Mono-dose packaging is often associated with higher production costs and waste, but industry veteran Karen Lee-Thompson has managed to create customized, single-use skincare in completely recyclable packaging made from up to 80% recycled PET, proclaiming Wǒ Skincare as “the only skincare brand that can fit through your letterbox.” The entire skincare routine has been pared down to two steps: the 3-in-1 (cleansing, hydrating, conditioning) Daily Base and the Power TonIQ treatment essence. Given the vast array of possible product combinations, the straightforward formulas are made with a maximum-effect, minimum-irritation model in mind. The Daily Base comes in four different formulations ranging from a light gel to a soothing oil, while the Power TonIQ has 11 different incarnations targeting everything from acne to dark spots.
Aside from being travel friendly, the mono-dose format ensures a fresh product, and easier switching between formulations depending on skin needs than one would have with full-size products. Prior to purchasing product, customers fill out a 13-step skincare diagnostic, which incorporates details ranging from gender and ethnicity to lifestyle factors. After all, everything from one’s diet and surroundings to the aging process and hormonal changes can affect the state of the skin.The result of “a year’s worth of blood, sweat, and tears,” according to Thompson, the tool was developed in collaboration with skin biologists, data scientists, and product developers. She found a key partner in Steve Barton, former Skincare Scientific Advisor at Boots Group, for the research and algorithm design processes. They then tested the prototype at Bradford University’s health center prior to launch.
With customized skincare, especially that which incorporates ethnicity into skin condition, being only a recent development, it begs the question as to why the industry has been so slow to look outside of the traditional skin type model of development. “The honest answer is convenience, because the easiest way to help customers navigate your product portfolio is working down to skin type,” Thompson remarks. “But then we all know that it’s not true that you only have one skin type for life. What we're trying to do is to streamline all that very complicated information into one simple tool. One key thing is trying to encourage people to think of your skin as a bigger thing, not just focusing on the bad bits.”
Technology-fueled customization has undoubtedly made great strides recently, but it’s also an increasingly discerning consumer category driving the market. Yesterday this customer was Googling the ingredients, tomorrow they want the ingredients handpicked according to their unique needs, not a mass-produced product developed in accordance with generalized, generic skin types. “We want the system to be so flexible that the consumer is able to use the product for a longer period of time, but still maintain the product integrity,” Thompson explains.
As former Global Innovation Sourcing Manager across all beauty categories at the Walgreens Boots Alliance, and founder of product development and consulting agency Beauty Consociare, which houses Wǒ Skincare, Thompson’s approach fuses the bold independence of a start-up with decades of business acumen. “Large organizations have their advantages: the structure, the know-how, the knowledge accumulated over the years, setting really high standards. It's striking the right balance. I actually went through clinical trials on all our products. Not a lot of indie brands would do that, it’s a huge investment upfront. But to me, it’s building that solid foundation, so when you're ready to scale up, it's easier,” she states. She acknowledges the need for sustainability to the best of the company’s ability while not compromising on skincare performance. The industry is taking notice, with Wǒ Skincare winning this year’s Pure Beauty Awards Best New Skincare Brand Award.
A line three years in the making, what began as an intention for convenience has blossomed into something far bigger. “When I started diving into this format, I suddenly realized the benefits that we can bring to the consumer with mono-dosing are endless,” Thompson states. One example is the no-bells-and-whistles packaging, created in conjunction with a Swiss-based supplier, which, while appropriately sleek and simple for a single-use product, also makes recycling easier. “Simplicity is the whole ethos of our brand,” its founder echoes. The cost of mono-dose packaging means that the company needs to take a hit on their margins in order to keep the costs down for the consumer, but Thompson is willing to make this compromise in order to stay true to her original vision. “If you look at our price point, we are not any more expensive than our competitor brands. In terms of value for money for the consumer, we did our utmost to be able to deliver [that]. It's my top secret, a lot of people were raising their eyebrows at how I’ve managed to do this,” she jovially remarks.
While there have been concerns about the finite possibilities for recycling plastic, and its lack of biodegradability, there are a range of other benefits to Wǒ Skincare’s production methods which further benefit sustainability, the most striking being that customers only buy the product they use; no more, no less. “Don't buy what you don't need. That's our ultimate goal for everyone,” Thompson proclaims. Products are available in 2-, 4-, or 8-week dosages. Furthermore, for shipping, the lightweight packaging means less CO2 emissions during transport, a point which is often a drawback on glass packaging. If a formulation isn’t working for them, customers discard only a few vials, rather than an entire jar or pump dispenser bottle. Furthermore, given the great flexibility of the product model, it also creates more conscious consumption, as buyers are encouraged to fine-tune their skincare based on its current needs.
An often-overlooked fact in the sustainability race is access to resources. The financial and resource opportunities for an independently funded brand, especially those with no prior large sales numbers to their name, means the opportunity for eco-friendly practices is not always a completely level playing field. “Sustainability is such a big topic, we have to think about all different elements within this space. People challenge us, saying small items tend to be difficult to recycle, but that’s because of the existing systems within our country. The bigger organizations like TerraCycle are "big boys' clubs"—not every indie brand is able to access that. So we are here to champion the equal opportunity for everybody to do the right thing here,” Thompson passionately states. A tireless maverick, she acknowledges there is still more work to be done on this front, and embraces all the future possibilities that lie ahead. “Currently, there's no commercially viable option to replace simple PET in the market right now. We are continuing to talk to innovative suppliers to see how we can change this as we go along. We want to reduce first before we can go on to the next technology advancements: materials that are fully biodegradable and better for the longer term,” she says. As for the industry at large, Thompson sees the sustainability challenge ahead as the ultimate unifier between all brands, whether indie or corporate. “I firmly believe to tackle the sustainability issue, everybody needs to come together and share the knowledge and resources we have, rather than seeing each other as competition,” she proclaims.
Thompson’s journey from the high corporate ranks to sustainable indie efforts has been nothing short of a 180-degree-turn of events, and conviction. “I worked through the fast beauty period of this industry, trying to create more ways to get people to buy products, growing a business with long-term PD. But I don’t believe in that anymore. On a personal level, I’m now strictly down to two products and my skin has never been better,” she states. While one part of her brand is highly technology driven, Thompson emphasizes the need for customers to feel empowered by listening to their own individual needs. “Our brand ethos comes back to understanding yourself. Over time you develop the habit of knowing what your skin needs in a more intuitive way,” she says. “We want people to feel confident from within. When you are in control, you will feel confident.”
Thompson’s dedication to not using secondary packaging in order to reduce waste has presented a huge challenge for entering the retail space, with conversation partners not allowing the brand on their shelves due to this omission. Nonetheless, the entrepreneur is firmly standing her ground. “Obviously everybody wants to do the right thing, but it takes time to change. For us, to create all the secondary packaging to go on the store shelf is defeating the whole brand value,” she explains. While it was undoubtedly an initial hurdle, it hasn’t stood in the way of Wǒ Skincare’s growth, with international expansion and potential e-commerce partnerships currently on the horizon. Thompson started off self-funding the business, soon thereafter pulled two investors onboard, and is currently eyeing further investment in order to fund the next stages of the company. “I'm very cautious because I want partners that will support my mission and dream. I'm still in this business because some of the things, for me, are not up for compromise, especially when it comes to sustainability,” she comments, a final testament to the power of having the courage of your convictions.
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