Connie is a single mom of four in a rural area of the Philippines where 85% of the population is unemployed. Celso worked irregular construction jobs, but his passion is tending vegetables and houseplants. Angelita overcame a gambling problem and is now helping to bring medical care to Philippine villages.
Who are these people? They’re some of the 200 women and men that a coconut oil brand called Dignity is helping to find dignity in their own lives. The worker who packs each jar of coconut oil writes his or her name on the top of the jar, thus connecting yoga teachers, health nuts and other global coconut oil consumers with the product’s origin. It’s an interesting and effective branding strategy. Florenel signed my jar — unfortunately, her bio isn’t on the website — which makes me think about this mystery woman in the Philippines who handled the very same container of coconut oil that I’m using in the U.S. to moisturize my chlorinated hair after swimming.
The problem with coconut oil
Coconut products have surged in popularity in recent years. But the only controversy I knew about were stories of enslaved monkeys being forced to pick coconuts. I was completely unaware that, as Dignity’s website puts it, “Much of the global coconut industry is corrupt, harms the earth and exploits workers through modern-day slavery.”
The way it works is that coconut companies generally contract with big plantations. Small farmers must work through middlemen who take big cuts for themselves. They offer farmers loans for things like medical bills and schooling fees for their children, charging usurious interest rates of up to 200%. The farmers seldom get out from under. Instead, they find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt.
Dignity calls this “copra slavery.” The word “copra” is a local term for dried coconut meat. It’s a little like owing your soul to the company store. To make it worse, the middlemen never write down the terms of the loan. They trick uneducated farmers into thinking the middlemen are friends, not thieves. Desperate families are vulnerable to trafficking. “Years of nonprofit work fighting trafficking revealed many of the women were trafficked from poor rural farming areas,” according to Dignity’s website.
The Dignity solution
Stephen Freed and the late Don Byker, two men with a background in humanitarian and nonprofit work, founded Dignity Coconuts in 2010. Freed’s son-in-law Erik Olson joined the team in 2012. All were committed to stopping sex trafficking and modern-day slavery.
A video on Dignity’s website addresses how they started with a vision of a new sort of company. “What if it had as its central purpose the radical transformation of the community around it?” the video asked. They talked to local residents about a possible product. “They presented something valuable right in their own backyards. Coconuts.”
After four years of research and development, the owners figured out how to use 100 % of the coconuts. In addition to harvesting the coconut’s milk, oil and water, Dignity grinds shells into a powder that can be made into renewable plastic. The outer husks are woven into erosion control blankets. The peat, a lightweight, non-fibrous, spongy substance that binds fiber to husk, is used as a soil conditioner. The coconut processing plant is in the Bicol region, which includes the southern part of Luzon Island and some nearby island provinces.
Dignity now processes 16,000 coconuts per day from more than 300 coconut farmers. The company employs 200 people at the plant, and figures that when you consider the families of the workers and farmers, they’re directly impacting the livelihood of 2,000 people in the community.
Dignity’s main product is organic raw coconut oil. It’s a versatile product, as you can use it to fry your vegetables, give yourself a fatty boost of energy, moisturize your skin and remove your eye makeup. It works well as a facial moisturizer but may entice your pets to lick you more than you want.
Dignity also makes a vegan, chemical-free lip balm from coconuts. Its newest product is a dry brush eco-beauty kit, which includes fair-trade certified brushes made from natural fibers, four ounces of raw coconut oil and a guide explaining how to dry brush your body. This is a way to unclog pores, exfoliate your skin and to possibly encourage blood flow to areas of your body.
Dignity is committed to organic farming, and has individually organic certified more than 63,000 trees in the area of the Philippines where it works. The company has also trained local farmers in organic and sustainable practices, which help them to grow a better product and get a higher price.
“The message so many impoverished people hear is that they are somehow less — less intelligent, less capable, less motivated,” the Dignity website said. “Years of believing this can bury a person’s dignity. But it just isn’t true. We are seeing those lies shattered.”
Images via Dignity