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Finance & Investment
Estée Lauder Companies Advances Financial Literacy for Women in Shea Supply Chain

The ELC Charitable Foundation’s work supports programs at the intersection of environmental sustainability and social impact, including investments in communities around the ELC supply chain.

Sometimes called “women’s gold,” shea’s skyrocketing popularity as a food and cosmetic ingredient has created potential for both economic opportunity and exploitation of women. Shea harvest and processing is undertaken predominantly by women, who suffer disproportionately from risks associated with running and maintaining a small business in the ingredient’s native region of central Africa. In Ghana alone, shea provides economic opportunity to 470,000 women; and illustrating the adage “when women rise, they take others with them,” these women use their shea income to pay for their children’s education, food and healthcare, inextricably tying the shea supply chain to the wellbeing of women and their families.

As a major purchaser of shea, Estée Lauder Companies (ELC) sees investments in the women who cultivate it as water that lifts all boats.

“When you invest in women, you see that they will in turn invest in their family and their community at large,” said Mindi DeLeary, head of Global Responsible Sourcing at ELC, on a pre-recorded video made available to Sustainable Brands®. “So, you see this really beautiful ripple effect that goes beyond your initial investment.”

With support from the Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation (ELCCF), Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) developed and piloted a financial-resilience training program for women in northern Ghana’s shea supply chain — women who have historically lacked control over resources, training and education, and financial independence.

ELCCF complements the work of the Responsible Sourcing team at ELC through philanthropic investments to help overcome the gaps and challenges that stand in the way of achieving ELC’s social and environmental responsibility goals. ELCCF’s portfolio of work supports programs at the intersection of environmental sustainability and social impact, including investments in communities around the ELC supply chain — such as a program improving conditions and livelihoods for plastic-waste collectors in India.

Starting in 2022, BSR launched pilot projects in the Ghanaian communities of Janshegu and Mole Crema. Women in these communities didn’t need help harvesting or processing shea (they’ve been doing it for thousands of years, after all). What they wanted was financial literacy to improve their profits, invest in their communities, and leave brighter prospects for their children. 80 local female shea workers volunteered as peer educators — leading discussions on workplace-based interventions to promote financial resilience and gender equity. The program has reached 1000 women with financial training aimed at helping women start, run, maintain, and grow their shea operations and leverage their resources for healthier communities.

At the start of the program, fewer than half of all women in both Janshegu and Mole Crema:

  • Tracked their income

  • Had a monthly savings plan, or

  • Felt comfortable talking about finances with their families.

By the end of the program, 98 to 100 percent of the same women had incorporated these financial tools into their daily lives.

The shea pilot program builds on the success of a BSR program launched with two of ELC’s packaging suppliers in 2020. The shea program is now being adapted to pilot a new BSR initiative engaging women in the palm supply chain in Indonesia. Both shea and palm are known sensitive ingredients in ELC’s supply chain, each with their own social and environmental risks — making sourcing these sensitive ingredients a complicated business.

“As a company, we do not believe in walking away from a sensitive supply chain simply because it poses complex issues,” said Rachel Tulchin, Executive Director of Philanthropic Partnerships at ELC. “Due to the complexity of many ingredient supply chains, a 360° approach is needed; and social investments can be a solution to improving livelihoods and making a positive impact.”

As such, these sensitive ingredients are the focus of ELCCF’s broader efforts to expand equity in supply chains and encourage the broader beauty industry to join its ranks. Like the Ghana shea program, the Indonesia palm program is designed to provide a scalable workplace-intervention model beyond the pilot project.

“The [shea] pilot provided evidence that this program is meeting a need for women workers in shea; and I’m happy to report that stakeholders across industry have now expressed interest in getting involved,” Tulchin said. “The continuation of this partnership will work to develop a scale of this model; so, these trainings and learnings can become available for others across the shea industry and beyond.”

ELC sees its outsized influence as an important lever for starting and scaling systemic change. But the company knows it’ll take more than a few publicized pilot projects to move the needle.

“When it comes to gender equity in supply chains, the work isn’t done,” DeLeary said. “We hope that through this pilot program, we can demonstrate impact and some key learnings that we can take and apply further into new agricultural settings and to new geographies; and we also hope that by sharing the story and the success that we can inspire others to action.”

“Global challenges require collaboration, innovation and creativity,” Tulchin said. “Advancing gender equality, racial equity, diversity and inclusion, and supporting communities are complex spaces and require a longer-term view. We are excited about the journey we are on to work with others — across industries and sectors — to accomplish more at scale, together.”