Old-School Journal Leder Spotted in the Wild

The paper finds greenwashing in the jungle by Estée Lauder

The Wall Street Journal has a superb page-one story today about greenwashing—the reality behind an American company’s marketing of an Amazonian Indian tribe.

The Journal spent a good amount of money and time on this one. It shows, and it pays off.

This story is part National Geographic, part old-school WSJ leder—the kind of deeply reported, off-the-news story that set the pre-Murdoch paper apart from competitors but that we don’t see nearly as much anymore. John Lyons reports from deep inside the Amazon jungle on how Estée Lauder-owned Aveda uses the Yawanawá Indian tribe to market its expensive line of Aveda makeup.

Here’s the killer lede:

MUTUM, Brazil—In a remote Amazon village a full day by canoe from the nearest road in western Brazil, Yawanawá Indians in grass skirts gather around a pile of urukum, a spiky fruit they use to make body paint, and pose for two photographers from the U.S. beauty firm Aveda.

The images will help Aveda, a unit of Estée Lauder, sell its popular Uruku line of lipsticks, eye shadows and facial bronzers that use the plant as coloring. The company can charge a premium for products that look good and, at the same time, help save the rain forest by giving the tribe a sustainable livelihood.

But there’s something wrong with this picture. For starters, the Yawanawá don’t produce much urukum. They delivered none of it to Aveda between 2008 and 2010. Also, urukum itself isn’t as exotic as Aveda portrays it in a documentary-style video on its website. Best known as annatto, it’s an inexpensive food coloring, grown commercially around the world, that gives products like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese an orange hue.

Could you ask for a better hook? Manhattan corporation uses exotic Indian tribe to create an image and brand that’s totally misleading, with the kicker that “touch-feely yuppies,” as Hamilton Nolan calls them, are slathering Kraft Macaroni & Cheese coloring on their faces.

This is ultimately a marketing story, and it’s a revealing look at how hollow you should assume marketing is—the kind of thing that pollutes our brainspace with false notions of reality.

But, importantly, the broader story of Aveda’s interactions with the Yawanawá is more complicated than “bad American company takes advantage of primitive Amazonians to snooker consumers”. Lyons and the Journal are good to give the nuances here. Aveda has given real help to the tribe in exchange for their image. Here’s the nut graph, which explains how things have evolved (or devolved):

Aveda’s two-decade partnership with the Yawanawá is among the longest running tests of the idea that big firms can profit and also help the planet through business relationships with rain-forest villages, empowering them to protect their land. It is also a cautionary tale about the enormous cultural and logistical obstacles that can prevent such linkups from functioning as advertised.

There is little doubt Aveda has helped the tribe in many important ways, such as improving access to health care, education and government services. But the venture has failed to make the Yawanawá self-sufficient. The market value of its crop in an average year is around $500, not enough to sustain a population of 700. It has no other customers besides Aveda. Today, the project is basically a form of philanthropy, wherein the tribe gets aid in exchange for providing small amounts of annatto and an uplifting storyline.

But the interaction with Aveda has had consequences, too. An Aveda consultant had an affair with the chief, which “inflamed criticism about how entwined Aveda had become in tribal life,” and the tribe split in two over disputes about how to handle the money it gets from the company.

And the falsness of the marketing is laid bare by the fact that the partnership is hardly “sustainable.” The Yawanawá produce $500 of urukum in an average year.

Aveda initially misled the Journal on its urukum sourcing, saying it got all of it from the Yawanawá, only to correct itself a couple of months later. How much, we’re not told, but we can infer that it gets the vast majority from non-Yawanawá sources. Aveda wants two tons of the stuff, but only got 141 pounds this year, which was all they’d gotten since 2007.

But even leaving aside all that, this is just a great yarn. Here’s the kicker:

During their recent trip to Mutum, a group of bug-bitten Aveda executives spent time learning the Yawanawá ways. They bathed in the river and painted their faces to take part in ceremonies.

On the final night, the group gathered around a fire to drink the tribe’s sacred hallucinogenic tea. “We can’t spend all our time farming,” says Tashka. “We need time to dance, to sing, to fish.”

More like this, please.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , ,