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Avon Calling: Could Beauty Be a Path Out of Poverty?

"No! No! No!" Oxford business professor Linda Scott does not use Avon products. In fact, she says with a smile, "One of the worst things that ever happened to me is that a friend of mine started selling Avon." But she believes her research in South Africa could prove a fascinating hypothesis: that becoming an Avon lady could help poor women in developing nations knock on prosperity's door.

Scott is a cultural historian-turned-marketing professor who first got interested in studying Avon as she mused about the rise of the American beauty industry and how it affected feminism at the turn of the 20th century. Avon saleswomen "went into factories and rural environments, and they sold through social networks of mostly poor, mostly young women," she told me on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum of Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford. "It worked very well for Avon—and very well for the women."

One hundred years on, "the infrastructure you have in the developing world as well as the position of women in society is not that different," Scott says. "So I wondered whether Avon would work for these women. Can women make money consistently, sustainably, and significantly? What if this were a legitimate avenue for poverty alleviation?"

In Scott's own telling, that was a big if. Two years ago, she contacted Avon CEO Andrea Jung with her query, and Jung gave the greenlight for Avon's Johannesburg-based staff to cooperate with Scott's research. (The company provides access to its sales force, and the U.K.'s Department for International Development and the European Social Research Centre provide funding.)

Her preliminary findings, gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews, surveys, and focus groups, suggest that becoming an Avon lady might work. It could even be better than microfinance—"much more accessible," Scott says, in part because of Avon's venerable distribution model and how it suits the ways that members of a community interact in South Africa.

One thing that nagged me as we talked was that beauty products, in my mind, seem like luxury goods—in other words, not necessities. Scott thought about that, too, as she was constructing her studies. "Is the good off-balanced?" she asked. "Should the poor be spending money in different ways?" What she learned was that these products are meeting a pre-existing demand; many women, even among the poor, had already "budgeted" for the tiniest of luxuries such as body lotion, and their spending on these small items is not coming at the expense of, say, food or school fees.

Even if the research proves her hypothesis correct, Avon is obviously not going to be a panacea. There's a natural ceiling on how many Avon ladies one community can have; if everyone's selling it, then who's going to be buying it? Plus, "selling Avon is not for everyone," Scott says, and she doesn't just mean if you don't like the smell of Skin So Soft. It's definitely not for the poorest of the poor—those many millions in the developing world who earn less than $1 a day. "You need a minimal amount of upfront capital, and even though it is very minimal, they don't have it."

Scott, who expects to have firm data later this spring and full results toward the end of the year, says that positive findings might affect Avon's marketing: "Women helping women is a big deal!" But it probably won't change much about the company's self-perception. "This is what they think they do already." She recalls the words of one Avon manager in South Africa. "My business is not selling toiletries," he said. (Yes, he.) "It's about empowering women." If Scott can prove that to be true, that would be kind of beautiful.

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