Sustainable ventures bloom in long-exploited Latin America

Sustainable cosmetics, waste management and eco-tourism have sprung up across Latin America, reversing a history of human, economic and environmental exploitation. John Dyer reports.

Cosmetics are not usually considered a sustainable business: petrochemicals are a mainstay in makeup, the packaging is often expensive, and cosmetics often perpetuate beauty ideals that most people find difficult to match.

But Natura, the biggest cosmetics company in Brazil, is an exception.

Holistic view of corporate mission

When Antonio Luiz da Cunha Seabra founded the company in São Paulo in 1969, he took a holistic view of his corporate mission, saying he was “trying to share in a proper way”, wrote Harvard University Business Professor Geoffrey Jones in a recent study.

Sporting a $12.3 billion market capitalisation, Natura now promotes body acceptance, produces products from local sustainable Brazilian bio-diverse goods, avoids animal testing, shuns markets like China and Russia where environmental concerns are secondary, and donates significant sums to schools throughout Brazil.

In 2001, it adopted the Global Reporting Initiative, which helps business communicate their environmental impact and other sustainable issues to the public. The company has been carbon neutral since 2007. In 2014, Natura became the largest and first publicly traded company in the world to obtain B Corp certification denoting positive social and environmental benefits.

Reversing a history of exploitation

Natura is a symbol of the green, sustainable businesses that have grown in Latin America in recent years, reversing the history of exploitation that marked the region’s modern origins.

“Capitalism has created much wealth, but at the cost of massive ecological destruction,” wrote Jones. “This has been particularly severe in Latin America over the past century. Yet the last three decades have also seen a wave of businesses across sectors ranging from beauty to eco-tourism aimed at greater sustainability.”

Jones describes how Portuguese and Spanish colonisers raped the land, deforesting large swathes of territory in the 19th century, practising damaging agriculture and herding, and extracting other animals and other resources. Later, American corporations did the same.

“The banana plantations of the United Fruit Company and other US firms were notorious for damaging the soil: the firm would simply move to another region when the ecological damage was too great,” wrote Jones.

Double-edged sword of development

Developments like hydroelectric dams and other advances in more recent years were double-edged swords, he added. They fostered independence in countries long struggling to grow economically and didn’t necessarily emit greenhouse gases, but they wrought damage on local ecosystems.

But sustainable cosmetics, waste management and eco-tourism have sprung up in response to this unsustainable past, prompting movements like in Chile where citizens changed the constitution to ensure “the right to live in an unpolluted environment.”

On the outskirts of mega-cities like Mexico City, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, huge dumps had accumulated, dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Sense of solidarity with Earth and humanity

But Jones writes that an economy of scavengers – catadores in Brazil, guajeros in Guatemala, and cartoneros in Argentina – have developed to pick through the trash, often recycling 90 per cent of the waste.

The waste pickers eventually forced professional societies and trade groups throughout Latin America, eventually forming the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Recyclers, or LACRE, which included representatives from 17 countries.

A similar sense of solidarity with the Earth and humanity took root in Costa Rica, where eco-tourism has supplanted many of the extractive industries that were formerly the economic drivers of the Central American country.

Jones noted how two Costa Rican brothers shut down their cattle farming on their remote farm after they realized scientists and, later, tourists, would pay to see a beautiful resplendent quetzals and similar wildlife.

Ecotourism now generates around $7 billion in revenues supports 271,000 jobs in Costa Rica, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Forests now cover around 40 per cent of the country, too.

It’s a success that has created a financial as well as a natural thriving ecosystem.

“The Costa Rican ecotourism industry came to benefit from strong clustering, as the entire country grew as a green brand,” wrote Jones. “This lowered entry barriers for new ventures, which could focus on establishing the credibility of their own firms; the argument and the infrastructure were by now in place to support tourism.”

Image credit: Agustín Diaz via Unsplash

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