Global climate change remains a reality the majority do not want to face, turning a blind eye to what is unfolding around the globe—cue Cape Town water crisis, Malaysian and Indonesian deforestation, and the unsettling fact that by 2050 more plastic than fish will be in the oceans.
Certified climate-neutral Ethique is facing these jarring realities head on, and is the first zero waste beauty brand to grace a planet in dire need of help. Founder, biologist, and formulator extraordinaire Brianne West seeks to raise the sustainability bar and elicit global green conversation with her range of entirely solid, cruelty-free, and vegan beauty bars. Not only do they last 6x longer than water-filled bottled products, these naturally derived and ethically sourced bars are packaged in 100% biodegradable wrappers and 100% compostable boxes—no trace of plastic waste left behind.
Though small, New Zealand-based Ethique is mighty, and their commitment to being kind to both the environment and our bodies will (ideally) force big-time cosmetics companies to wake up, shape up, and re-think destructive business models.
Captivated by the zero waste beauty brand, BeautyMatter reached out—below is our Q&A with trailblazer Brianne West:
Tell us a bit about yourself. What inspired you to establish the first zero waste beauty brand?
Ethique came about as a combination of my passion for the environment, knowledge of cosmetic chemistry (and the waste the industry creates) and the desire to create a business that had far more at its core than just making profit. Years ago while I was studying at university I taught myself cosmetic chemistry from scratch with loads of research into what each ingredient does and how to build a product from the ground up. Up to 75% of shampoo and even 90% of conditioner can be water, which just seemed crazy to me. Obviously water is an important part of the product, but I was interested in what happened if you simply combined the ingredients without water. Shampoo bars aren’t particularly unusual, but the majority of them are soap, which has a very high pH which leaves a residue and roughs up the hair cuticle leaving some people with a result less than desired. I wanted to create something much closer to a typical salon quality shampoo—but solid of course! After some fabulous feedback from my guinea pigs (human ones of course), I branched out into conditioners, then started replacing everything in my bathroom with solid versions. A couple of our newer products do contain a little water, such as The Perfector, our solid face cream, and Bombshell, our self-tanning bar, which is necessary to get some of the ingredients in there, but the majority are completely water free.
What are the sustainability issues within beauty manufacturing that motivated you to create Ethique?
Packaging wastage is huge in the beauty industry. A lot of products (particularly more high-end brands) have packages within packages, none of which tend to be recyclable as they are made out of mixed materials. The majority of cosmetic packaging is obviously plastic and yes it is often recyclable; however what most people don’t realize is that only 12% of plastic worldwide is actually recycled and that 8 million tons end up in our oceans every year. I don’t say that to put people off recycling, because it is better than nothing, but the way cities and countries currently manage their waste streams is not effective (by and large, some places are doing a much better job.)
Palm oil is another massive issue many people are aware of. The production of palm oil is destroying rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, which is the habitat for so many animals—many of which are being forced towards extinction. Palm is estimated to be in 50% of all products in our supermarkets and it’s certainly in most of the cosmetics that are used every day. Whilst there is sustainable palm out there, there are some doubts as to how sustainable it actually is as the supply chain is extraordinarily complex. It’s actually a complicated issue because a lot of small-time farmers and producers who produce it sustainably depend on palm for their families and communities, so a complete boycott puts them in harm’s way. The best option is truly sustainable palm—which needs to be demanded and ensured by big manufacturers, such as Nestlé, Mars etc. who have really only paid lip service to this cause so far.
Water is a concerning issue that is developing pretty quickly—look at what is going on in Cape Town at this very minute. Water shortages affect 700 million people currently—that number skyrockets to 1.8 billion in 2025—that’s incredibly scary. Water is used in excess both in the manufacture and formulation of products and it is great to see that some companies are looking at how to conserve their resources.
Then there is of course carbon footprint management (in particular as a result of freighting ingredients and products around the world), ingredient supply chain transparency, child labor, and renewably sourced ingredients. The list goes on!
You aren’t passionate about makeup, or cosmetics in general, so why enter the booming and highly competitive beauty industry?
Science really. I have always had a passionate love for experimentation and science in general (my dream job is astronaut) as well a desire to protect our environment. I started my first cosmetics company when I was 19 and at university, which was a more traditional liquid company out of the desire to work for myself and the urge to experiment and make things. Whilst it was fun it didn’t tick the “saving the environment” box, so I moved on to Ethique with our aim of “saving the world from plastic bottles.”
Is the intention of the brand to not only be commercially viable but to change manufacturing standards and raise the eco-friendly bar?
Absolutely. The more companies that do it, the more consumers expect it from everyone, so they will put pressure on the last ones to change—the really big guys.
What were the challenges of developing a range of entirely solid products?
From a formulation perspective it can be tough as there isn’t a lot of R&D on making solid ingredients ( or ingredients that can be used in anhydrous products [ products that don’t contain water ] ) from big chemical companies, so we have fewer choices to work with, especially as we won’t use ingredients unless they fit our strict criteria. There are things we can’t do currently, but I am always looking for new innovations and developments, so this gap is closing.
Application is an issue—how does a consumer use the product? Often they don’t want to touch it with their hands if they are using a moisturizer for example. There are no real options for compostable tubes that hold up and certainly nothing that can cope with a bit of water. We are working on this though!
Our bars come wrapped in compostable boxes which are free from chlorine, laminates, and plastic coatings and are printed with vegetable inks. Whilst this is great for the environment as they are readily compostable and recyclable, it was a bit of a nightmare to develop packaging that could stand up to being shipped internationally and sit on a retail shelf and look great. Thankfully I’ve worked with some wonderful packaging companies over the years who have put lots of time into working on this for us. We also produce in-shower containers that are made of compressed bamboo. They look like plastic, but are compostable and entirely naturally derived. We are always looking to offer new options too as so many new materials are coming out derived from lots of natural sources.
Then of course there is customer education, although people really resonate with our “why” very quickly. But a lot of people don’t understand how to use a solid as they do a liquid, so there is a high barrier to a customer’s first purchase.
How long did it take you to develop a range of entirely solid products? And what are the sustainability benefits?
It’s an ongoing process. I taught myself very early on the fundamental basics of cosmetic chemistry and then learnt what ingredients do what and formulation essentials—which can then be applied to almost any product. A lot of products are similar—shampoos for example are a tweak of the hydrating/cleansing components and scent, color but they are fundamentally the same. Developing Bombshell—our solid self—tanning bar, which is the first and only in the world—took a long time of trial and error and for a while I wasn’t even sure it would work.
The obvious benefits are the plastic-free packaging, but there are a couple more—a lower carbon footprint per product when you consider freight because there is no water to ship around; you get more uses in a bar than you do in a much heavier bottle (most bars are on average equivalent to 3 bottles of liquid product.) Also on the water issue—as we don’t use water in our products, overall you use less when using a solid product which will become more and more of a priority over the next few decades as water shortages increase.
Why was having a completely solid product line a requirement for Ethique?
It’s not really—what is a requirement is the waste-free aspect. That is only achievable using solid bars at this point. As I’ve said, recycling isn’t done well currently, so I don’t want to provide packaging that can only be recycled—I want it to be compostable too. As yet there aren’t any packaging options that can cope with a liquid product and still be compostable, but we are looking into this.
How did you fund this business? Were there challenges securing funding considering Ethique’s nontraditional approach to the beauty category?
Honestly, funding this has been one of the easiest parts. As we have such a strong story and a real purpose beyond profit (as well as a commercially viable product), investment has been quite readily available. I’m not a particularly conventional person, so we have completed two rounds of investment through equity crowdfunding—which isn’t available here in America yet, but is a little like Kickstarter except selling shares not rewards. We have also received some traditional angel investment too and altogether we have raised just $1.5 million dollars and have ~400 investors. I really like equity crowdfunding—we are not beholden to large equity funds requests (which may or may not line up with our values) and we are bringing people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford to invest in companies along for the ride and hopefully repay their faith in the future with some dividends.
You recently recertified as a BCorp and received a fantastic fair trade score despite the standards continuously getting higher and higher. What does BCorp measure? And what will you do to make sure that Ethique doesn’t grow complacent, but rather continue to strive for excellence?
There is always something you can do better and there are definitely things we could improve on now, that for various reasons (usually financial) we can’t quite tackle yet. For example a goal of ours is to have the entire factory solar powered—it’s not something financially viable for us just yet. I’m not a complacent person, I am always thinking long term and imagining what else we could be doing, both from a values and product/customer service/new tech perspective. I have very strong opinions on what is wrong and what is right and believe that a lot of what mainstream business does currently is wrong and I want no part of it. My team constantly comes up with great new ideas or initiatives and we hold each other to account where necessary. I’m also quite intensely competitive so that helps drive improvement. Social and environmental issues are becoming more and more important to consumers too so it’s no longer possible for businesses like ours to sit back and say “we’ve done all we can.” Consumers expect more.
#giveupthebottle is the social media hashtag and international movement Ethique is driven by and tied to. What is this initiative? And why is it part of your brand’s DNA?
It started as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek hashtag as it has two meanings which are readily obvious. In fact we get comments quite often about it being about giving up drinking. But Ethique was founded to rid the world of plastic bottles, which that hashtag sums up beautifully. An easy way to spread a message that extends past cosmetics to plastics in general—particularly plastic water bottles!
Ethique is committed to donating 20% of profit (or 2% of sales) to charity every year. Who do you support and why?
In the past we’ve worked on a small level with a variety of animal welfare and environmental charities mainly based in New Zealand. Now we are so much bigger and have expanded internationally, we have the opportunity to develop larger partnerships with 2-3 charities working on problems that Ethique naturally fits with. We are looking at ocean plastics and remedial efforts, conservation and animal welfare projects around the world and will announce these as we go.
Ethical—much like natural, green, clean, and organic—is liberally applied in today’s beauty industry, leaving consumers confused and misled. What does ethical mean to you?
In a nutshell, operating in a way which does as little harm as possible to people, the planet and all its inhabitants. That’s a lot to say in one sentence, but to be a truly ethical company, you must consider everything. I daresay there is something we haven’t considered that we will need to address one day.
I say “as little” rather than “none” because sometimes even with the best intentions you cause a side effect you didn’t consider (for example the boycott of palm oil is putting pressure on much less efficient oils which may cause an even larger environmental disaster in a few years). I get really irritated with the rubbish the marketing machines spin, and everyone involved with Ethique knows better than to use the words “natural,” “chemical free” etc. without some strict controls.
Naming yourself ethical sets a high bar of expectation. Do you have any concerns around people monitoring the company’s every move to ensure that Ethique is truly being ethical?
No, because we mean it. We don’t deliberately mislead or spin our words to infer something we don’t mean. If someone points out something we’re doing we shouldn’t be, or vice versa, we’ll take it on board and try to remedy it. We are not perfect, we will probably do something wrong at some point, as everyone does, but the ethical part lies in the way you remedy it.
Many brands are still struggling with the role of Amazon in distribution strategies. It’s interesting you partnered with them for your US 2018 launch. What was your rationale? And what are your plans for distribution moving forward?
We were under no illusions from the get-go that to have any traction in the US market we needed to be on Amazon. Getting on Amazon was the tough part! Luckily we found a great distributor, Pharmapacks, who have held our hand and educated us in the “ways of Amazon.” It’s a great way to get in front of as many people as possible and it’s such an integral part of people’s lives here that we would be so much less accessible without it. The goal is to rid the world of plastic bottles—we can’t do that by not going where people shop. It’s a scary beast and I’m sure it’s swallowed up brands much bigger and better resourced than ours, which is why we have partnered with experts to help us negotiate it.
And finally, what is next for Ethique?
Big question! Long story short, I want it to be a significant multinational brand that “puts a bar in every shower.” By that, I don’t mean necessarily one of our bars, but I want Ethique to inspire other brands to think about how they sell and package their products and encourage consumers to think if they really need liquid body wash or shampoo—or have they been taken in by marketing. Our solid products are really no different, the shampoo is shampoo, NOT soap, the conditioner is what you buy in a bottle, the moisturizers are the same as lotion—just without the water. You have water in your bathroom—why do you need it in your products too? We have new products on the way, including a line of household products (watch this space), new international markets, new retail partnerships (for the USA in particular), new team members, and new ways of people accessing our products—it’s all very exciting!
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