Pioneers Post

Can lipstick conquer poverty?

10 July 2012
photo of lipstick

Who decides what the poor may or may not buy? Many moral judgements about products – not just cosmetics, but food, drink, and clothing – have religious roots. Whose ethic should prevail as the standard by which to make such decisions?

Professor Linda Scott, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

A new three-year study of South African women working for the Avon sales network shows that the system is helping these impoverished black women achieve economic autonomy.

The study, led by Professor Linda Scott and Dr Catherine Dolan of the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, investigated the way the system’s portfolio of goods, its recognition and training practices, and its working capital provisions function to create incomes for these disadvantaged women.

The research also examined the impact of the products on the representatives’ communities. The independent study was funded by the British government, through the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

‘Any private sector effort to improve conditions for black women in South Africa will be limited by infrastructural constraints, including the shortage of formal employment options, the pervasive violence, and the dramatic gender and race inequities,’ said Professor Scott. ‘However, the organic nature of the Avon system provides a flexibility that is adaptive to many obstacles and we believe the basic form of the system can be adapted to other locations and goods in developing nations.’

The researchers found that:

  • Avon representatives in South Africa with 16 months or more in the system earned enough to cover a typical household’s expenditures for food, non-alcoholic beverages, clothing, shoes, and healthcare.
  • The representatives’ income placed them in the top half of black females in their community and brought them in line with what a black South African man earns.
  • 75% of the representatives reported that Avon had helped them achieve financial autonomy and nearly 90% said they had learned skills from Avon that could be transferred into other employment.

  • Respondents reported in very large numbers that working for Avon had given them confidence and social skills, as well as earning them respect from family and their community. This effect on their sense of empowerment seems to result from the supportive and gender-friendly network, as well as the formal recognition system that Avon employs to reward and inspire achievement.


‘The economic and social benefits to the representatives are clear, but for some observers the nature of Avon’s product line will raise questions of morality,’ warned Scott. 

‘Based on the research, we have developed a teaching case and accompanying notes which highlight the questions that arise about selling cosmetics among poor Africans.

‘The concept of “need” in relation to consumer products is not clear cut at all. Need is something highly fluid and situational – a fact that anthropologists and poverty experts have known for decades,’ remarked Professor Scott. ‘In practice, limiting sales women and their customers to items that Western observers deem “pro-social” can have negative consequences – and raises daunting questions about global power. Who decides what the poor may or may not buy? Many moral judgements about products – not just cosmetics, but food, drink, and clothing – have religious roots. Whose ethic should prevail as the standard by which to make such decisions?’

Professor Scott, author of Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, is an expert on the history of grooming practices and the beauty industry in America.

In this study of South African sales women, Scott emphasises that the nearly universal human practice of face and body painting was common among native peoples in both North America and Africa before they were colonized. Her teaching case considers the effect of sectarian prejudice and racial separatism on acceptable grooming behaviours, drawing unexpected parallels between these two continents.  The result is a complex and ambiguous picture that sets Western expectations about what goods are ‘necessary’ against historical change and multiple cultural practices.

This South African research project sits in the context of Professor Scott’s interest in what she terms the ‘Double X Economy’, which considers the economy of women in a holistic way, connecting their activities as consumers, producers, donors, workers, and investors around the globe. Other projects related to this concept include: a study of the impact of providing sanitary pads on retaining African girls in school; a recent report on the sales distribution network run by CARE International in Bangladesh; and a study of the Pampers/UNICEF campaign against maternal neonatal tetanus.

The research is published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. Scott has also developed a related teaching case.