Home » ‘The Body Shop held our hand’: how the troubled British firm helped a recycling startup in India

‘The Body Shop held our hand’: how the troubled British firm helped a recycling startup in India

Sitting in a sultry corner of southern India, beside the rain trees and beaches of Mangalore, Shifrah Jacobs, the co-founder of Plastics for Change, smiles as she recalls how it all began. One thing she says she won’t ever forget is the Body Shop for its big-heartedness when her company was a wet-behind-the-ears startup.

The Body Shop, whose main UK business collapsed into administration in February, has closed more than 80 stores in its home market and is seeking a rescue deal with landlords, while outlets in the US, Canada and parts of Europe have also shut down.

While some of the small global suppliers to the high street retailer have expressed fears about being left with a glut of stock and an uncertain future, Plastics for Change is feeling optimistic.

The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, who died in 2007, was passionate about backing small-scale suppliers in remote areas to supply key ingredients in her products. The group worked with 18 community fair trade suppliers around the world, providing Brazil nut oil from Peru, sesame oil from Nicaragua and handmade recycled paper packaging from Nepal.

Shifrah Jacobs and Andrew Almack set up Plastics for Change in 2015. Photograph: Courtesy Plastics For Change

Jacobs and co-founder Andrew Almack set up Plastics for Change in 2015 with the idea of creating the first fair trade verified recycled plastic platform. It would connect waste pickers with scrap merchants and turn discarded plastic into high-quality recycled packaging. In doing so, it would help protect the environment and provide some of the estimated 2 million waste pickers who clean India’s city streets with a regular income and dignity.

Almack said that when he launched the company he was determined to get The Body Shop as a partner because no other company in the world had as much experience with fair trade supply chains. “I flew to a conference in Singapore specifically to meet with the sourcing director. I chased him down the hall as he was leaving the conference and pitched the concept of fair trade plastic.

“It took several years of working with The Body Shop and seven trips to their head office to achieve the community fair trade programme requirements and launch this initiative,” he says.

The Body Shop helped him not just with support but in sharing lessons from smallholder farmers that Almack could apply when connecting waste pickers with global brands. Since the launch of the partnership in 2019: “We’ve expanded our programmes in seven geographies and continue to use the philosophy of ‘Trade, Not Aid’ to help create a social impact through recycling,” says Almack.

Plastics for Change, based in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), in the southern state of Karnataka, and with operations across south India, has created a responsible supply chain to provide stable and fair incomes for waste pickers and meet global brands’ many packaging needs.

It was its partnership with the Body Shop that allowed much of this to happen; the company offered 30 years of experience to the startup, along with a lot of encouragement.

While the Body Shop had been sourcing its ingredients from developing countries for decades, it had not made the next step of sourcing recycled plastic to use as packaging.

Many global cosmetics companies still prefer to source recycled plastic without worrying about the original end of the supply chain, where waste collectors are paid low wages and exploited owing to a lack of regulation.

As she sits in the office next to the large outdoor shed where the discarded plastic arrives, Jacobs laughs when she recalls that she thought their idea of a fair trading platform was so good that waste pickers and scrap merchants, locally called kabadiwallahs, would be lining up at their door.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she says. “Waste pickers may be exploited by the informal system they work in but their families have been doing it for generations. There is some comfort in the familiar and it’s all relationship-based, which makes it hard to change.”

The Body Shop, though, saw the sense in a partnership and the potential it offered to improve the lives of some of the most marginalised Indian people.

“The Body Shop held our hand. They taught us, guided us, trained us in everything from understanding the plastics standards that must be followed in Europe to quality control and designing an efficient supply chain. More importantly, they gave us a guarantee that they would buy our recycled raw material,” says Jacobs.

Waste pickers Lilly Dibi, left, and Naseema Bibi, who were photographed in 2018 to illustrate the Body Shop’s collaboration with Plastics for Change. Photograph: The Body Shop International

They learned the rigorous rules of plastics recycling, including that only food- and beverage-grade plastic could be used for cosmetics and that bottles that had contained any other substance could contaminate the product.

They also learned how to work with scrap dealers and create systems, including a mobile app to ensure transparency. When, for example, the picker drops off the sacks of waste to the scrap merchant, the amount is checked by a Plastics for Change worker to verify the contents and the price paid.

The Body Shop taught them to remove the labels on plastic bottles because they were made of PVC and, while India allowed this, European regulations did not.

“They taught us how to trace things back if ever there was a quality issue. Every batch of waste is coded so that, at any moment, we can trace it back to the scrap dealer it came from,” says Srinidhi Kashyap, the company’s head of operations.

Since 2019, Plastics for Change has supplied 1,794 tonnes of recycled plastic to the Body Shop for its products. The work begins at one of its sorting centres, such as the one in Mangalore. A truck offloads huge sacks of waste of every imaginable kind. The staff, many of them women, sort it by colour, type and possible use.

Then it is moved on to a conveyor belt where it undergoes a further sorting. The plastic is compacted into square bales, tied up and stored along the length of a huge shed from where it will be taken to a manufacturing unit to be “flaked”, turned into granules that will be “blown” into bottles.

Indira Kuri, 38, used to earn 5,000 rupees (£48) a month working in a bakery. Her salary for segregating the waste when the electric truck drops it off is 12,000 rupees, along with another 3,000 rupees each month in benefits, a free lunch and medical insurance.

“I can feed my children better meals, more meat and fish, than before and I don’t have to worry about how I will educate them,” says Kuri.

Gauri Patel says she appreciates having a regular income working for Plastics for Change. Photograph: Amrit Dhillon

For Gauri Patel, 38, who works on the assembly line, it is the regularity of the income that has made a huge difference. She used to make candles but the work was seasonal. “There used to be too many breaks in the work. Here it is constant and predictable and I’m better off,” says Patel.

As a friend and business partner, perhaps the Body Shop’s most altruistic act was to tell Plastics for Change it must never become dependent on it. In fact, it even used to refer Plastics for Change to its competitors.

“It was very ethical of them to teach us to be independent. Their thinking went beyond themselves,” says Jacobs.

In 2019, the company sold 100% of its waste to the Body Shop. By 2021, it was down to 30% and today it is less than 10%, as it supplies other major cosmetics groups, including L’Oréal, Mac, Estée Lauder, Colgate and Ocean Bottle.

The debt of gratitude for the Body Shop’s unselfish support will not be forgotten. “Maybe we would have survived without their generous help. Maybe. But even if we had, it would have taken a whole lot longer,” says Jacobs.