Ask 10 different people what makes a beauty or wellness product “clean” and you’ll get at least 15 different answers. That’s because the category has been built with the framework of an elimination diet: No parabens! No triclosan! No “toxins”! At this point, an exhaustive list of what a company doesn’t put in your moisturizer is downright compulsory if it’s going to be stocked in the “clean” section of your favorite beauty retailer. And companies have good reason to continue selling products this way: The global market for natural and organic beauty products is worth $22 billion, according to research firm CB Insights.
But there are plenty of clandestine practices that can turn a so-called “clean” product dirty, and focusing on what’s not in the bottle misses the importance of reviewing what is there. Was that shimmery shadow made with child labor? Does that packaging contribute to ocean pollution? Is that miracle ingredient as legit as its label claims?
We’re living in the information age, and it’s high time we know what goes into our beauty and wellness products, how ingredients are sourced, and who is impacted along the way. That’s why some brands are employing traceability to keep their supply chains honest and collect receipts. Remember when your geometry teacher would tell you the correct answer wasn’t good enough—you needed to show your work in order to make the grade? In a nutshell, that’s what traceability is: verifying the end-to-end lifespan of a product’s development.
Brands such as Tata Harper and CBD brand Physicians Grade have long allowed consumers to enter batch numbers on their websites in order to review manufacturing dates or see results of third-party lab tests verifying the potency and quality of ingredients, but now some companies are taking things a step further. And it’s not always easy to do, as these stories show.
Verifying Authenticity: Flora’s Manuka Honey
In the wellness space, perhaps no other ingredient has been more subject to counterfeiting than mānuka honey. The rare nectar, produced by bees that feast on mānuka, a flowering plant native to New Zealand, doesn’t just taste divine; it’s also celebrated for its health benefits. The honey’s anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties—resulting, in part, from a phytochemical found in the nectar of the mānuka flower—make it a beneficial treatment for burns and wounds. And it’s a popular DIY face mask for acne-prone skin (just ask Sza). It’s also in high demand: The global mānuka honey market, valued at $940 million in 2018, is projected to be worth $2.16 billion in 2025, according to a report by market research firm QYR Research.
But producers in New Zealand, one of the few places where the mānuka plant grows, believe much of the honey labeled and sold as New Zealand mānuka may be harvested elsewhere or doctored with fillers like corn syrup. (A report in the journal Nature found that mānuka honey is prone to counterfeiting and cited a study that found 15 percent of mānuka honey samples were adulterated.) “For the mānuka honey industry in New Zealand, tracing the authenticity of a product means the difference between succeeding or dying,” says Thomas Greither, founder of wellness and supplement brand Flora. As Greither points out, when consumers don’t see results after trying phony mānuka honey, they question the value of the product categorically and may stop buying it altogether.
It’s these types of findings that led New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries to set rules for authenticating mānuka honey and clarify labeling and testing standards. There’s also a New Zealand-based trade group, Manuka Factor Honey Association, that developed a grading system (each product is assigned a Unique Mānuka Factor, or UMF) to help consumers judge potency and identify which honeys are pure, rather than blends or varieties made by bees that feed on flowers from other plants or mānuka species that grow in other countries.
With these regulations in place, Flora has made strides to ensure its mānuka honey is not only authentic but sourced in partnership with New Zealand’s indigenous Māori producers, who count beekeeping—and mānuka honey itself—as a meaningful part of their culture. Many of the country’s mānuka plants grow on Māori-owned land, but non-Maori corporations often reap the financial rewards of the booming mānuka honey trade. “At the moment, our people in some areas are just the landowners, and they lease to the beekeepers who put beehives on their land. We aspire not only to own the land, but to benefit from everything derived from it,” says Ken Raureti, a Māori elder and trustee of the Onuku Maori Lands Trust, in New Zealand’s North Island.
So, how can a brand like Flora prove to regulators and customers that a jar of $86 UMF 15+ honey (ratings over 10 are considered medical grade) is not only authentic, but responsibly sourced? The company places a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag under every bottle’s label. If you hold your smartphone (new Android or iPhone 7 and above) on the label’s NFC symbol, your browser will display the honey’s credentials, including proof of its UMF rating and a map showing the batch’s provenance. Greither says the process of coding and manufacturing with the tags runs the company about $1.50 a jar, a cost that grows to about $4 per jar by the time retailers tack on their markups. But unlike QR codes, the NFC tags aren’t easily hacked or overwritten—a security must-have for a delicacy prone to counterfeiting and mislabeling.
Proving Sustainability: Kinship’s Packaging
Traceability doesn’t just serve as proof of authenticity for high-priced goods; in an industry beset by greenwashing, it can help prove a product’s environmental sustainability. Take indie skin-care brand Kinship: The company has lightened its environmental footprint by partnering with Ocean Waste Plastic, a Danish company that pays fishermen to collect plastic litter from the water and then uses it to make new packaging (about 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, according to Plastic Oceans International). To be transparent with customers, every Kinship product has a QR code, which can be scanned to reveal how much of the packaging was made with up-cycled plastic and where that plastic was collected.
Christin Powell, co-founder and CEO of Kinship, says the packaging costs more than traditional plastic. “Ocean Waste Plastic has to pay the fishermen to collect the plastic and do the processing—it’s more work,” she explains. But she didn’t want to pass those costs on to customers. “We just ate it because we felt that having an accessible price point was really key.”
For now, Kinship has committed to using 50 percent ocean-waste plastic for its packaging, but it hopes to increase that amount as sales grow. “The more we can educate people about sustainably sourced, recycled, and compostable plastic—and encourage other companies to take the lead on what they’re manufacturing—the better we can make a dent in the problem,” says Powell.
Confirming Ethical Sources: Beautycounter’s Mica
One of the most ambitious traceability projects in the beauty world is one we can’t yet track by an NFC tag or QR code. Many of today’s cosmetics contain mica, a group of shimmery minerals produced by an industry that has a history of child-labor violations (as many as 20,000 children may work in mica mines, according to a 2019 report published by Terre des Hommes, a Swiss humanitarian organization). Since companies aren’t always able to trace the origins of mica they purchase, they may be inadvertently supporting child labor. And that is unacceptable for Beautycounter, a skin-care and cosmetics line that uses the ingredient in about 40 percent of its products.
To get a better idea of where its ingredients—not just mica, but all raw materials—originate, Beautycounter partnered with Sourcemap, a company that develops mapping software that allows companies to track the social, financial, and environmental risks inherent in their supply chains. The company can audit suppliers by phone and note discrepancies in certification paperwork.
But checking those boxes is just the beginning. As Juliette Barre, business development and marketing director of Sourcemap, explains, it’s all too easy for suppliers to say an ingredient has a certification without actually having gone through the process. “Suppliers are often afraid that a company will bypass them and stop working with them if [discrepancies are found in] their supply chain,” explains Barre.
This doesn’t shock Gregg Renfrew, Beautycounter’s founder, and CEO. “I think in our industry, you really need to be willing to look beneath the hood because someone will type out a [certificate], but you know in your heart and by the way the product is coming in that it doesn’t feel right.” she says. Creating a thorough traceability map can expose output that’s greater than what a factory is equipped to do, signaling the use of undisclosed subcontracted work or undocumented workers who are likely underpaid.
For example, a few years ago, when Beautycounter couldn’t substantiate some of the responsibly-sourced mica claims made by suppliers, the brand sent a full-time, salaried team to visit the mines and work with local NGOs to certify the mineral was collected safely and without child labor. “We decided we were going to take things into our own hands,” Renfrew says. “There’s a lot of illegality: Black market trading, unauthorized work, and governments and officials being paid off. It’s just so complicated. But if we can’t get our suppliers to allow us to audit the mines, then we just won’t work with them anymore.”
In two years, the Beautycounter team was able to visit 77 percent of the mines it sources mica from. Though travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus have delayed the brand’s goal to visit all the mines in its supply chain by the end of 2020, its commitment to creating a completely clean source of mica remains steadfast. If it succeeds, Beautycounter will be the first beauty company able to offer first-hand confirmation that child labor was not linked to the mica used in its final formulations. And once it’s satisfied with the verification data, Beautycounter plans to share the information with customers (via its website).
Investigating mica supply chains—and producing environmentally friendly packaging and verifying the authenticity and ethical production of raw materials—isn’t easy or cheap, but companies that make the commitment to do things the right way (and prove it to their customers) aren’t looking for quick profits.
“I think that it’s our job in the industry to continue to lead by looking beyond the current definition of ‘clean,’ even if it comes at a cost to us in the short-term,” Renfrew says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
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