Following the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Sustainable Beauty Coalition (SBC), Jayn Sterland, chair, chats with Rosie Greenaway about the group’s fearless ambitions to disrupt the status quo and design a brand-new blueprint for beauty – one which puts sustainability above self-interest

The SBC is formed of two groups; let’s begin with the steering committee, consisting of ten key names in beauty.

I am absolutely blown away by how many companies and organizations want to put themselves in the room. The experience is just incredible. They’ve all guaranteed a day a month. When you look at the names, that’s an enormous commitment. Having had the inaugural meeting, they were amazing. I’m so excited. The commitment is absolutely there. Let’s be honest, this is nobody’s day job and it needs to be everybody’s day job. I’m involved to make change. n five years’ time hopefully you’ll actually see the change that we’ve made.

What is the SBC’s advisory board and how will it support the steering committee?

It’s a slightly different role … it’s the people who have committed up to four days a year. So, it might be ‘Look, we’re doing some work on this and we need to pick your brains’ or ‘We need you to help amplify this’ or ‘We need feedback’. With the advisory group there are some people who absolutely should have had a seat in the steering group but couldn’t commit to that level. I want as many people in the advisory group as possible, covering the whole of the beauty industry. To get that 360-degree view … you need to consult a diverse panel of experts. This is not just about beauty; it’s about health [and] wellbeing. That’s so broad – it covers everything from hair and spa and nail, all experiential, through to retail and brands. We want everybody, from all elements [of the] supply chain, coming into this. You need some kind of structure, to deliver the work. It’s not a talking shop.

So the SBC is aiming to effect change across the breadth of the beauty world?

If you think about sustainability you need to think about every single area. It’s such an enormous issue. It underpins every single action we do in business every day. How do we build the culture? How do we raise people’s awareness so that people think ‘sustainability first’? That’s the key.  There are some areas where actually there’s very low hanging fruit, like hair salons – from the amount of product, the amount of water they use. Even the amount of hair; where does the hair go? Because in terms of a circular economy, hair is now a really important commodity, being used as filters, being used for mopping up pollution in oceans … and at the moment we’re throwing it away!

What have you learnt from your initial conversations with the steering committee?

There’s some amazingly good work going on. I’ve been in a Weleda bubble so I know what we do, and I know what a lot of the other green beauty brands do, but I’ve been learning so much about the work that L’Oréal are doing, REN, Unilever – all of this needs to be shared and needs to be talked about. That’s not to say we haven’t got a lot of work to do! What I found out at the inaugural meeting is that there isn’t a strong enough manufacturing base left in the UK. The majority of brands that you see in Superdrug or Boots contract manufacture (LUSH don’t, Weleda don’t, Neal’s Yard don’t – I could go on, there are others) and most of that … no longer sits in the UK. What I heard from one person on the steering committee was that to push green standards through your supply chain, through these third-party contract manufacturing companies, is really hard because they do not adhere to green standards. If you’ve got a contract manufacturer that’s sourcing an ingredient from, say, China, the chances are it has been tested on animals. There are some good contract manufacturers like Matrix, who are B Corp, but we need more.

You’ve said we need to take urgent action; what’s highest on your agenda?

The first thing that I think we will probably work on is [agreeing] some definitions we can put out into the public domain. We bandy these topics about: chemicals, clean beauty. What are the certification schemes? There’s just so much greenwashing going on. Lots of brands make up their own logos. If you read The Courage to Change, the highest consumer issue is animal testing. There is very good, robust regulation across Europe about animal testing in cosmetics … but consumers don’t necessarily know that [and] we still have brands making it a key point of difference which isn’t truthful. At Weleda we’ve never tested on animals, we just wouldn’t do it – never in 100 years. But because we don’t have a Leaping Bunny certification, we get consumers saying we’re a cruelty brand. We need to de-base some of the myths. We probably need to do a consumer campaign about the fact that organic beauty isn’t chemical-free – because everything is a chemical. When we talk about petrochemicals and synthetic ingredients that’s slightly different, but could we at least start … with just agreeing what the British Beauty Council says is clean beauty? That’s just day one!

Which other systemic issues does the SBC plan to focus on?

There is a massive issue about the fact that we’re not circular within our packaging … at the moment everything in beauty is single-use. We make a beautiful plastic pot to put cream in that lasts a thousand years – the cream lasts a month. There are many things: the race to Net Zero, looking at the energy we use. At Weleda we’ve done a lot of work on our carbon footprint. 57% of all the carbon embodied in the lifetime of a product is at consumer use. What do we do about … water and heat and the actual travel of the product into the consumer’s bathroom? The real elephant in the room is overconsumption. How do we tackle that? We’ve all got cupboards full of beauty bottles – stuff that we bought once, didn’t like and there it sits. Some of these are very difficult topics. What we don’t want to do is be preachy, but equally we want to be honest.

You mentioned packaging – could widespread beauty refill vending machines, such as those envisioned by Unpackaged, help penetrate a wider consumer base?

In five years’ time, yes. It’s a bit like when we could no longer get free plastic bags at the supermarket; you had to re-train yourself to keep bags in the car. Unilever is doing a trial with Asda, working with Beauty Kitchen [Return Refill Repeat]. The challenge we’ve got is that nobody’s doing it at scale yet because this is just the start. But in five years’ time it will be quite normal. Weleda has been running a trial in Germany using a slightly different system, but this is embryonic. One of the ideas that was mooted was having a standardized bottle, and that standardized bottle might not even be plastic. The bottle is part of your branding, it is ubiquitous to your brand values and the brand promise to the consumer, so we have to get over that. That’s difficult. The big challenge is that for natural ingredients, where you don’t have a preservative system, your packaging is your preservative system. I firmly believe we need to switch out of using petrochemicals and go back to ingredients that come from the soil, because that is circular and by farming in a certain way you’re locking carbon back into the soil. It is possible to have a brand at scale that uses only farmed, natural ingredients. If we are to get away from using petrochemicals, what’s the preservative system? If it’s a standardized industry bottle and you put it under the tap … you’re already introducing oxidization and bacteria. So that’s quite challenging.

There are also many solid bars on the market now…

There are some really great solid products … I tried a moisturizer the other day, and a cleansing bar. These brands, they’re fantastic – they’re new, small, interrupter brands. It might be that [in] ten years … particularly with Gen Z coming through … all their products are solid and they look back at our wet products, those big bottles of shampoo, and go ‘What were you thinking?’. Soap’s just the ultimate product: it’s portable, it does the job, it lasts a long time, it has very little packaging, and yet what happened to us? Why did we move away from soap? We fell in love with shower washes. Think about … how much of the product actually goes on you as opposed to going down the drain and how much money we’re wasting. I’m really happy to see soap being reinvented as a shower bar. It’s a systemic change that we need – a massive behavioural shift. We’re talking about almost rebasing our industry.

What’s the best-case scenario that could result from the SBC’s efforts?

Number one: that the industry’s brave enough to put self-interest to one side. I firmly believe it is, but there’s a reason The Courage to Change had the word courage in the title, because we as an industry are highly competitive. What does success look like to me? Brands able to come together … and understand that we have one planet, we’re all earthlings, we need to stop squabbling, stop being territorial and actively work together. It is absolutely possible. The second is that we have to take both the consumer and the government on this journey with us. What legislation do we need? Because we will need some, there’s no doubt about it. How can we have one industry voice? What education do we need? Natural sciences should be compulsory. Understanding about biodiversity – this is who we are, this is our home we’re talking about. Not many people are going to be able to afford a seat in the spaceship that’s going to Mars. Our mental health, our physical health, our emotional health, our spiritual health is all to do with being part of nature. We saw that during lockdown.

How has COVID impacted the SBC’s mission?

It sounds odd but I think COVID did us a huge service because suddenly … when we couldn’t get our hair cut and [with] everybody washing their hands and needing moisturizers, it really put beauty under the spotlight. We also suffered – our wellbeing suffered. A lot of our industry … was classified under hospitality and not under non-essential retail. You could go to the barber, but hairdressers couldn’t open. We heard a lot of disparaging remarks; I think beauty is seen by the patriarchy as being an irrelevance, when actually what COVID says is ‘No, it’s super important’. What COVID gave us was a voice in the room. Our industry is worth 3% of GDP, so I’m so happy that the British Beauty Council, through Millie Kendall banging the table with sheer bloody-minded activism, has woken the Government up to the importance of the beauty industry. The UK leads the world; look at our brands. Beauty is getting the profile it deserves.

The Sustainable Beauty Coalition exists to:
  • Develop a roadmap and initiatives to accelerate the sustainability efforts of the industry
  • Encourage and strengthen links across the beauty community, to ‘accelerate collaboration, knowledge and bolder collective efforts’
  • Champion the Green Economy and Green Recovery and support the government agenda in the race to net zero
  • Create stronger frameworks and policies for the UK’s beauty sector
  • Monitor the progress of the roadmap against its goals and keep the execution of its initiatives under review.

Find out more about the Sustainable Beauty Coalition’s work here.