Waxing lyrical on candelilla
Softening candelilla wax has a rich, buttery texture that protects and hydrates the skin and hair. A popular, vegan alternative to beeswax, you'll find it used as an emulsifier in creams and lotions where it helps to bind together ingredients and adds texture.
In a remote region of Mexico, a few hours' drive outside of Monterrey, candelilleros are busy harvesting a shrub. Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica), a plant that thrives in the semi-arid conditions of the Chihuahuan Desert, produces a waxy substance that can be used as an excellent substitute for beeswax in cosmetics and hair care products.
With a history of candelilla being overharvested, the candelilleros need a permit to be able to collect the protected plant, ensuring its sustainability. Before this happens, each specific area of land is surveyed and monitored in order to ensure that the process is not detrimental to the local ecosystem and is done sustainably. The production of the wax is now around a tenth of what it was in its peak in the 1940s. Not only are there regulations in place to prevent overharvest, but there are also conservation and reforestation measures to replant and re-cultivate candelilla.
Harvesting candelilla has been taking place for around 100 years and the process has not changed much in this time. Providing education to candelilleros and the younger generation to care for their land and practice safe harvesting techniques is crucial, not only for the candelilla species and the rich local habitat, but also for the people and communities who depend on this natural resource.
One of the biggest issues that surround these rural communities is people abandoning agricultural activities. This is being addressed through an organisation called the Candelilla Institute, which works to unite academics, businesses, the government and also candelilla-producing communities. The aim is to not only improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of the region, but also to develop new ways of using the candelilla for other purposes and to improve systems currently in place.
When harvesting is underway, the candelilleros never take more than 60% of a plant so it has enough strength to regrow. Previously, candelilla plants were pulled from the ground by their roots rather than cut, which meant the plant could not grow back.
The crude wax (called cerote) is extracted by the candelilleros once the harvested candelilla is taken to a processing area in the local village. It is then transported to the manufacturing plant near Monterrey where it is filtered and processed further to produce the wax that Lush purchase. Around 220kgs of candelilla plant produces approximately 7kgs of crude wax, which demonstrates just how important sustainable techniques and reforestation practices are to the species.
Going beyond these practices, Lush’s supplier has put sustainable principles at every level of the company and has committed to international standards, such as the 2030 United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development. This means that they constantly work to improve their environmental impact, but also the well-being of their employees, from the workers on their manufacturing sites to the local communities harvesting candelilla.
The supplier must align and adhere to Lush’s ethical buying policy. The company provides the candelillero communities with all the necessary equipment to extract the wax safely and have been working on finding an alternative to sulphuric acid as an extractor. Indeed, this acid has been used traditionally to extract the crude wax from the plant but as it is a very dangerous material to manipulate, the company has been researching alternatives and are introducing a new method using citric acid to its farmers. The candelilla wax in Lush products is 100% extracted with citric acid.
In addition, they’ve been supporting farmers in many different ways. The company has a team dedicated to helping obtain harvesting permits which also provides legal resources for any paperwork. They help the candelilleros access social security benefits such as medical services, financial protection in the case of accidents and injuries, and pensions. Finally, they guarantee purchase regardless of the ups and downs of the market, providing a minimum fixed income to every farmer.
The wax therefore provides a valuable, regular income and formal job source to the people of the remote and rural regions of the Chihuahuan Desert. Candelilla is not the only valuable resource to the people of these areas. When harvesting rates are reduced during the rainy season, other desert plants such as lechuquilla and oregano provide alternative sources of income.