautiful ingredient again in the future. To find out more, please read this article here. 

The clouds lift and the Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzori, in Western Uganda, are revealed in all their magnificence. This is the source of the River Nile and also the source of the world's first certified Fair Trade vanilla. The area itself is perfect for growing vanilla with hills covered in tropical vegetation, rich and damp soils and a high altitude which results in slow-growing, potent beans with an intense aroma.

 Lulu Sturdy inherited an estate here from her uncle in 1999. She took on an ailing farm that was making losses on various crops including coffee and bananas, yet in just seven years transformed the farm’s fortunes. Lulu is now at the helm of one of the world’s first Fair Trade vanilla exportation cooperatives which employs 1,200 Fair Trade farmers, all of whom owning their own land close to Ndali. The Mubuku Fairtrade farming co-operative – groups of local famers who have joined forces – and the Ndali Estate, grow the top quality Fair Trade organic vanilla beans. The Mubuku Fairtrade farmers supplying the estate have been working hard to develop new techniques to encourage growth and are paid fairly for their efforts.

Lulu says: “It’s extremely rare to be able to sell all your product at Fair Trade prices as the world market has often been unwilling to pay up to five times more for Fair Trade vanilla. This is because the non-Fair Trade price is so low that it does not allow farmers to break even. For a very long time we were only able to sell 20-35% of our farmers’ crop as Fair Trade but we’re now able to sell at least 70% of the crop at Fair Trade prices.”

Vanilla beans, or pods, are the dried unripe fruits of the orchid Vanilla planifolia. It is thought to have originated in Mexico where indigenous bees sometimes pollinate the flowers, each blossom producing a single bean. In Uganda, there aren’t enough of these bees to do the job. Instead, each flower is pollinated by hand using a small needle – a method which was pioneered in the nineteenth century. Farmers’ plantations are small, averaging 250 vines per half-acre, and require huge amounts of tender loving care in training,pruning, mulching and hand pollinating. Around the Mountains of the Moon, it sometimes takes five-to-seven years to break even with a vanilla crop.

An incredibly labour-intensive crop to grow, vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron.

The concept of fair trade is an odd one. It is reasonable to expect everyone to deal in fair trade. Why do otherwise?

This painstaking and costly process leads many cosmetics companies to use synthetic vanilla in their products as vanillin molecules can be easily and cheaply reproduced in laboratories.

It takes several months to produce vanilla absolute, which is the thick, sweet-smelling brown substance that is extracted from the beans.The vanilla beans are harvested after eight-to-nine months and are boiled in water for three minutes. Over the next four months, they are dried slowly in the sun for around two hours per day, then covered in blankets and taken in at night to stimulate the chemical process which causes vanillin crystals to develop.

The concept of fair trade is an odd one. We hope everyone deals in fair trade. Why do otherwise?

Ndali beans are very unusual in that a high proportion develop iridescent vanillin crystals on their surface - this is like the champagne of vanilla, only more rare. To achieve this they have to be nurtured, harvested and cured using exceptional methods, which Ndali, understandably, keep secret.

Once the beans are ready, they journey to France where they are transformed into the Fair Trade vanilla for use in beautiful skin and haircare products.

Agnès, from the Lush Buying team, was closely involved in sourcing the Ndali beans. She says: “We wanted to work on producing our own vanilla absolute for a long time as it is an amazingly beautiful ingredient which we are passionate about.This is the result of a long journey which involved finding the right vanilla producer and ensuring that the quality of their beans was high enough as well as finding people to work with to produce our absolute. The Fair Trade vanilla beans create a beautiful vanilla absolute and by using this ingredient we also support the hard work of the Fair Trade vanilla growers in Uganda.” Fair enough?

 As Lulu says: “We focused on the Fair Trade market because it was the only thing that made sense to me: isn’t it natural to want to work with happy people, and find the most harmonious working relationship with your suppliers?”

Sourcing Fair Trade ingredients allows farmers to receive a fair price for their hard work and customers to receive a high quality ingredient. It's should be as simple as that. Yet the administration fees charged by certifying bodies and a market saturated with cheap, alternatives makes it all the more difficult for Fair Trade producers to earn a living. 

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