Sarah Brown’s guide to the big and little things beauty brands are doing to make sustainability stick.
- Written By
- SARAH BROWN
FROM THE DESK OF SARAH BROWN:
As you know, our mission here at VIOLET GREY is to make shopping easy and to guarantee that all who pass through our virtual doors leave with an expert-approved, chic-as-hell, world-class beauty regimen.
You can trust us with your skin, with your hair, with your statement red lip, with your really important gift-giving moments, and with the decisions we make on behalf of you, our boss.
Those decisions include seeking out brands that not only make the best products in the world, but that actually care about the world. The brands we admire most are taking concrete steps to follow more thoughtful practices. They are focused on sustainability, a tossed-around term (the beauty industry is famously unregulated, p.s.) we interpret as creating more environmentally ethical, circular, and sensitive practices that leave the planet essentially not worse off than how we found it. It’s a start… These founders and their companies are looking at the entire picture—formula, packaging, supply chain, product journey—in order to make a small dent in enormous problems.
Making sustainability stick is about the things we commit to doing consistently that can add up to tangible change. “We have to recognize that every little micro-step is progress, and it’s progress over perfection,” says NÉCESSAIRE co-founder Randi Christiansen. It’s inspiring to see the creative solutions our brands are finding to simply do things better. Did you know that the cardboard-ish outer cartons that EIGHTH DAY’s hero Regenerative Serum comes in are made from T-shirt and denim scraps diverted from the millions of tons of textile waste sent to landfills each year? Or that SALT & STONE sources upcycled ocean plastics for the packaging for those amazing smelling natural deodorants that have us all so obsessed? Backstage superstar SAM McKNIGHT —perhaps as famed for his hairstyling prowess as his green thumb—went as far as planting his Lazy Girl Biodegradable Hair Cleanse Clothes amidst the roses and dahlias in his London garden to make sure the bio-cellulose sheets were truly compostable. (Voilà: gone after six weeks!)
Here are the steps some of our favorite VIOLET CODE APPROVED brands are taking to create positive change:
“The challenge, which we all face as brands, is how to upscale our vision in a sustainable way?” says Kaufmann. She takes a “local-first” approach, sourcing her healing Alpine botanicals from nearby farms in her native Bregenzerwald and “keeping the radius as small as possible to minimize transportation before shipping globally.” For products like the Mountain Pine Bath, she knows where literally every single pine sprig comes from—they are collected from the forest behind her solar-powered production house in the Austrian mountains, dried and placed by hand in each bottle.
Meet The Plant Brush: everyone’s favorite brush, now in an option crafted from 85% sustainably grown castor beans (which, using renewable energy sources, are turned into castor oil, and then bio-plastic pellets). Any leftover waste, post oil extraction, is used as fertilizer; the process does not involve deforestation, requires minimal water, and supports local communities in India. (The factories are independently audited to ensure that workers are paid fairly and operate in safe conditions.) The brush is designed to last a long, long time, but when it’s time to replace your trusty detangler, you can send it back to the company, where they will recycle it—melting it down and turning it into pellets used to make everything from watering cans to garden chairs.
New York power derm Macrene Alexiades, M.D., takes the notion of fewer, better things seriously: instead of introducing more and more products each year, she believes in designing a tight skin care regimen and perfecting the eight heroes her customers already love. “I’m not a big brand. I’m growing very slowly, and that is intentional,” she says. “I update my formulations every year so they’re always new and cutting edge, as opposed to adding more SKUs, and waste, to the world. I look at it as: make as few things as possible and make sure they have high efficacy.”
“One of the words we were using for the first two years was ‘sustainable,’ and as I started to get into the workstream it humbled me greatly. None of this is sustainable. We’re responsible at best,” says co-founder Randi Christiansen. With Néssesaire—a certified B-Corp, which supports 1% for the Planet and partners with the standardized labeling system How2Recycle—Randi and her co-founder Nick Axelrod-Welk “set out to create the necessary.” But for her, it is not simply about putting out a concise edit of excellent products, it is about constantly working to reduce the impact the business creates, just by being in business. “Let’s simply recognize that we have a footprint and make it our job to minimize it as best we can,” she says. Since its inception, the company has partnered with Climate Neutral to help measure and offset its footprint. “We work with them to make reduction plans, like instead of one shipping location in the U.S., we split it into two, so the amount of air fuel we use shipping to the customer is reduced significantly, by around 35-40-percent,” explains Randi. “What we should enhance is the amount of reduction we have to do. Instead of offsetting carbon, we should not have the footprint to begin with—that’s the ultimate.”
For their entrée into beauty, Rodrigo Caula and Enrico Pietra, the Venice Beach-based duo behind AEIR, created their version of the 21st century’s most wantable prestige perfume: extraction-free fragrance packaged in sleek, space-grade aluminum (the same stuff NASA uses to for satellites and spaceships). “We want to avoid as much impact to the environment as possible,” says Rodrigo. “Do we need to chop down a 90-year-old palo santo tree to create palo santo? Are there solutions we can tap into today; is there chemistry and biotech that we can access so we can at least start proving this is possible? Our objective is to be carbon-negative and fully circular down the road, starting with extraction-free fragrance.”
Taking a cue from Chanel—No. 5, after all, was one of the first perfumes to incorporate synthetics, in the form of aldehydes, to create a note they could not otherwise achieve—AEIR relies upon fully synthetic formulas for its scents. But doesn’t a real flower smell better than one created in a lab? “Today you can get really close,” says Rodrigo, though he clarifies, “our orange flower smells like our orange flower. You should think it’s iconic; it’s AEIR’s orange flower. It’s an interpretation. We’re not trying to recreate the natural world identically because that’s impossible. We’re able to build this new universe of fragrance in a way we haven’t been able to before.” For their Wet Stone fragrance, which evokes marble, a hint of tobacco, the feeling of saltiness and humidity, for example, “these new synthetic notes we tap into take us on a journey that you might not experience in the real world,” he explains. Grand Rose, their “interpretation of the most iconic rose,” captures “the smell of old money and vanilla. We brought this old dollar bill note into the rose and created this interesting hybrid. It’s the vibe you can create.”
“When I started Costa, I decided to focus on what I knew I could do: the ingredient story and how we source things in the Amazon,” says founder Francisco Costa. For him, it is about the land, the people, and making the entire process as transparent as possible. Costa regularly makes sourcing trips to his native Brazil, spending time with the local communities and individual families who venture into the jungle for months at a time to capture precious raw materials like breu, an aromatic resin collected from indigenous trees, which is deeply rooted in Brazilian tradition and culture, and a key feature in products like his Sal de Banho bath salts. He is working to establish traceability along every part of his supply chain, and to hopes to create a cooperative to protect the rights of the local people who play such a critical role in his story. “You can’t solve all the problems of the world, but you do what you can in certain areas and work collaboratively. Sharing resources is super important, being outspoken, and curious,” he says. “ It’s a systemic situation that we inherited. The time is now. What can we do?”