Making Work Personal and Changing Women’s Lives

By Shannon Hess, associate director – Responsible Sourcing for Burt’s Bees

I’m writing this from a truck in northern India, on yet another responsible sourcing adventure, thinking about all the people I’ve met traveling to trace natural ingredients for Burt’s Bees products.

Over 10 years, I’ve visited more than 25 countries and made 100+ site visits. Perhaps no ingredient means more to me than shea butter.

A member of one of the women’s groups Burt’s Bees supports in Ghana

Shea is helping to improve women’s lives and communities in West Africa

Throughout West Africa, the livelihoods of more than 16 million rural women depend at least in part on the collection and processing of shea kernels and butter for ingredients that go into food and cosmetics.

Northern Ghana, and especially the town of Tamale (whose name translates to “Home of Shea”), is one of the most important places for shea globally. I’ve been returning there every year on behalf of Burt’s Bees for the past decade and have witnessed the impacts of the shea economy on the surrounding communities.

Shea is an important ingredient in Burt’s Bees products. That’s why we were a founding member of the multi-stakeholder organization, Global Shea Alliance, which formed in 2011 with support from USAID. We now have more than 400 members in 30+ countries. Together, we represent the entire shea value chain, from women’s groups and nongovernmental organizations to ingredient suppliers and finished product manufacturers.

Traceable shea kernels being sold by women to a Burt’s Bees supplier in Ghana

Why is shea butter so important to me? Because ensuring we source it responsibly directly impacts the lives of women and entire communities. In many ways, women are the heart of shea. They collect the nuts and roast the kernels. They sell the kernels and make them into butter. And they decide how to spend their profits.

“The women of West Africa are powerful examples of the business partners we desire for Burt’s Bees,” said Matt Gregory, vice president and general manager of Burt’s Bees. “Their entrepreneurial spirit, strength and desire to make their communities thrive are the very qualities that emulate our founding principles in 1984.”

Burt’s Bees has funded several shea sustainability partnerships in Burkina Faso and Ghana through the Global Shea Alliance and USAID Sustainable Shea Initiative. Over the past three years, we’ve taught more than 4,000 women how to build safer, more fuel-efficient stoves with local materials, improving both capacity and quality of their roasted shea kernels. We’ve also supported trainings and construction of a warehouse and shea processing center, which will double the capacity of local women’s groups’ shea product production.

Last month, it was a thrill to have the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, Stephanie Sullivan, join us when we transferred ownership of our warehouse and processing center to the women’s group outside of Tamale.

We’re excited about these types of partnerships because they deliver tangible livelihood benefits in a traceable supply chain, two things that are very important to Burt’s Bees, and to me.

Shannon with Mary, treasurer of Tiyumtaba Women’s Group in Sorigu, Ghana

Shea: women’s economic empowerment

I caught a glimpse of our impact on a November 2019 visit to a shea kernel buying community outside Tamale. There, I saw one woman sell a new pair of shoes to another, who had just sold her shea kernels. I smiled because they were buying something that was at once practical and a form of self-expression. This is a small example of how helping women to produce high quality traceable shea products supports other sustainable business opportunities and empowerment.

Paula Alexander, director – Sustainable Business for Burt’s Bees, recently joined me on that trip to this same community and another shea warehouse and processing center we’re helping to build. There, she experienced for herself the power of shea to uplift communities.

“Trying to comprehend what kept one of our suppliers motivated to work so hard, from sunup to sundown, with these shea communities, I asked him,” she recalled. “He responded with, ‘The face of the woman.’ Having seen the joy, pride and gratitude on these women’s faces while they sold their shea kernels at market or how they transformed shea kernels into butter by hand, I immediately understood and was motivated myself to do more to enhance people’s livelihoods through our brand.”

Shea kernels stored in the new warehouse

The power of work that’s personal

Over 20 years, I’ve always worked for companies that matter to me, and where I can do the work that I believe matters.

I get to improve people’s lives through responsible sourcing of natural cosmetic ingredients and the products we make, and I’m deeply honored to be a woman leading this effort for Burt’s Bees and influencing The Clorox Company.

There are very few women, especially in the cosmetic industry, who get to travel to an ingredient’s source and learn from and experience the local practices.

Behind our ingredients, I see people I’ve met, places they live and work, and especially how their communities are evolving. The women of Tamale and I live vastly different lives. We’re separated by thousands of miles and on different continents. But we’re connected as women and as business partners.

The way we work in shea is a model to emulate for other natural ingredients. That’s why Burt’s Bees has begun similar community-building, economic-development practices elsewhere in the world in partnership with our suppliers.

On this International Women’s Day, I thank every woman who helps to share Burt’s Bees products with the world, whether she’s in a small village outside Tamale in northern Ghana, a corporate office or manufacturing plant in North Carolina, or sitting in northern India getting ready for another ingredient visit tomorrow morning.