Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use the time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.
"A Cancer Diagnosis Changed This Entrepreneur's Life" sounds like clickbait. It also just so happens to be true in this case. You see, in this scenario, it wasn't Tata Harper, she of the iconic green glass jars, who was diagnosed with cancer, but rather her stepfather. Watching his struggle with the disease set her life on a whole new path. That's the short version of how Harper went from working in real estate development in Miami to being the proud owner of one of the largest and most recognizable sustainable luxury beauty brands in the country.
Harper grew up in Columbia, but she was a jet-setter early on, hopping from Miami to New York to Paris to follow her first love: fashion. "I thought that I was going to study fashion, but my mom dissuaded me," says Harper, who started a small fashion line in high school with one of her friends, showing proof of her entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. "We used be super dedicated.... We would create collections every two months." Swayed from a life in the fashion world by her mother's advice, Harper instead moved on to a seemingly more practical industrial engineering degree.
The beauty bug was in her blood, though. "I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where they made me see beauty and skin care as not necessarily a chore or a luxury but as self-care and self-love," she says. "I remember one of my favorite pastimes when I was about 12 was on Saturday morning, when I would go to the beauty store with my aunt and we would spend two hours shopping for all of this awesome beauty stuff." They would carry their hauls home (sound familiar?) to Harper's grandmother's house and set about a full home spa day with all of her aunts and cousins, mixing products, as well as her grandmother's homemade beauty recipes. "It was like a full pampering situation every weekend," she says.
It wouldn't be until years later that those latent beauty girl genes would reappear. Harper was working in Miami in real estate development when her stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. "I ended up going with him to a lot of consultations and clinics, and it was really an eye-opening experience to realize how lifestyle and the little decisions you make every day affect your health and your well-being," she says. In particular, she was astonished when the doctors began talking to her stepfather about his grooming routine. "The doctors were like, 'We want you to use as many organic and natural products as possible. Don't use this deodorant, try to use that natural deodorant,' and I just sat back and was like, I can't believe this. [My stepfather's grooming] routine is so simplistic; imagine if the doctors had seen mine!"
Dedicated to helping her stepfather (and maybe just a little bit worried for herself), Harper set out on a mission to swap out all of the synthetic-packed products she'd fallen in love with over the years with natural versions, but the options available on the market didn't impress her. "I was really disappointed in what I was buying," she explains. "It was either you bought raw coconut oil and jojoba oil — very basic — or when it had a little bit more going on, then it was full of all the same synthetics that I wanted to avoid in the first place. It was like, yes, they were showing me things that had algae and things that had orchids and they were like 'Oh, it's natural,' and then you turn the box around and, sure, there's algae in the list, but I also see propylene glycol... I know about a lot of these chemicals that belong in machines and in car engines because I studied industrial engineering; why are they putting this in eye cream?"
The solution, as Harper saw it, was to start making her own products. After meeting with consultants who tried to sell her on a simple synthetic base with a single-ingredient additive, she decided to abandon the industry standards of highlighting one or two select actives and the lowest-cost chemicals and instead focused on packing the most potent botanical beautifiers possible into each product. That decision ballooned the typical six-months-to-a-year that many brands use to create formulas and manufacture product into a full five years of development. That involved testing out different mixes, experimenting with various tree gums and waxes for thickening and stabilizing, and refining the process to make a line she really believed in. "I couldn’t really understand that this product didn't already exist," she says.
The pieces didn't all fall into place until Harper moved from Miami to a former dairy farm in Vermont's Champlain Valley, where she and her husband had previously spent their weekends. That's where the logistics of making products on her own terms – the most sustainable, ingredient-forward way — began to come together. "We decided that we needed to produce this product, and that it was going to be an integral part of the DNA of our brand to be able to make our own products with our employees." After scouting manufacturing locations all over the area, Harper says, "I was finally like, 'Why don't we renovate some of these barns? Let's gut them out, let's sterilize them and start here.'"
Making the products on-site would give the complete control over how things were handled, allowing them to start up their Open Lab project, a feature on the brand's website that allows customers to look up each product by the batch number listed on the bottom of its packaging and find out the exact date that the batch was mixed and by whom. It goes back to Harper's focus on freshness — and her creeping discomfort about not knowing how old something you apply to your face is. "It's basically a conversation that nobody really has. I was like, 'Why would I want a product that lasts more than a year?' I don't like the idea of putting on an eye cream that's two years old."
It also enabled Harper to start a conversation about the realities of natural beauty a.k.a. variation is natures way. "Sometimes the rose hips come in darker, and sometimes the jojoba is more liquid, and sometimes the frankincense smells a little different, and we have to deal with all of those subtle changes. It’s become a vehicle for our customers to learn about what they're using. They can look and say 'the frankincense is actually coming from Morocco this season and it's more yellow.'"
Accessibility wasn't the only problem solved by taking production in-house. While Harper's cautious about referring to herself as an environmentalist ("The people who do this for a living are the real environmentalists," she says) maintaining a green, eco-friendly brand has always been important to her. In traditional beauty product manufacturing, a product will often travel from one sight for formulation to another for packaging, then to a warehouse to await distribution, and then finally to a retailer; that's an enormous amount of gas being guzzled just to get a product into consumers' hands. By eliminating the travel for the pre-distribution steps, they also eliminated the amount of CO2 emissions attached to each product, she says: "You cut a lot of your carbon footprint by not having to ship the product so many times."
Packaging was another focus for sustainability and one that posed some unique challenges. "From the beginning, we've tried to do glass, because glass is infinitely recyclable, but glass has its limits," Harper explains. "We struggled because there aren't a lot of glass options that are available for the skin-care industry; there are tons for perfumery, but there's not a lot for skin care. So we had to do custom molds and make custom bottles." Those iconic green boxes also caused some problems: "Our boxes are made out of 100 percent recycled fiber, because I don't like the idea of trees being cut, so that I can have a box that customers are just going to throw away when they get home." But recycled paper is more fibrous, making it more difficult to manipulate, and that extra effort also translates to extra cost. "It's three times as expensive" Harper says, "but I just feel better about it."
All of that work paid off. When Tata Harper officially hit the market 10 years ago, it gained an immediate following with retailers like Neiman Marcus and Sephora clamoring to get it on shelves. "From the get-go we had huge support from the industry. People were calling us and saying, 'We love what you stand for; we love your products; we don't have anything like you; we want to carry you.' Obviously, we couldn't have a huge distribution right away. We grew very strategically and very organically, but it's all coming to us and I feel very grateful."
Harper attributes the brand's success in part to being one of the early green brands to stop evoking the health food store aesthetic. "We are the opposite of crunchy granola; we are about showing naturals in their total high quality splendor, the ultimate luxury," she says, though she notes that a significant portion of the brand's dedicated followers didn't come to them looking for natural solutions. "We get a lot of customers that are natural, and a lot of customers who are not necessarily seeking out natural products who are just looking for something with a lot of actives, with very complex formulas that are super high quality. It's a growing number of people that we're getting that are coming to us because of that, and then the natural thing they're like, 'Okay, great, that's an added benefit but at the end of the day, I'm buying this because I'm seeing huge results in my skin.'" Whatever the reason, when you've found a following among the likes of Emma Watson and Bella Hadid, it's hard to complain.
Of course, Harper isn't the only game in town anymore when it comes to clean green beauty. And while others might fear the competition, it gives her hope. "What I would like to see on the horizon is that there wouldn't be such a thing as sustainable beauty," she says. "Sustainable get put on tags on young companies who are listening to their customers' desires and looking to them for inspiration, but soon I hope all companies will have to be sustainable in their practices and be more eco-friendly. I just feel like this is not a trend, this is a big movement that is happening around the world. We're demanding better, safer consumer products, that's going to be the standard in the future." If the face of sustainable beauty looks anything like Harper's, we certainly hope so too.
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