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Using Brand, Beauty and Business for Good with Tina Hedges

It's a Matter Of...Trash

May 17, 2020
May 17, 2020

Sustainability can't be another fleeting beauty trend. It must become the new normal and we all have a role to play. If you peel back the label of most products there’s a lot of marketing and a lack of transparency. Kelly sits down with Tina Hedges, founder and CEO of LOLI the world's first zero waste beauty brand. They dig into shifting the business paradigm from growth and profit at all costs to creating conscious businesses built on profit and purpose. 

Tina Hedges [00:00:23]:
                 Hi, I’m Tina Hedges. I’m the founder of LOLI Beauty, and for me, it’s a matter of trash.

Kelly Kovack [00:00:36]:
               Sustainability. I know, I know, everyone’s talking about it, everyone says they’re doing it, and you may be tired of hearing it. I’m Kelly Kovack, the founder of BeautyMatter, and sustainability can’t just be another fleeting beauty trend, it must become a mandate, it has to become the new normal, and we all have a role to play. The beauty industry has been part of the pollution problem that got us into this world on fire moment we’re living in now. We also need to be part of the solution. It’s a matter of changing the business paradigm from growth and profit above all else to building conscious businesses that are built on profit and purpose. Beauty disrupter Tina Hedges – and I don’t use the word disrupter lightly – is the founder and CEO of LOLI, the world’s first zero-waste beauty brand. She’s building what I believe the future of beauty will look like: sustainable, transparent, and accountable. 

Tina, so you have an interesting background. You sort of have this, early on in your career, sort of a very big business, kind of big beauty business traditional background, but you’ve also married that with some really big entrepreneurial successes, so you’re one of those rare breeds that kind of can live in both worlds. What is it that you think your experience from big beauty brought to your entrepreneurial pursuits?

Tina Hedges [00:02:15]:
                 So, I actually think, Kelly, that the combination of having worked in big beauty and dipping my toe and then getting quite involved in the start-up world, that combination is a perfect synergy, because in my early days, when it counted most, I learned the discipline, the rigor, the responsibility, and the best practices from the world’s leaders. I mean, let’s face it, going through L’Oréal and Estee Lauder is like getting your PhD in beauty. Forget Harvard Business School, who needs that? And so there was a rigor and a discipline in how to look at the business opportunity, how to frame it, how to analyze the financials, how to have rigor in the innovation cycle, and all of that sort of gave me a framework, but that could also be incredibly limiting, right? It can put people into boxes, there can be so much process and so much rigor that it undoes the opportunity. So, on the other side, jumping into the start-up world, I learned that be ready to fail, fail fast, don’t be afraid of failing, which is the antithesis in big beauty, right? 

Kelly Kovack [00:03:26]:
               Right, you don’t fail.

Tina Hedges [00:03:28]:
                 You don’t fail, and you don’t go into a meeting with the chairman of the board or the executive committee and say, “Hey guys, relax, we just failed but we learned a lot,” right? So, I think sort of finding that perfect balance between those two frameworks, discipline and opportunistic endeavors, and just sort of finding that balance, I think that helped me a lot.

Kelly Kovack [00:03:54]:
               Is there one particular thing that you think most sort of entrepreneurs or sort of beauty start-ups lack that big beauty business employees? You know, because there’s a lot of – indie beauty is kind of considered a huge trend right now, although I would say it’s always been part of the business cycle, and a lot of people say, you know, “Big beauty doesn’t move fast enough. Big beauty, there’s too much process-driven,” but they’re still the beauty industry. So, is there like one thing that you could pull from your experience, kind of from big beauty, that you think entrepreneurs in the beauty industry should employ in their businesses that they kind of don’t right now?

Tina Hedges [00:04:40]:
                 I think what I find really shocking when I look at the explosion of indie beauty brands is the lack of responsibility in really understanding formulation. It’s like, you know, someone wakes up one day and gets enamored with the idea of reinventing a category and goes to a very fancy creative agency who does a millennial pink tube with gold foil printing on it, and then they go to a third-party manufacturer and get a formula off the shelf, and then they’re like, “We have a beauty brand,” and then they get lots of venture capital funding, and there’s a lack of rigor and understanding of the formula and what really works and what’s really in it, and sometimes they don’t mean to be misrepresenting what’s in the product, they just don’t have the knowledge and the understanding, and I think that big beauty does this very well, it really trains its marketing and product innovators to work along with the scientists and the PhDs and really understand how products are developed, what goes into them. So, I think that knowledge and that expertise is really missing in indie beauty, and I think it’s a disservice to customer, and now, we’re seeing it also, by the way, in packaging, and the greenwashing of packaging, because these brands don’t know. They’re sitting there talking about bioplastics as being compostable; well, yeah, it degrades into the ground, but it’s leeching micro-plastics into the food supply.

Kelly Kovack [00:06:20]:
               So, you think it’s really that when you’re in big beauty, there is no wiggle room, you have to validate everything, where indie beauty kind of flows a little by the seat of their pants, either intentionally or otherwise?

Tina Hedges [00:06:38]:
                 My mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “the paper holds everything, and just because you write it, doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Kelly Kovack [00:06:43]:

Tina Hedges [00:06:44]:
                 So, I think we’re seeing that, right? You can scan all these websites and the claims they’re making or their social media platforms, and I mean, I’m shocked to see brands that are saying they’re zero waste, or they’re organic, or they’re “clean,” when you just peruse the ingredient list or you look at their packaging, and you know that’s not correct, but there is a lack of governing body. I mean, I’m very, very grateful to partner with Made Safe, because at least on the formula side and the ingredient – granular ingredient side, because they look at such depth, they are, I think, the leading authority on a formula being made safe, but there’s not an equivalent in the sustainable packaging area.

Kelly Kovack [00:07:30]:
               I mean, I would agree with you. I think that the FTC has recently gotten involved in slapping a few hands, both on claims and fake reviews, but do you feel that retailers need to play a role? Because, I think when you sign on with a retailer, you sort of sign a disclaimer saying they’re not responsible, but yet, they’re sort of perpetuating what the claims are, and not all of them actually require substantiation, and even though the FTC did sort of slap some hands, I mean, it really – they didn’t have to advise consumers that the activity had happened, and the financial sum was really nominal in the scheme of things. So, I don’t know, is it a cost of doing business, or is it really trying to hold brands accountable?

Tina Hedges [00:08:22]:
                 So, it’s a fascinating area to look at where do retailers play in the area of responsibility and claim validation and transparency. On the one hand – and, we’re just beginning to dabble our toe into wholesale, and I’ve been asked to sign a few affidavits on vouching that we’re a clean beauty brand, and when I look at what they’re asking me to sign, it’s so meaningless. It’s like the frosting on the cake, and you know, basically any brand could sign these affidavits, there’s no weight to them, there’s no really granular looking at what does it mean to be a zero waste or a clean beauty brand. So then, the difficult for us is we’re doing all the hard work, but brands with way more marketing dollars and ability to advertise or sample are making the same claims, and the retailers are allowing them, because either they don’t know, they don’t have an expert on the retail side to really help them dig down into what brands really have the authorities to make the claims they’re making. So, it’s an interesting conundrum, and I’ve had the have the conversation with myself of, do I secretly write to Estee Laundry and have them to do an expose and try to pull down my competitors, and you know, I have a theory, don’t build your happiness on someone else’s unhappiness, and cream rises to the top, and hopefully an educated consumer will be able to suss out what’s real and what’s not until we find a governing body.

Kelly Kovack [00:10:08]:
               But, you have sort of in the process of creating LOLI, you have found third-parties to sort of substantiate and validate your entire supply chain. 

Tina Hedges [00:10:19]:

Kelly Kovack [00:10:19]:
               So, they do exist, but they’re not always sort of in the beauty realm, right?

Tina Hedges [00:10:24]:
                 Yeah. We’ve done so much work, and some of it we haven’t even advertised yet, but we have a third party that looks at all our formulations on the ingredient level and tests them for everything from pesticides to contaminants to potency prior to us putting our stamp on the final product. We have Made Safe that then also looks at the ingredient level, from the nanoparticle size to where it was sourced from, to how it was formulated, to put their stamp. Then, we also have a platform that looks at our entire supply chain to assess the risk of people trafficking, because even if you think you’re getting fair trade ingredients, that co-op may be getting some parts of their supply chain from areas that have people trafficking. So, it’s a very, very complex ecosystem, and we’ve tried to seek out the experts in different fields to help us, and then, on the sustainable packaging side, the same thing.

Kelly Kovack [00:11:30]:
               So, let’s go back to sort of your reason for being and how you came to launch LOLI. There is the saying, “when one door closes, another door opens,” and I know in your case, you’ve talked about the fact that the universe kept slamming doors in your face and htat the last thing you wanted to do was launch a beauty brand, but I know you’re also a very spiritual person, and I would say, if this is such a thing, a beauty shaman. But, can you share a little bit about why you launched LOLI? And, there is sort of a really beautiful, mystical side, that is really intertwined, and I know you don’t really talk about it very often, but have found a really niche audience, which is interesting.

Tina Hedges [00:12:14]:
                 Yes. So, the whole – there’s a bit of a commercialization happening right now with spirituality and skincare, and you can walk into some of the retailers now, or online, and see everyone has – which really gets to me, the two-dollar crystal facial roller that you can get in Chinatown and charging $60 for them, and, “Wow, isn’t this cool, like now I’m getting crystals with my skincare.” For me, I have a tremendous sense of respect and a feeling of responsibility to the spiritual side. My story begins where I grew up in Jamaica, West Indies, I was born there, so I grew up in the Blue Mountains where natural ingredients were being plucked in my house and made into all sorts of topical and ingestible remedies, so I have an early memory of my mom taking like a tin bucket that you would wash clothes in, pulling mangoes, stripping me naked and sticking me in the bucket with mangoes and letting me eat, but actually letting the juice of the mangoes go all the way down my body – that’s an enzyme cleanser, plus it really stains clothes, so it’s good to eat them naked. But, I actually – the deeper part of the story is that I actually died when I was four years old. I drowned in a swimming pool, and it’s a story I don’t tell that often, and I left my body and went up to whatever you want to think it is, God, creator, whatever word you have for it, and came back and have complete recall of that, and since then, I’ve been a natural intuitive, I channel and I actually see the energy of things. I know how to make the invisible visible. I think that’s why I went into product development, because I really see the future, and I can see the future really well with products, but I also understand the energy of things, and so for me, when I create product, I look at the vibrancy, the spiritual meaning, the emotional meaning, the color impact, everything that goes into that alchemy. So, it’s interesting, our customers who are very loyal definitely feel when they use a product that there’s something different, and they can’t put their finger on it, and I think it’s because of that sort of spiritual aspect, and I believe we need to bring more consciousness back into beauty. When I was in big beauty, at some of the companies I mentioned previously, we would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, on consumer research, one of the things that was always a given is you could take the same product and if you put a fragrance in it that the consumer liked, and you put a fragrance in it that the consumer didn’t like, the one with the more pleasurable scent would always test better for product efficiency.

Kelly Kovack [00:15:39]:
               Oh, interesting.

Tina Hedges [00:15:40]:
                 There’s no difference in the formula except the scent, but they would say “it does better for my lines and wrinkles and my skin is smoother; I look more radiant.” One could argue, well, maybe they’re using it more because they like the fragrance, but they were being paid to use it twice a day, every day. So, I think that you cannot extract the emotional connection and the feeling that when something makes you happy, the impact it’s going to have on you, and I think we have to bring that consciousness back into beauty.

Kelly Kovack [00:16:11]:
               So, can you talk about sort of the closing of doors that led you to ultimately just surrendering to the universe and launching LOLI? I know it was a hard time.

Tina Hedges [00:16:23]:
                 Yeah, it was a really hard time, although, you know, every month feels like another rollercoaster moment, just different dynamics. But, it was about – I want to say about five years ago when this all started, and I had just been in…at the time, I was actually in the beverage industry, and I launched a whole category in beverage called “hangover prevention.” Don’t ask me how I ended up in that, it’s not like I get hangovers every night or something, but I really love innovative ideas, and I met the founder of this business at the time, and maybe I was seduced because it had an angel on the can, called “The Angel of Mercy,” so anything with an angel, I love. But, I had gotten incredibly disenfranchised with beauty. I had a spiritual awakening where I felt that I had spent a decade and a half launching into the world millions of bottles and jars or plastic filled with 80-95% water and toxins and chemicals, and then telling the customer there was some natural ingredient in it, and when I felt about that, it just felt like I wasn’t living my dharma, that that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing.

Kelly Kovack [00:17:41]:
               What year was this?

Tina Hedges [00:17:42]:
                 Really, actually, about 2014, 2015, about four or five years.

Kelly Kovack [00:17:48]:
               Just before people were really talking about…

Tina Hedges [00:17:51]:
                 Yeah, absolutely, and that consciousness just came from a personal sort of quest. I was getting more into my energy healing work, and so looking more at the totality of my impact, and how could I try and do a healing session on someone but on the other side make $20,000 by creating another double-walled PET cream or lotion or jar and selling it at $125 with crap in it – sorry, but that’s what it is. So, I had this moment of sort of a complete download of like, “What are you doing?” and you are really meant to be stirring up something way more magical and meaningful, and really, it was one day that I was just walking, I bought a juice, I walked into a retailer, I looked at the row of face oils, I said, why would we be buying those products? They’re all the same ingredient, it’s all diluted, polluted, and over-packaged, and then I had this sort of vision moment of, “Wow, we need to deconstruct beauty, unbottle beauty, go back to the pure, powerful, and potent living, organic, loving ingredients,” and all of the sudden, I was like, “Oh, that’s the name, LOLI: living, organic, and loving ingredients,” and then I got – I’m getting a chill telling you, actually, this is so funny. And then, so I had the name, and I had this vision of deconstructing beauty, but then I was like, “Okay, universe, what do I do with that? I have no money. I live in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side. I pay from paycheck-to-paycheck to pay my rent and color my hair. What do you expect me to do with this?” So, it was like that nagging thought behind in your mind, but I kept sort of forging my way forward and trying to get consulting jobs, and all of the sudden, I couldn’t get a consulting job. It was just the weirdest thing, I was like, “How is that possible?” So, my income started drying up, which was really scary, and I got to a moment where I was just like, “Wow, I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have a project. I don’t know where I’m going in my future,” and the idea of LOLI kept hovering, and hovering, and hovering, and all of the sudden, I was like, “Well, what happens if I just try and launch it?” and then I started going through the very rational, how am I going to pay for a website? How am I going to pay for inventory?

Kelly Kovack [00:20:32]:
               This wasn’t the first time that you’ve done an entrepreneurial venture, so you knew exactly what you were getting yourself into.

Tina Hedges [00:20:39]:
                 Correct, correct. I mean I love those stories when people say, “Oh, I had $500 and now I have a hundred-million-dollar business and I didn’t take a cent.” There’s always an underlying story to those stories, that it isn’t quite how they’re portraying it, because I’m sorry, you have to pay for ingredients, and you have to pay for – and it’s always more than you anticipate, and even if you have better sales than you anticipate, you’re still going to have cash flow issues, so, I could rationalize how difficult this was going to be, but I just was like, “Let me try. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I fail? Well, I’m already failing right now, so I might as well fail larger.” So, I started in my Upper East Side apartment and I did a test, and the rest is history.

Kelly Kovack [00:21:27]:
               I mean, I remember those early boxes, and I can remember the conversations we had, and I was like, “Oh my god, she’s really onto something,” and I don’t think I even kind of realized at the time sort of how big the mission was that you were undertaking, but you literally deconstructed not only the concept of beauty, but the entire supply chain. Like, how difficult was that?

Tina Hedges [00:21:51]:
                 Yes. That was super difficult.

Kelly Kovack [00:21:54]:
               Like, where do you even start?

Tina Hedges [00:21:55]:
                 You know what, Kelly? I actually remember those meetings, and I remember being embarrassed bringing that box to you, and feeling like Mother’s Loving Hands at home.

Kelly Kovack [00:22:06]:
               Well, it was hardly that, but…I mean, anyway who can pull off sort of a collaboration in Mother’s Helping Hands at work with Alexander Yang is not exactly like crafty Betty.

Tina Hedges [00:22:19]:
                 Well, I think we did that through the back door. That story is so funny, it’s worth another conversation. But, anyway, deconstructing the beauty industry and starting from how ingredients are sourced, and looking at how can we be more sustainable, from sourcing to product formulating to packaging to the experience of beauty, both in the consumer’s home and at retail, and really looking at every single piece of that, and how can we be as zero waste as possible, as sustainable as possible, and as powerful as possible, and I think the supply chain was absolutely the hardest, and it’s something I’m most proud of. We sourced every single ingredient. We have relationships with fair trade co-ops where we upcycle ingredients, like our date nut seed oil, from seven villages in Senegal, which now because we’re upcycling an ingredient, the nut, the kernel of the date, that used to be thrown away, it’s giving the women in the villages income during months that they usually wouldn’t have had the income. After they harvested the date, for months, they had no income coming in; now all of the sudden they have a whole new opportunity, so looking at how by upcycling we’re not only improving the sustainability of beauty from an ingredient supply chain, but we’re giving women income or opportunity that they didn’t have, right, to change their life. So, that’s on the sourcing side, and then the formulating, we’re moving the water. Wow. Trying to find a third-party manufacturer that’s willing to make our products that are as chemical and preservative free as the most organic of your food, food-grade, waterless, I mean, most third-party manufacturers didn’t want to work with us. They’d hear my vision, and they’d be like, “She’s crazy. You need to dump all of these shitty chemicals in there.” But, you know why? Their manufacturing supply lines are so infested with bugs, that unless you drop a ton of preservatives in there, your product is coming off that line contaminated, and you know how we know that? Because half of our inventory on our first run, we had to throw away. Things that never get micro-issues, like really hard, like you have to try, an oil or a salve or a balm, that’s anhydrogenous product, to get contamination in there is really difficult, and we literally had to throw away half of our inventory; so what does that tell you? The standards are just not there; they don’t look at it the way we look at it. We look at it as: we’re a food company reinventing beauty.

Kelly Kovack [00:25:14]:
               I think another interesting thing that you have kind of turned, or changed the paradigm on, is the beauty industry is historically really secretive; secretive about proprietary this, no one wants to talk about their vendors, although it’s a really small, incestuous pool on the supply side, but you know, what has been normally considered proprietary information, you’ve actually collaborated with people who might be perceived to be competitors, you also have open-sourced your formulations, so to speak, or recipes, to consumers, and you’re also incredibly generous with information, and I know this sort of goes to a larger cause that you believe in, and also is sort of fundamental, I think, to the person you are, but to the DNA of LOLI. Why do you think that’s important?

Tina Hedges [00:26:10]:
                 I think to be a change maker, you need to be able to communicate on all levels how change is made, and I think being secretive or competitive is really just a selfish attempt to money-grab, and listen, LOLI, it is a B-Corps, but we are a for-profit business; I have shareholders and investors that are looking for their return on their investment, but one of the reasons we became a B-Corp is that part of our mission and our obligation to our shareholders is this altruistic approach and commitment to impact on many levels, and I think that the only way we’re going to be able to deliver on that, is if we actually share notes and learn from others, because I may have part of the solution, someone else may have another part of the solution, and together, the two sides of the orange come together to make one orange, right? If I just hold onto my piece, I’m insular, and things are changing so rapidly, so I think it’s hard to have that dialogue. And, second of all, I come from sort of an old school approach that when you educate the consumer on the industry, everyone rises, everyone wins.

Kelly Kovack [00:27:39]:
               And, I also think that the issues in the industry that you’re tackling are really big issues, you know, the beauty industry is one of the largest polluters of plastic in the world. So, you, Tina Hedges at LOLI, can’t singlehandedly change that, it’s going to take the entire industry.

Tina Hedges [00:27:59]:
                 And, truthfully, I think that there’s some very well-meaning leaders in some of these big beauty companies that think they’re doing well, but again, they’re so busy, they’re running from meeting to meeting, they trust their advisors who are supposed to be experts, whether they’re suppliers or internal development people, to tell them the facts, and they don’t have the time – I literally spend my “fun” time reading Harvard research papers on compostable materials and things like that. I really dig into the details. I personally love it, but most beauty execs don’t have that time, right, so if their supplier says, “Oh, this is a PLA tube and it’s made from sugar cane or corn, and it’s completely compostable,” they’ll be like, “That’s amazing, let’s launch that. Let’s do it,” and they don’t realize that that is actually worse for the environment than some of the more traditional plastics, because people think it’s compostable, and it’s not – I mean, it will break down, but it breaks down into micro-plastic.

Kelly Kovack [00:29:08]:
               So, you know, if you’re so generous about information, how do you marry that with kind of keeping your competitive edge? Because that, I guess, ties into why people are so secretive.

Tina Hedges [00:29:24]:
                 So, sharing with, whether they’re competitive brands or other industry leaders, where I source my garden compostable labels, or where I source my food-grade refillable glass jars, that isn’t going to make the difference of LOLI being successful, because they could get to that supplier.

Kelly Kovack [00:29:45]:
               They just need to look hard enough.

Tina Hedges [00:29:47]:
                 They just – they need to look hard enough, but they could get to that supplier whether I give it to them or they find it on their own, but they can’t duplicate the heart and soul of our brand, and I think that’s where brand and the emotional connection to brand is so important. You could create product, you can commoditize. I mean, nowadays when you look, it’s hard to tell this razor company from that razor company, whether it’s a pink razor or it’s a blue razor, everyone is trying to get - all the language is the same, all the websites look the same, brands are losing – it’s again become this commoditized factory of producing direct consumer brands that there’s a template, and that template is just getting used over and over and over again. I think that I’ve spent so much time and effort and maybe at the expense of accelerating revenue quicker, but really developing the emotional component, the heart and soul of the brand, and I’m most proud of that, and I think that that is someone no one can steal from us. They can take our language; they can take our suppliers; they can duplicate our formulas, which are very difficult to duplicate, so good luck to you; but they won’t be able to duplicate LOLI.

Kelly Kovack [00:31:15]:
               You know, I think that’s one of the things that I sort of – not struggle with, but it’s very interesting to see these brands that…I don’t know if they’re brands or products, to be quite honest with you, because we both come from…we have a historical legacy of building brands, we’ll put it that way, that’s a bit more traditional, where you really sort of build brands that last, and I kind of think that we’re in a time now where, I don’t know, maybe we’re in the time of supernova brands where there is not this longevity and investors kind of play a game of hot potato and you hope you don’t get stuck with it in the end. But, I think the way you’ve built it makes so much more sense to me, because you really have a solid foundation that gets you through ups and downs of trends and economies.

Tina Hedges [00:32:06]:
                 And, whenever I have a moment of fear or doubt, which that happens pretty much a hundred times a day, I go and read customer testimonials, and I received one the other day which was just so incredible, I’ve never seen anything like this. A customer had dropped our plum elixir on the floor, and it’s a glass bottle, and it’s a fairly heavily walled glass bottle, but if you drop it from five feet above, it probably will crack, and they sent a picture and said that the top of the bottle had cracked, and they sent a picture and said, “I don’t know if I should be mildly proud or slightly embarrassed, but I have continued to use my plum elixir and take the risk of glass shards on my skin because I’m so obsessed with this product,” and I wrote back and said, “I love your loyalty to the brand, but please don’t use that any longer and we’ll send you a replacement,” and then that became viral, and people started reposting and talking about it, because they were like, “This brand has the best customer service,” and I’m like, it’s not really customer service, that’s just who we are; we really care about our customers. I care about every single customer, and I think that goes back to one of your earlier questions, Kelly, where we talked about, “What did I learn from big beauty?” You know, my earliest training ground was at Estee Lauder, and I joined when she was still alive, although quite removed from leadership, Leonard was running the ship, but her philosophies and her outlooks were really engrained in the management team, and she would be the first to be out on the floor touching a customer, and she said, “Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman,” and so she understood the power of touching each customer and the virility of that, and I think that is in my heart and soul; no one can take that from me.