In the world of green beauty, we talk a lot about the power of plants. Plants lend their calming, cleansing and healing properties to our products. But we didn’t invent plant medicine, and neither did [insert your favorite natural beauty brand here].
Humans have an ancestral relationship with plants. Through understanding their history, we can better understand our own history. A history of oppression and extraction—but also one of land stewardship, community, and connection.
“Everybody likes to talk about plants, but they don’t like to talk about the fraught place these plants exist in within our world.”—Tara Pelletier, co-founder of Meow Meow Tweet
The Legacy of Plants is Intertwined With The Legacy of Colonialism
In our #LegacyOfPlants series on Instagram, we took a look at where some of our favorite plants come from and what legacies they hold. What’s been erased or taken out of context in the name of “beauty” and “wellness”?
What we learned is that many of the plants we consume and benefit from today are far removed from their origins. Indigenous cultures around the world have developed reciprocal and spiritual relationships with plants, but centuries of colonization and genocide have disrupted those relationships.
Plants hold so much of our history. Juniper trees evolved millions of years before humans, and every part of them has been put to use by cultures on every continent. Frankincense and myrrh both originated in the SWANA (Southwest Asia, North Africa) region of the world, where they contributed greatly to ancient biblical cultures. Cacao beans and corn both play integral roles in the mythological origin stories of Olmec, Mayan and Aztec people.
When European colonizers landed on distant shores, many of these ancient plant-human relationships were changed forever. Cacao beans traveled far from their origin in the Amazon basin before intersecting forces of colonialism and industrialization transformed them into cocoa butter, and the chocolate bars we know and love.
Even the way we speak about plants has been influenced by colonialism. Latin names were devised to “tame” “barbarous” plants by the same white oppressors who sought to “tame” “savage” people. The fields of botany and entomology were heavily supported by the trade of human beings as property. The same entitled attitude towards plants and cultural objects can still be seen in today's museums and gardens.
Appropriation of Plants = Oppression
Like Indigenous people around the world, colonialism has uprooted, exploited, and decontextualized plants. The oppression of people and the oppression of plants are intertwined.
At the same time that it was becoming a popular treat and commodity among European colonizers, the use of cacao by Indigenous women was criminalized. A similar story can be seen in the way that white consumers purchase and use white sage as a trend, while Indigenous people in North America have historically been banned from practicing with this spiritually important plant.
When folks in green beauty and wellness talk about plants as if they’re trends, it’s a continuation of cultural erasure and appropriation. Powerful people in “wellness” are still perpetuating racism and white supremacy while profiting off of culturally significant plants. When plants like matcha are marketed as “super” ingredients without cultural context, that’s just exploitation.
Instead of using cultural legacies as a way to build profit, we can learn more about their origins and honor these plants. We can appreciate matcha tea as it is; an ancient Japanese ritual rooted in mindfulness and community care. We can appreciate witch hazel as the gift that it is without making it inaccessible to the Native American people who still use it for food, medicine and spiritual practices.
One plant legacy that we find particularly inspiring is that of the shea tree. Shea trees have resisted colonial cultivation, remaining Indigenous to their roots in the African savannah belt. African people have tended and harvested these trees for generations. Today, shea butter still provides an important source of nourishment and income for people living in the savannah ecosystem.
Shea butter shows that we can source ingredients in a way that respects, recognizes and supports the cultural significance of plants. This is why we source from small, fair trade, organic and cooperative operations wherever possible.
The Future Legacy of Plants
Colonialism and global capitalism have made plants of all different origins available to consumers, but those same forces are still driving exploitation, and a climate crisis that threatens the wellbeing of plants and humans. When the Boswellia trees that yield frankincense are on the brink of extinction, what does that say about the legacy and future of our plant-human relationships? When we lose these plants, we lose a part of our culture.
Through this #LegacyOfPlants series, we’re shifting the way we talk about and relate to the plants that we use in our products. Instead of seeing plants as resources to consume, we want to have a regenerative and curious relationship with them. We want to talk about plants in a way that acknowledges those deep ancestral relationships, and reconnects us with our plant kin.
The Meow Meow Tweet Blog Is A Collaborative Thought Project Between The Founders Of Meow Meow Tweet And Our Editorial Team. This Post Was Written By Faye Lessler.