How Health and Beauty Brands Can Weave Sustainability Into the Fiber of Their Companies

We recently spoke with Bluebird advisor and environmental expert Eric Wilmanns to share his perspective for brands just getting started on sustainability. Now, we’re diving even deeper to find out what health and beauty brands can do to weave sustainability into the fiber of their companies. Here’s what he had to say.

Let's say you are co-founding a beauty company with somebody and things are just getting started. Can you walk me through your thought process for sustainability?

So if it was going to be health, beauty, or personal care or something like that, you’d want to focus on packaging and raw materials to start. And overall you want to consider environmental and human toxicity, water use, and whether the product is coming from a renewable or non-renewable source.

First things first: Packaging

Packaging is all pretty figured out by now, but you need to come up with what your priorities are going to be. Whatever the recycled content is, whatever the material is, and if you can have any kind of circularity on it.

For premium products, there’s a mentality that you don’t want to use a small wooden box for an expensive medication, or your brand might want to pay more for packaging that has all sorts of layers in it. Those layers are often laminated plastics, which are basically unrecyclable because they’re so commingled. And even when brands choose recycled materials or materials without print or colors, they might still choose laminated paper.

That said, durability is still important. Patagonia tried super minimalist packaging with some of the long underwear they sold, using a rubber band that held the hang tag. That turned into a retail nightmare. People would come in and try things on and, if they didn’t fit, they’d put them back. At the end of the day the retail employees had to rewrap all of them.

Next: What are your raw materials?

The other thing to consider is what kind of raw materials you’re using. This is easier for a startup to choose from the beginning and go forward than for a team being handed something that already has 40 years of history on how they select their raw materials.

The kind of questions you’d want to ask about raw materials are life cycle (carbon and water impacts), toxicity, and where the materials are coming from. Your analysis will also depend on whether you’re using the hazard method or risk-based method.

Choosing a mode of evaluation: Risk versus hazard

If you’re looking to remove hazards, you don’t get stuck in a hierarchy of what’s the risk of someone being impacted. You know smelling solvent fumes is bad, so you don’t use solvents. You know having lead in products is bad, so you don’t use lead. That’s the hazard way of doing it.

Because there are so many hazards, if you do risk-based, you go down this toxicological work of, “Well, if you smell solvents for eight hours a day for 50 weeks a year at this level, studies have shown that only x people are impacted from it,” and you decide that it’s okay.

Take seat belts for example. We’ve shown that if you wear seat belts and have airbags in your car, then your chances of dying in a car accident are one in a million per time you get into the car — so there’s an acceptance of risk. You might do a similar acceptance of risk for certain raw materials if the risks are minimal.

By and large things are done using the risk assessment method versus hazard. I think the hazard method is wonderful, it’s just how many options it might cancel on using materials. And it’s not as easy to avoid these materials as you might think.

For example, Europe has hundreds of compounds you can’t use in apparel to get a green seal. The challenge is that with a dye bath you could have six main chemicals, but you’ve also got the water treatment, the fixative, and the surfactant — and all those have another dozen compounds in them. Plus, you might have a dye bath with 50 compounds that come from 40 different manufacturers that may say they never use the banned chemicals, but they’re buying from another 10 manufacturers. So, now you’ve got 400 manufacturers, and of those 400, this week’s dye bath could have 100 new ones because maybe your dye supplier got too expensive and you had to go to another one, and so on. This simple process of getting your dye evolves throughout the year.

That’s why I think programs can do a fine job with a couple standards that have taken a long time to build, but supply chains are still so complicated and convoluted. It’s not as simple as, “I’m buying apples from this one orchard in Washington and we made an essential oil out of it.” All of the nodes in a supply chain have things coming in and going out that change monthly or yearly, if not weekly.

What about marketing? It can be scary to communicate any results you get when there’s always so much more work to be done.

At the end of the day, whether you’re an established company or a new company, the balance is moving from where you are to where you want to be. And I think you gain respect by saying something to that effect, like “These are the steps we implemented, and we are rid of those three chemicals, or we found a new manufacturer that is mostly hydro and solar powered.” It’s an honest story.