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On the (Barefoot) Heels of Nature-Deficit Disorder

Published August 9, 2022
Published August 9, 2022
pine watt via Unsplash

Beauty and nature have always had a complicated relationship. There are those for whom beauty is about the removal of nature, a self-led creation of perfected artifice. Then there are those brands that harness the power of nature via botanicals in a bid to bring that special touch to fragrance (Aftelier, Heretic), skincare (Weleda), makeup (Seeds of Colour), and wellness (CandaScent Labs).

However, as our lives become an increasing flurry of digital screens, office-bound computer marathons, and little work/life balance, a new imperative for returning to our primordial roots is emerging: nature-deficit disorder. What defines nature-deficit disorder? In the words of BeautyMatter webinar guest, author of Barefoot Soul: Runner’s Handbook, and personal coach Csaba Lucas, it’s marked by pain, discomfort, and negativity, and the physical, spiritual, and psychological manifestations of that discomfort (illness, disconnectedness, mental troubles). “When it comes to the biological needs of human beings, it's very straightforward. We evolved to operate on a 24-hour cycle just like any other creature, and when you don't honor that evolutionary past, you're going to be drained,” he states.

Thankfully, discomfort can be a great driver in pushing us towards rediscovering this energy source. And steps needn’t be as drastic as a weeklong retreat upstate. In fact, it all begins within ourselves. “Discover the nature that exists within you. Understanding this connection foreshadows the deeper understanding of where nature lays, which is everywhere” Lucas explains. “People always believe that the forest and the mountains are the nature where they need to go to connect properly. Well, nature starts with you. It’s the most important thing to connect with.”

Beyond the individual, Lucas emphasizes a return to nature as crucial to the survival of businesses and humanity overall, moving beyond the treasures of the financial or professional realm to a much simpler space—a confrontation with our own biological makeup. “I have worked with hundreds of people who are by any means, when it comes to business achievements or finances, considered incredibly successful on any scale. Yet, they did not experience the quality of improvement in their lives from that success,” Lucas recalls. “CEOs in any industry, with any company, who are not aware of the importance of nature within themselves and their company, will be drained sooner or later, and not be able to access the genius that they may use to bring to the table. Nature is like an outlet for any creature that has a heartbeat, and if you don't plug it into that outlet frequently enough, you cannot use all of its operation systems effectively.”

Another proponent of environmental refuge in even the most busiest of C-suites is beauty, wellness, and retail expert Jennifer Walsh. She launched the first omni-channel brand in the US, Beauty Bar, in 1998, which incorporated biophilic design into the premises, a radical proposal for the era. “So called ‘experts’ at the time would come to me and share that I was doing it all wrong and that I was putting too much emphasis on the store and space which was, in their words, ‘a waste of time and money,’” she recalls. Walsh still sees a huge opportunity for biophilic design as consumers seek experiential and health-focused retail, and rightfully so. A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that interaction with indoor plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress “through suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity and diastolic blood pressure and promotion of comfortable, soothed, and natural feelings.”

“There is a realization that our modern society has become more complex and disconnected from nature, and that sentiment is harming the environment, society, and our mental well-being.”
By Jose Alvarez, Founder, Abbott

After a successful run, Walsh sold Beauty Bar to Quidsi (now part of Amazon) in 2010. She launched Wellness Walks with Walsh seven years later to help others connect with nature. The initiative was an extension of her initial proposal with Beauty Bar, but also inspired by her own personal journey in finding solace and healing from business troubles by walking in Central Park. Walsh interviewed executives about healthy business leadership models while walking in nature. “Each and every guest I had on the show had the same sentiment: it felt so good to get outside like this but I never go outdoors,” she recounts. “This is when everything changed for me. I doubled down on the research of what was happening to our bodies and brains when we were around nature. I knew I had to share the learnings because our health depended on it, and so did the planet’s health. People are finding themselves through nature, and this has become the conduit to health.” Studies show that spending at least 120 minutes or more in nature per week is linked to better overall health.

Walsh believes that the pandemic, the climate crisis, and a return to more minimalist and simple living has reinforced this relationship. “The market opportunity is immense, and there is great opportunity for collaborations with so many different industries coming together with nature in mind,” she explains. A report by the World Economic Forum states that a shift towards a nature-positive economy “can unlock an estimated $10 trillion of business opportunities.”

Elle Morris, Senior Vice President of Global Strategy at brand design and experience agency Marks, echoes this impressive potential. “Nature-focused beauty in general has exploded in recent years and continues to grow,” she states. “There are a few factors pushing this trend forward, several of which are rooted in mindfulness, post-pandemic wellness, and a desire to live more naturally and sustainably.” 42% of UK adults see the outdoors as crucial to their well-being, a figure that has been growing since the onset of lockdowns. The global natural cosmetics and personal care market is currently valued at $30 billion, and is expected to grow to $50.5 billion by 2027, while the global natural fragrance market is predicted to be worth $20.8 billion by 2027. In a marriage of the natural, scientific, and cosmetic worlds, The Nue Co. launched Forest Lungs in 2020, an anti-stress fragrance with woody notes and phytoncide-replicating olfactory technology. Phytoncides are the essential oils emitted from trees, and in clinical trials, 96% of participants felt less stressed within 30 minutes of application.

According to Morris, millennials and Gen Z are the main demographic for nature-focused products, but their influence is also moving up to Gen X and baby boomers. 69% of Gen Zers will pay more for products with natural and clean products. “We’ve seen a decade’s worth of change in only a matter of a few years, and people are really taking inventory of what makes them feel well,” Morris explains. “There’s more desire to be in it, and more concern for it. Bringing nature into a space of self-care and beauty aligns to these shifting desires/interests.”

Clean fragrance brand Abbott dedicates each product to a specific natural landscape in the US and has seen 100% year-over-year growth for the first two quarters. Its founder Jose Alvarez has observed a strong return to nature-focused beauty concepts. “We try to offer a sense of escapism with our scents, and we see it resonating with consumers,” he states.

The brand’s biggest customer base (38%) is in the 25-34 age bracket, slightly weighted towards females (59% versus 41% male). “There is a realization that our modern society has become more complex and disconnected from nature, and that sentiment is harming the environment, society, and our mental well-being,” he explains. “Abbott's mission is to use fragrance as a way of reconnecting with the natural world.”

The company also donates 1-5% of profits from every full-size product purchase to environmental organizations relating to the scent’s inspiration: Association to Preserve Cape Cod, Sequoia Parks Conservancy, Sheep Mountain Alliance, Mojave Desert Land Trust, Montana Wilderness Association, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Group for the East End, and National Marine Sanctuary System.

For Walsh, the relationship between beauty and nature is coded into the personal care and cosmetic industries’ DNA. “The beauty industry is an outdoor industry. There is no other industry that is so tied to the natural world. The ingredients come from nature and nature inspires the storytelling, merchandising, colors, packaging, marketing, and scent,” she states. Kristin Scott, founder of fine fragrance house Atum, which is inspired by the natural elements, adds: “I have always drawn my inspiration for fragrance from the natural world. I really strive to make fragrances that speak to as many humans as possible, with the [natural] elements there is so much variation and layering.”

As for solution-focused steps to close the gap in our disconnect from nature, she believes that we should be focusing on nature instead of sustainability. “We can’t see, smell, hear, taste, or touch sustainability, but you can with nature. When you put nature at the center and at the core of what you do, you get to teach about the true impact that nature has on our bodies and brains,” Walsh explains. “Once people begin to truly ‘feel’ and understand nature, that is when they begin to become stewards of the land and the brand. It is about mutual caring, reciprocity.” Alvarez adds: “There is an increased cultural awareness that people should be using environmentally safe and natural products in as many areas of their lives as possible, and beauty is starting to catch up to that trend. Younger generations are becoming more in tune with environmental issues and how to be a better human for the planet, so companies are doing all they can to get in front of these consumers as they grow with buying power.”

Beyond the beauty industry, Lucas believes that nature awareness will ensure better decisions for future legislation to come. “You cannot be aware of something that you're not connected to. If you have someone who sits in New York on Wall Street making decisions about industries or in Washington making decisions about politics that affect nature, if that individual is not connected directly to nature, then they cannot make the right decisions,” he states.

Finding personal solace and inspiration (be it in the middle of a rainforest or simply at your local park), or creating a better work/life balance and more compassionate leadership skills, are some of the advantages of a stronger connection with nature. However, on a global level, the stakes of nature-deficit disorder are infinitely higher, and growing as we speak. The ultimate motive is humanity’s very survival. “Scientists speak about the sixth extinction taking place right now, due in large part to human activities. Right now, there is an imbalance that exists, we are using up too many resources without necessarily understanding nor paying attention to what that does to the environment,” Lucas states. “If we are changing our activities and the way of connecting to our environment now, then we can have a future where we exist as a species. If we don't learn from those past mistakes, right now, then we will not have a future.”

Thankfully, connection is only one (mindful) breath, walk, and conversation away, and that path is something even the most dedicated city dwellers can’t deny. Hopefully the expression “down to earth” can take on new meaning in the years to come.


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