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Weleda: Celebrating a Centenary of Building Health and Beauty from the Ground Up

Published January 26, 2022
Published January 26, 2022

Biology has often presented nature and nurture as opposing forces, but Weleda is a strong testament to their ability to work in beautiful cohesion. The company was founded in 1921 by Dr. Rudolf Steiner along with Dr. Ita Wegman as an Anthroposophical ode to the symbiosis between the human body and nature. Today, its portfolio encompasses the realms of face and body products, pharmaceuticals, and infant care.

Its hero product, Skin Food, created in 1926, reigns as a cult classic to this day, reignited for the next generation on social media, garnering dermatologist, celebrity, and influencer backing. But Weleda isn’t confined to being a natural beauty hype machine; it is a pioneer of the genre and its foresight is paying dividends today, and very certainly, tomorrow, with the global organic and natural personal care product market set to reach $25.1 billion by 2030.

The company’s products and enduring legacy aren’t the only things worthy of merit. Weleda recently achieved B Corp certification, is 100% UEBT (Union for Ethical BioTrade) certified, and grows a majority of its product ingredients across eight biodynamic gardens, with 50 long-term organic farming partnerships. Overseeing it all is Jayn Sterland, Managing Director of Weleda UK. Like the company, she embodies an inherent, steadfast assurance that purpose comes before profit, but that authenticity, as well as a business model built from the ground up with environmental purpose in mind, organically attracts their consumer audience more than flashy advertisements. Sterland is the top-ranked individual in 2021’s “Who’s Who in Natural Beauty” and sits on the advisory board of the British Beauty Council, extending her efforts for sustainable beauty far beyond the company silo.

BeautyMatter sat down with Sterland to reflect on the brand’s 100th anniversary, the state of natural health and beauty today, as well as Weleda’s future chapter.

With the 100-year anniversary, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on how Weleda has grown, but also how it has been a frontrunner in natural beauty for a long time. What have been the biggest lessons and challenges?

On the one hand, I'm saying none, and then on the other hand, I would say many. None is that we were founded on a purpose 100 years ago, which is to partner with nature and work with it, not through it, to support the health and well-being of a human being. That's what we do today, what we did 100 years ago, that was the vision. We've never swayed from that, almost away from the trends. When we started 100 years ago, a lot of the nasties that are talked about in clean beauty weren't even invented. In some respects, being out of the system because we've been walking the same path has meant that it hasn't really been a challenge.

But what has been challenging is trying to explain to a consumer that we're not the same as any other brand because of where we came from. If we don't have a Leaping Bunny on the front of the pack, then clearly we must test on animals, but we never have. That's the real problem. 20 years ago, there weren't other companies like us. Today, there's lots of other brands that are perceived as being more organic or more green than we are, but when 80% of every single ingredient that we use is organic-based—there's no other brand that could touch us. That's difficult, so we've reverted to independent certification. When we say we do these things, we genuinely mean we've always done these things. Trying to explain the fact that we've always done things the right way, as opposed to the commercial way, has been a challenge.

Another challenge is this blend of delivering our purpose, what's right for the planet, versus convenience. We moved our product packaging from aluminum to plastic tubes, at the request of the consumer, which took us 10 years. One of our best-selling products is a shower wash, and we replaced the soap with a liquid format. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have done that.

Do you have any thoughts on the current state of natural beauty in the industry?

It's getting better, I'm really pleased. I don't see the natural and organic beauty industry as having a problem with competition. We're less than 10% of the industry globally. We have a problem with the other 90%. Weleda has inspired many brands within the 10%, and we should still continue to be inspiring and what we term a lighthouse brand. I would love for the whole market to be natural and organic. That may bring up the question: what would happen to your brand and demand? Well, at the end of the day, we're trying to do the right thing, and it would be great if the industry did the right thing. If we were talking about the other way around, 90% of the industry being natural and organic, maybe I might feel differently. But it isn't, and it won't be in my lifetime.

A recent New York Times article talked about how essential oils can be irritating to the skin, and how a lot of people were using the term “clean beauty” as a marketing gimmick rather than being able to substantiate those claims in packaging practices or formulations. What do you make of that partial backlash?

I sometimes wonder where the backlash comes from. It's a little bit like oil industries lobbying government. Sometimes the backlash comes from somebody who has had a major reaction and wants the world to know about it. Equally, it could be political. The lobbying in Europe about the use of essential oils and listing them as known allergens came from some of the big multinationals, because things like parabens were having to be singled out. It was a pop-back at the industry.

The same way that you have to look behind the label and purpose of any company that you support—that might be a pension bank all the way through to consumer goods—you always have to look behind something coming through like essential oils are bad or alcohol is bad. I'm not saying they're not without their drawbacks, but there has to be some kind of preservative system. You can use packaging as your preservative system, and quite frankly, you're into a hell of a lot of plastic that you can't recycle, or you use alcohol, essential oils, or some form of synthetic like parabens. Or you have to sell your products as fresh and you use them within seven days because bacteria will get in there and multiply. That is the bottom line. It's a very complicated picture.

“Today, there's lots of other brands that are perceived as being more organic or more green than we are, but when 80% of every single ingredient that we use is organic-based—there's no other brand that could touch us.”
By Jayn Sterland, Managing Director, Weleda UK

I remember speaking to a natural perfumer and she was saying, who benefits from those regulations? When certain ingredients become restricted, then you’ll ultimately have to go to the big guys. Alcohol being a preservative gets overseen because there's been a demonization of fragrance and alcohol. A lot of times consumers don't realize that if you're using certain ingredients, without the fragrance it would perhaps smell really undesirable, and that would take away from the product feel. What would you say to those in the crusade against the use of alcohol and fragrance in products?

Three things. The first thing is it depends on what alcohol you're using. It's still alcohol at the end of the day, but we use organic grain alcohol, so it's not part of an industrial process, but supporting organic farming. The second thing is when it hits your skin, it evaporates straightaway, because the evaporation point of alcohol is so low. Third point is, you have to be quite careful. You shouldn't use alcohol on any kind of broken skin.

Weleda has a really great, very old-fashioned deodorant spray, which is a mixture of essential oils and alcohol. The formula almost goes back to when we started. Clearly you're never going to put that on broken skin or after you just shaved. On the other hand, as soon as it hits your skin, it's going to evaporate off. But if you've got very sensitive skin, that might be a problem, so it's a very complex situation.

It’s a bit like, what's the lesser of all of the evils? Some people will be particularly motivated by plastic in the ocean, others by soil and farming methods. It really depends on what your threshold is. There are some things in clean beauty that, quite frankly, I wouldn't let anywhere near my skin. But it depends. It's very complex. The problem is that in our busy lives, we like to simplify everything: good or evil, black or white. We try to make these big generalization statements, not just to do beauty but with many things, to make it easy for us to make a decision and feel better about that decision, when actually very few things in life are black and white. It's not that simple. We have some things that are, like not testing on animals, but when we get into the granularity of ingredients, it becomes more nuanced.

On the subject of ingredients, you use organic farming to obtain most of the materials. Are there any challenges in terms of product formulation consistency? How big of an enterprise is that farming operation?

We farm biodynamically across 250 square kilometers, and source over 1,000 different ingredients for our cosmetic products. Because we are at the vagaries of nature—I'm a farmer's daughter, so I know there are no sure things with this type of farming, particularly not with the freak weather conditions at the moment —we always keep a bank of our ingredients. We have three years’ worth of supply, but we also source from the northern and southern hemisphere on all of our key ingredients. It's imperative that we farm organically. We claim over 80% is organic or biodynamic, but that doesn't mean to say the other 20% isn't. It can take up to five years for you to get organic certification. Sometimes we work with a group of farmers through cooperatives, where most of them might be organic, but some might be in the process of converting to it. Therefore, we never say 100% is organic.

The other thing is, if you’re not using any kind of insecticides or pesticides, we'll get an ingredient that will arrive and be riddled with insects and contaminated, so you can't use it. It would be so much easier to make all of these ingredients in the lab, but it wouldn't be the right thing to do. There's no regulation for this in the EU; you can claim your brand is organic and have the word organic in your brand name, yet use less than 5% organic ingredients because there's just no regulation.

What was expanding that production model to fit company growth like?

We do use agricultural machinery, but only about 20% of the time. Because of the way we grow our ingredients, we get really high active pharmaceutical ingredients [APIs]. When we are sourcing an ingredient, we will buy that ingredient across the open market, and test it for chemical composition and formulation. We set a benchmark of the highest API concentration we can find. We want to go 20% to 50% above that, and design the suitable farming and processing methods. It's not just how you grow, it's also how you extract the ingredient that's key.

We don't use masses and masses of an ingredient. If you came to our UK gardens, for example, you see quite small amounts of plants that we grow, harvest, and make our medicines and cosmetics out of. We do have large fields of ingredients like calendula and arnica, but not of things like rose, and so on. By preserving our seeds and managing our seed bank, planting our seeds by hand by the gardeners in the nursery, as well as tending, harvesting, and processing them by hand, we're able to still produce a half a billion euro turnover.

In developing countries like Moldova, where we get our lavender from, we employ two whole villages. It’s this balancing act of the interaction of the human being growing and processing the ingredients versus the scale and quantity. It's a very interesting business model. I've got a conventional MBA background, and so some of the things that I was taught to expect aren't what Weleda does, and yet it really works.

What is an example of that?

If you look after the planet and people, the profit looks after itself. If you go back to the 1970s, Milton Friedman, the founder of modern-day capitalism, said the purpose of business is profit. Now, if we didn't make a profit, we wouldn't have been around for 100 years, that is absolutely clear, so profit is super important. But the focus of our business is not to make profit. What I'm really excited about now is so many more businesses are coming forward as purpose-owned businesses. In terms of benefit corporation accreditation, you have to write into your articles of association that you're not there to solely make profit. I've been at Weleda for nearly 14 years, and what I see is a business model whereby if you do the right thing, the profits come. That to me is the biggest challenge for business, is understanding that we meet the needs of human beings, in a holistic way, for the long term, where profit is the result and not the goal. Wouldn't that be an amazing message to get through to all businesses?

B Corp certification has become the new standard of sustainability, right? It’s such a rigorous, independent process. It's not like you buy the certification. What was the journey behind getting that B Corp certification?

Sustainability is bandied about a lot, but it's not just about the planet, it's also all about how you manage your people. The great thing about B Corp is it looks at the community. It’s a 360-degree view on your business processes, how you manage your supply chain, the purpose, etc. It's been a really long, difficult, nearly four-year process. We have 21 individual companies within Weleda. Every single one had to go through the same certification process, or had to be coordinated and combined. That's a massive piece of work. Some of those companies are quite small, like South Korea, which employs less than 10 people, but Weleda in Germany employs over 1,000 people. It’s an incredibly complex set of questions that have to be answered 21 different times, and then all pulled together. We had different country groupings, like the European, Australasia country, and South America groupings, with different accreditation bodies.

We've got a score of 105 and are challenging ourselves now to improve on that. Some of the things we've been doing for the past 100 years we've never documented, so we know that we can change that. It’s an incredible achievement. We now do have an independent bit of paper that says we’re a benefit-led company, which is amazing. We also do lots of things that we can share with other people, different practices, like the setting up and sourcing of our sustainable partnerships around the world.

With the UEBT certification, that feels so natural because the company was using organic farming practices from the get-go.

It's a bit broader than that, but we became a member of the UEBT in 2011, roughly the same time as the South American natural beauty company Natura. We were the first two beauty companies to join UEBT. We really love the UEBT way of working because it wasn't just about a fair price, Fair Trade, and ethical sourcing—it actually looks at biodiversity, the land community, and how sustainable that the whole process is. It is really holistic.

We’ve supported UEBT through conferences and their work, actively encouraging other beauty brands to join. Natura, Weleda, and UEBT worked together to set standards for supply chain sourcing, because we knew that if we had a good set of UEBT accreditation standards, we could then ask all of our farmers to follow those standards. It was almost like open-sourcing it, so instead of Weleda inventing it for ourselves, we did it in partnership. Since 2017, we've applied those standards through over 1,000 different supply chains, and we can audit them now. It's something that I don't think gets shouted about enough. The work that our sourcing team has done on it has been incredible. The same goes for Natura. The key thing now is we want as many beauty companies as possible to be members of UEBT and follow those standards.

Ultimately a collective approach can substantiate change within the wider industry.

Absolutely. Companies can't act in isolation anymore. It has to be in coalition, in community.

Speaking of community, as a legacy brand, were there any challenges in maintaining relevance for Gen Z and younger generations who may have not grown up with the brand?

I think we're a Gen Z brand if I am honest, because of how we've gone about things. Our packaging is quite dated, I don't think Gen Z bothers, they see through bullshit. Our customer base has definitely changed over time, because originally we were part of the Anthroposophical community, so Steiner-based communities like schools, Camphills, hospitals, and so on. Since having gone much more mainstream, instead of finding us solely through pharmacists and doctors, now in Germany we're on every shelf, a top-five household name. We have changed our profile.

Every two years, we do an insights and attitude survey, not just on your view of Weleda, but also what things are important to the individual. What I find interesting is that there's definitely a mindset across all the ages. If you're a Weleda buyer, you have this very similar approach to life, be you 23 or 73. Those attitudes are absolutely Gen Z. Starting to pigeonhole demographics doesn't apply to us. It's an attitude to understanding the part of nature we come from, that the more natural a product, the more likely it is to work in harmony with your own body and body rhythms. At the end of the day, the products work, whether or not you follow that mindset. If you want a good value for money product, not necessarily a cheap product, then that's why people will come to us.

Has your customer base changed over time?

One example that has definitely changed over the last five years is Skin Food. We've got a lot more menus in the brand now. Skin Food is the ubiquitous dry skin cream wherever you need it, so it's great value for money and can be used by anybody and everybody. Although we have done a lot of work with the likes of makeup artists and celebrities, we also have a very loyal following with men who use it for protection when doing manual work. Skin Food, Salt Toothpaste, and Nappy Change Cream has given us a very broad appeal. When you look at most organic beauty brands, they are targeted at your late-20s to mid-40s women. We’ve got much more household appeal, and Skin Food has certainly helped us with that.

Given the 100-year anniversary, how do you hope to see the brand develop in the future? Are there any changes on the horizon?

The next 100 years are probably going to be more exciting than the last 100. What happened during that time? We started out as a pharmacy in a small clinic, with the inspiration coming from Rudolf Steiner, and him working with a medical doctor called Dr. Ita Wegman. They created products for patients that were medicines but also body care products, things like oils, therapeutic bath melts, and creams. Skin Food being one of them.

Over time, because of the way the consumer goods market developed and became regulated, our cosmetics products moved away from our pharmaceutical products. It's unusual to have a beauty company that is also a pharmaceutical company, and I see us really coming together now through wellness, where we're leveraging the strengths of both beauty and pharmaceutical products, so that they are much more holistic and work together to provide everyday wellness. It's almost like a new category, I find that really exciting because it takes us all the way back to where we've come from, and we're doing it in a Weleda way, focused on the customer.

We have a nasal spray called Rhinodoron which is a clever medical device to spray and basically a moisturizer for the inside of your nose made with aloe vera and salt, cleaning your sinuses. These kinds of products could be really exciting, and hopefully they will underpin a stronger daily well-being and wellness routine, starting to support the body's functions. We're doing a lot of work at the moment ensuring that all of our products are microbiome friendly. Our toothpastes and mouthwashes, for example, don't kill the good bacteria in your mouth, which is an important part of your digestion, whereas conventional products do. This is the future for us.

The microbiome also ties nicely into this idea of interconnectedness and trying to build and support, rather than attack.

Only 10% of all life in our bodies is our own due to all the fungi, bacteria, yeast, and more. We have symbiotic relationships and can't survive without each other but go about trying to kill it all, like insecticides in the fields. We've forgotten, because we don't like to think about other things living on us, that we need them for healthy skin. We now know what happens in our guts and how important a flourishing community is in our guts. It's exactly the same for our skin.

Are there any product launches in the works?

First and foremost, we've finally put Skin Food in body lotion form. We've also taken a lot of plastic packaging out of the pack, so it’s now made from PCR plastic. We've got some exciting products coming up like moisturizing-on-the-go for babies and a pregnancy body butter. I've just seen the clinical test results for that in terms of stretch-mark reduction, so that's really exciting. It's fair to say that unlike a lot of brands, when we do a piece of product development, we hope it's going to last a lifetime. There are things coming up that we might not see for another five years, like how do we take our facial skincare up to a new level. These things will take as long as they take and that's one of the reasons why I love the brand so much: we make sure the products are right before we launch it.

I feel like all the launches have always been very true to the nature and ethos of the brand rather than trends or styles of the moment.

Which is lovely to hear. I always think we're kind of the slightly unfashionable, older sister.

But you know she's right in the end.

[laughs]. You might roll your eyes at her but yes, she is right in the end.


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