Every week we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Brianne West, founder of sustainable, plastic-free cosmetics company Ethique.
ONE: How did Ethique start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Ethique came about as a combination of my passion for the environment, knowledge of the cosmetics chemistry (and the waste the industry creates) and the desire to create a business that had far more at its core than just making a profit. It seemed so obvious to remove water (and therefore plastic) and just send customers the concentrated ingredients so they can add the water at home.
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Ethique?
I started my very first business – a pet detective agency – when I was eight-years-old. This didn’t last too long, and I started my first real business when I was 19. It was a cosmetics company too, but a more conventional one. I ran it part-time for about four years and it was relatively successful for a hobby business. I learnt the importance of keeping good financial records (I didn’t keep any for about three years, which really hurt later on) and how effective social media can be (Facebook was just becoming open to business in later years.) I sold it prior to starting Ethique and the buyer has done a fabulous job. It’s still active now, although quite a bit different.
The second company I started when I was about 21. It was a confectionary company selling a chocolate-based product designed to be an easy dessert that didn’t require preservation or refrigeration. The best thing I can compare it to was a mousse/fudge. About a year and a half in, I sold that too but it has unfortunately closed since.
My biggest takeaways from both ventures was how important it was to spend time on the financial and planning side of the business (which is much more interesting than I ever used to think it was), how important it is to have a really close relationship with customers, and that people really respond to a brand some real personality behind it – people buy from people.
THREE: What is your reasoning behind all of Ethique’s products being sold in bar/solid form?
Our vision is a world without plastic bottles. Up to 75% of shampoo and even 90% of conditioner can be water, which is just crazy – you have water in your shower! Obviously, water is an important part of the product, but I was interested in what happened if you simply combined the ingredients without it.
Shampoo bars aren’t particularly unusual, but the majority of them are soap. Soap has a very high pH which leaves a residue and roughs up the hair cuticle. I wanted to create something much closer to a typical salon quality shampoo, but solid. After some fabulous feedback from my (human) guinea pigs, I branched out into conditioners, then started replacing everything in my bathroom with solid versions. A couple of our newer products do contain a little water, such as The Perfector, our solid face cream, and Bombshell, our self-tanning bar, which is necessary to get some of the ingredients in there. But the majority of our products are completely water free.
Anyhydrous (waterless) products do have a number of benefits beyond the lack of plastic. They’re concentrated so they last longer and some of them don’t require preservation like you do with products containing water (some do, however, depending on how they’re used).
FOUR: Naturally the next question is: how do you use these bars? Particularly for products like shampoo/conditioner and moisturiser/deodorant?
It’s the number one question we get, closely followed by ‘how do you store them?’ They’re relatively intuitive to use, to be honest, but there are videos on our YouTube channel that also shows you how to use them.
FIVE: Ethique products are described as a marriage between science and nature. Can you expand on what that means in terms of Ethique’s materials, manufacturing process etc?
It’s a very common saying in the industry and it simply reflects our belief that the best products are made with a combination of natural ingredients and scientific know-how which gets the best out of each ingredient. For us, our ingredients have to tick three boxes: there must be no health concerns about their use, they must be sustainably produced/farmed, and they must not have been tested on animals.
SIX: Other than sustainability, what would you say are your biggest concerns when it comes to how the beauty industry currently works? What would you like to see changed for the better?
Animal testing is number one. While there’s less of it than what most people think, there shouldn’t be any and it shouldn’t be a requirement for certain markets. There are far superior, cheaper methods that have been proven to produce reliable results.
Rubbish claims by brands about being ‘chemical-free’ or propagating myths such as ‘you absorb 60% of what you put on your skin’ (imagine what would happen if you absorbed 60% of your shower next time you were in there?) is another one. It’s a very shady way of selling your product by misleading people who don’t necessarily know enough to call them out on it.
SEVEN: Do you any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
Growth is our biggest priority and we have some big goals for the next few years. I always started Ethique with the goal of being a large, multinational organisation and we’re on our way (certainly on the multinational bit anyway).
The way we’ll have the most impact on the environment and get people to #giveupthebottle is to be as accessible to people as possible. That means being where they shop (mass retail), being accessibly priced and having a solid version of almost everything. We’re currently exporting in significant volumes to Australia and the USA, with market testing being done in Hong Kong and Taiwan. We’re also launching into Japan in September.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a start-up or business that you really admire right now.
So many, but I’ll stick with New Zealand companies: Little Yellow Bird, Sunfed Meats, Thought-Wired, PledgeMe, Banqer, and Sharesies, to name a few.
The Spinoff’s business content is brought to you by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.