Features, The Business of Beauty

From Green to Clean: The Pricey, Status-Driven Evolution of Natural Beauty

When I was still on the payroll at Condé Nast, I used to attend an annual pow-wow hosted by a global beauty company (I’ll let you guess which) that I referred to ironically as “Paraben University.”

The event took place on our own campus, so we beauty directors could head to the corporate dining room, grab coffee and settle in. While not mandatory, attendance was strongly encouraged. After all, this beauty company was also a major advertiser. To skip would be a political faux pas.

Nearly the entire day, each year, was devoted to debunking myths about suspect chemicals in skincare and makeup. Alongside parabens, we learned about other impossible-to-pronounce bad boys like phthalates, siloxanes and triclosan. (The list went on.)

As a consumer, I had been increasingly concerned that the chemicals I was slathering on my hair, face and body would eventually come to fester as cancer. But as an editor, trying new products was a large part of my job. Full-tilt natural wasn’t practical.

That’s where Paraben University helped. After hours listening to scientists rattle off statistics about “parts per million” and “cumulative toxic loads,” my fears were assuaged.

Of course the global beauty giant had an agenda; most egregious chemicals are not only wildly effective, they’re also dirt cheap. To substitute natural ingredients that were more costly and might not perform as well didn’t make sound business sense. If they could convince editors that everything was copasetic, they could continue to dominate the mass market with their much-loved, chemically-boosted brands. To this day, I can argue both sides of this issue.

Drum Beat of “Clean” Grows Louder

Women—and men—searching for products devoid of the “dirty dozen” ingredients considered most harmful to health is growing and becoming more vocal. This informed crowd doesn’t hesitate to bash a brand that it suspects might be deceiving consumers.

Case in point: The Honest Company. This successful brand fronted by Jessica Alba is valued at $1.7 billion, and weathered public shaming after customers posted pictures of sunburns they’d suffered after using the company’s SPF 30 sunblock. That rabble-rousing led to a class-action lawsuit. The company also got hammered for hiding its use of sodium lauryl sulfate, a controversial sudsing agent. The company insisted it was using the (theoretically) less loathsome sodium coco sulfate but soon caved; this fall, it announced plans to kick the coco to the curb.

Such consumer activism has helped usher in an era of transparency in beauty. Today, the descriptor “natural” is virtually meaningless. Even “green” isn’t really cutting it. Now it’s all about “clean,” a moniker that pushes green to the next level.

“In hindsight, green was the first stage of defining natural beauty as more than just a pharmacopeia of land and sea ingredients. Sustainability and imprint on the planet were also deemed important,” says Tina Hedges, founder of LOLI Beauty, an organic brand that empowers customers to blend their own brews. “This resulted in ‘green-washing,’ and a slew of pseudo-brands flooded the marketplace touting natural ingredients. But on closer scrutiny, those brands didn’t live up to their promise of purity.”

Hedges, who says the organic and natural personal care category is on track to hit $15 billion by 2020, believes that clean ups the ante on green. “Much like the trend in food, clean beauty has become the next frontier, where traceability of ingredients defines authenticity. It’s not enough to say a product contains goji berry. Is the goji berry wild-harvested, fair trade and non-GMO, or an extract synthesized in a lab? From my position, clean encompasses purity (origin) and potency (minimally processed, raw), and goes as far as to consider the entire ecosystem—from harvesting to production—to ensure a kind imprint on people and planet.”

Still, Hedges is the first to admit that most beauty lovers aren’t nearly as aware of these criteria. “Does the consumer really understand the difference between green and clean? Not yet, most likely. But she’s well on her way, asking smart questions and demanding transparent answers.”

And she’s being helped along by a woman with a very big platform: Gwyneth Paltrow. The actress and entrepreneur is leading the charge for clean beauty. Click the “beauty” tab on her Goop website, and you can read her mini manifesto:

“These beauty products are GOOP CLEAN, which means they go beyond all-natural, beyond non-toxic, beyond green-washing to be truly good for you, not harmful to your health, and effective and powerful, too.”

Quality, Purity and Prices Inch Skyward

Alongside a tidy roster of beauty brands that pass Paltrow’s stringent litmus test is her own range of Goop by Juice Beauty skincare, eight SKUs that start at $90 and head north.

Expensive merch is the norm for Goop; Paltrow is pummeled in the media for raving about products and services that are the province of the one percent. She’s hardly alone among haute shopkeepers in culling a status-driven assortment. When it comes to clean beauty, pricey, luxe and chic is the m.o. of the moment.

According to retail whiz Shashi Batra, who helped Sephora crack North America and now helms Credo, a digital and brick-and-mortar purveyor of clean beauty, prices may start to drop as demand increases. “It’s much harder to develop formulas with natural ingredients and safe preservative systems,” he says. “Having said that, we still carry a broad price range in our assortment. And we have indeed found brands that have begun to scale and offer very accessible price points across various categories.” Batra cites Acure, Trilogy, W3LL People, Han and Lily Lolo as examples of affordable clean beauty.

Hedges points to a way clean brands can use premium ingredients and hold the line on price and tap consumer zeitgeist: by eliminating the middleman.

“There does appear to be a consumer mindset in beauty that expensive means better quality,” she says. “But that’s slowly changing with brands like Dollar Shave Club in personal care, and Warby Parker, The Reformation and Everyone in accessories and apparel. They’re educating customers about the efficiencies of the direct-to-consumer model.”

Made in America – at Long Last

The brands Hedges cites as groundbreaking in distribution are all home-grown. And after years of lagging behind Europe (and Canada and Australia, says Batra), America is beginning to crank out strong clean beauty lines, too.

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“In the past three years, we think the U.S. consumer awareness has started to inspire entrepreneurs here to follow quickly what has happened abroad,” Batra notes. “We see changes every day in terms of the level of interest in ingredients, customers reading labels and asking questions, and demand for accessibility to these brands.”

Asked for his short list of American manufacturers he thinks are on the verge of breaking out and getting big, Batra points to Marie Veronique, Ilia, Suntegrity and One Love Organics.

LOLI, which has recently collaborated with Adidas, Ford and designer Alexander Wang on pop-up blending bars and customized box experiences, is a clean American beauty brand that draws from a global ingredient and inspiration palette. Tapping into Wang’s Chinese heritage and “modern luxury aesthetic” Hedges crafted blend-it-yourself products based on thousand-year-old recipes. “The Chinese empresses washed their hair and skin in rice water,” she says, “so we included a Black Bamboo Rice Blend that you could ferment to create your own face tonic or aftershave.”

If fermented, whipped-up for Alexander Wang ‘s Paris Fashion Week showroom, isn’t the embodiment of next-gen clean beauty, I don’t know what is.

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