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Why lasting beauty starts with sustainability

Sensemaking / Why lasting beauty starts with sustainability

What future for the Greek beauty industry? A conference in Athens brought industry professionals together to explore the options. Anna Simpson, a keynote speaker, noted an appetite for rethinking its very foundations.

By Anna Simpson / 01 Dec 2015

Athens in November. Crisp sunlight by day, vociferous cafes by night. We're told the marble walls used to be painted in vibrant pigments. We're told the graffiti - rich streets used to house more shops. Exports have suffered from capital controls. For the beauty industry this means hair products down 22%, for instance; perfumes down 8.8%.

Yet throughout the day, I heard anecdotes of the Greek beauty industry’s growing presence abroad. There was Fresh Lime, a relative newcomer with a focus on quality, traceable ingredients. It has shops stretching all across Russia and reaching Taiwan. Another was Apavita, which started out as a bee-friendly, honey-based brand and now offers holistic wellbeing solutions from spa therapies to personalised pharmaceutical care. It has stores in Madrid, Japan and Hong Kong.

“In crises we have chances”, Apavita’s representative said.

There’s no need to insist on the threat of rapid change in such a context. The interest is in what’s next. What do the next generations want, that’s the question: the sharing, learning, hyper-conscious types? What are they reaching out for and responding to with their six-plus senses?

And it’s not just the next generation. “Because of the crisis, I was forced to become a millennial!” quips one panellist – the founder of the blog “I was a baby boomer, then someone hit fast forward…”

I started my talk by dwelling a bit on the relationship between beauty and time. Where we look for beauty, where we find it, and the forms in which we try to create it, depend on our histories, and the elements that we choose to bring forward as our heritage – our future foundations. (Athens knows all about foundations!) Even if we respond to that heritage with new forms and new interpretations, it’s there as a reference point. And it’s a powerful tool for any brand with beauty in its mission.

So my question was, what sort of heritage makes for lasting beauty? Nietzsche talks about “the slow arrow of beauty” in section 149 of Human, All Too Human:

“The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating ... but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams.”

What an odd phrase: “the slow arrow of beauty”. He takes a swift means of destruction, and makes it into a drawn-out infusion of beauty. So, while beauty is perceived in a moment, that perception is shaped by the slow accumulation of thoughts and memories. For beauty to be lasting, it must have rich foundations. And this is the heart of sustainability: foundations that are not drawn on to depletion, that are resilient to change.

What does lasting beauty mean for business?

Image: Dan Bergstrom / Flickr

One way of exploring this is the aspiration for business to take a restorative or 'net positive' approach: to operate in such a way that leaves richer resources in its wake, rather than depleting them. Like applying a really replenishing face cream to your business model. It’s the opposite of using ‘cover up’, which is how I’d describe some CSR practices. 

Net positive goes beyond ‘giving back to society’ and rather ‘gives forward’: it asks, what is my business contributing to the future? Really, this is no more than a minimum investment in the resources you’ll need for the future. Without strong foundations, your products may not last.

Forum for the Future, The Climate Group and WWF recently brought some big companies together to clarify what characterises organisations with a ‘net positive’ approach: “Becoming Net Positive requires organisations to be ambitious and plan for long-term success. They have to go beyond risk avoidance and incremental improvements and start to innovate.” 

They've noticed some shared attributes across organisations taking such an approach:

  • they share an ambition to grow their brand
  • they have strong financial performance
  • they attract the brightest talent

No surprise in the attraction of rich resources and firm foundations!

But what does this approach look like in practice?

Take Ikea. It talks about Net Positive as its ‘license to operate’ – not just its potential to operate in the future, but its right to operate in the here and now. There’s no place for business that isn’t actively contributing to making the future brighter, the logic runs.


Image: Ikea

Ikea's declared ambition is to enable and inspire people to live in more sustainable homes - supporting them to save on energy, water, waste and money. For instance, in the UK it's switched its entire range of lighting to LEDs, halved the cost of one of its most popular LED bulbs, and is selling "keenly priced" solar panels in all UK stores. Its' also influencing suppliers, with a "sustainability scorecard" stipulating minimum standards for all products, and means to encourage them to 'go renewable'. And it's cutting waste - by turning wood dust into board for bookshelves, or recycling old mattresses. Currently just 2% of waste generated in its UK stores goes to landfill. Ikea isn't net positive yet, but it's on the way.

Why is a company’s ‘license to operate’ in danger?

One reason is resource challenges: even in the past year, crises - notably the drought in California, now the floods in Chennai - have heightened awareness of our vulnerability to volatile weather, global warming and pollution.

This of course affects supply chains: are they resilient to water shortage, or to the depletion of nutrients in soil, or to fluctuating temperatures, or to the rise of new pests and diseases?

It also affects the license of companies to operate. In Indonesia, land rights withdrawn from companies whose slash and burn practices have contributed to fires and severe air pollution.

Another risk to a company’s license to operate is the narrowing gap in consumers' minds between a brand and its supply chain. The campaign ‘We breathe what we buy’ has helped consumers in Singapore make the connection between spending habits, supply chains,  forest fires in Indonesia, the air thick with ash that washes back over the sea, obscuring the sun and bringing headaches in the short-term, and likely respiratory disease.

So consumers are looking to brands for evidence of responsibility:  in an atmosphere of rising scepticism, claims will be put to the test. Volkswagen’s ‘diesel dupe’ software should sound a foghorn of a warning.

Mistrust is driving interest in the small print, and demand for transparency. And the data’s getting easier to come by. More people now have access to smartphones than to sanittion. Citizens are looking at the data themselves, and drawing their own conclusions.

Pollution App: tracks 15,000 factories across China and ranks them in terms of particulate emissions produced and detriment to local air quality. This information, which is updated on an hourly basis, can be tagged on social media and is often being shared with local environment agencies.

China has traditionally lacked information transparency. Many air quality apps exist in China, for example Air Quality China and China Air Quality Index, but this is the first app to place the blame on specific industries and publicise it on a national scale.

Then there are the shifts that are not yet on your company’s radar. How are the jobs of everyday artisans, from chefs to beauticians, going to be affected by robots who are already learning specialist skills, such as how to cook, on Youtube?

How are beauty and personal care companies rising to the challenge?

Image: Bronx / Flickr

Recently, the major American retailers Target & Walmart found their beauty and personal care products were coming under pressure from a number of quarters: pressure to act on breast cancer, concern for animal welfare, implications of advertising on women’s self-esteem, concerns over the toxicity of ingredients, wider impacts of supply chains on human and environmental health…

So what did they do about it?

Each started working separately with NGOs to identify the risky ingredients and start the search for sustainable alternatives. The problem was that, with no shared standards across the industry, there was no guarantee that sustainable chemicals would find any favour in the market. So, even when more sustainable alternatives were found, manufacturers were unwilling to take them to scale.

And what changed?

These two massive companies, and fierce competitors, came together to see if they could shift the scene together, convened and encouraged by Forum for the Future, who also invited in other NGOs and key manufacturers.

A year ago, Forum ran a big summit to get the whole sector in one room, and mapped the chemical value network, and got consensus that what’s needed is a common set of standards across the industry.

Starting this month, Forum will convene a new leadership group to accelerate the route to market for new ingredients, working with the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council. One of the first products to be targeted is preservatives, which contain particularly nasty chemicals and are used in particularly sensitive places!

Why does sustainability need stargazers?

So much for why the beauty industry needs sustainability. But sustainability also needs beauty. It’s about asking, what sort of future do we really want? And then we need to desire it.

Desire. The English word comes from the Latin – ‘de sidere’: from the stars.

Desire compels you to look up, beyond what you have. To seek out the things that can make a difference to you. It’s a powerful force, especially if we pay attention to what does matter to us. But we don’t always…

My book, ‘The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire' is part of a growing call for brands to find a new starting point. Not to begin with creating products, and then trying to market them. But to begin with desire – with asking what we actually want – and then seeing what, of value, they can deliver in response.

The key question for any brand in the beauty industry is then, what does beauty mean to the people it wants to reach? What does it mean to young people with a fierce sense of social justice, and aspirations to build a world that allows beauty to shine out of more lives?

Image credit: Peter Mulligan / Flickr

Anna Simpson is Curator of the Futures Centre and author of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire. This piece is adapted from the talk she gave at the 1st Athens Beauty Conference on 20 November 2015.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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