The Tricky Work of Sourcing Ingredients for Natural Brands - Fashionista
One bad drought can mean big trouble.

While the debate about what exactly it means to call a brand or product "natural," "green" or "organic" rages on, one thing is clear: The category of beauty brands heavily featuring biologically produced ingredients is growing — and fast. According to one estimate by Grand Review Research, natural beauty is projected to be a $25 billion industry by 2025. And with so many new products hitting the shelves, that means the demand for materials that are organic, sustainably grown, ethically farmed and a whole host of other buzzwords in the category is also rising exponentially — and bringing with it a few factors that can be tricky to navigate.

While finding ways to create textures or colors that perform like synthetics can be a challenge, the brands we talked to found that to be exciting and maybe even fun (they got into this line of business for reason, after all). What's more surprising is that rather than creating a Hunger-Games-style run on "green" ingredients much of the time, they've found that the demand has overall made sourcing ingredients easier than it was in previous years since more farmers are getting involved and suppliers are increasing their material pool rapidly. But bad harvests, droughts and other weather conditions can impact a harvest and make an ingredient scarce for a period of time — something that is bound to get trickier as our climate continues to change.

"I remember learning a month before launching our Everything Organic Facial Oil that two of the ingredients were suddenly out of stock at the supplier and that the only available replacements were not organic, thus compromising the entire product's identity," says Laurence Dryer, vice president of research and development​ of the "clean" brand Honest Beauty. "This was an all hands on deck situation in our lab. We made a lot of phone calls that week!"

For now, the brands we spoke with have been able to find ways to bob and weave — says Tata Harper of her namesake luxury skin care brand, "Generally as long as you plan ahead, you're good." But Rose-Marie Swift of cult-favorite makeup brand RMS Beauty also worries down the line that this could create a situation in which some natural ingredients are being played like the stock market, with certain commodities being purposely withheld to increase pricing, like the diamond industry on a smaller scale. "Greed is always on the sideline," she warns.

Tata Harper products in development. Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper

Tata Harper products in development. Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper

That brings us to the second big challenge: cost. These ingredients come with a price tag that reflects the labor that goes into growing, gathering and processing them. Take Lano, a company based around lanolin, an ingredient sourced from sheep in Australia and New Zealand, for example. According to the company's founder Kirsten Carriol, the material is three times the price of other offerings out there. But she'll continue to factor that into her business strategy, since it's a key element and core concept of the brand. Sarah Brown, founder of sensitive skin brand Pai, agrees that paying more for ingredients grown the way the company prefers is worth it. "It's the difference between cooking with fresh produce and a microwave meal," she says.

Or course, this higher price means higher pricetags for buyers, but there's another downside here: It can make it hard for a fledgling company with intentions of being truly organic to get there — higher price points can be a substantial hurdle to for young brands trying to carve out a place in the market.

As for established companies, many are trying to find ways around both the scarcity and price issues. The first is to work directly with the farmers. Other brands are getting more creative — Brown says Pai is in the process of developing ways to get better access to anti-inflammatory echium, the star ingredient in its Age Confidence Facial Oil, hinting that she's even considered putting a greenhouse on the roof. Meanwhile, Honest Beauty is working to create a bigger stash of ingredients they can count on to use across the brand. "This will enable us to increase ingredient order quantities, creating a logistical safety blanket and a better control over both quality and efficacy of our products," says Dryer. 

The Tata Harper farm. Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper

The Tata Harper farm. Photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper

The other (potentially more controversial) way some brands are starting to look at getting around both of these issues is with biotechnology, meaning they'd tap engineers and scientists to employ fermentation and enzymes to grow their own alternative ingredients that mimic naturally occurring ones. Christina Agapakis is the creative director of Gingko Bioworks, a company that works with biotechnology. To explain how it can be used  in cosmetics, she points to an example from one of the company's partners: "They have a skin-care product which uses fermentation to make a product called squalene, a moisturizer that's typically from animals." The company had found the ingredient difficult to extract and wanted to cut animals out of their process for humane reasons. "They were able to get it in a yeast that was engineered to produce ingredients," which eliminated the reliance on animal sourcing. Using this same thinking, scientists are hoping to find ways of growing ingredients that tend to be sourced from other endangered, threatened or fragile resources.

While this method can lead to materials that are made in bigger quantities, are less dependent on weather and are ultimately cheaper, it opens up a debate much like the one surrounding the use of GMOs in food. It begs questions like: How much monkeying around with an ingredient can you do and still label it "natural"? If the process ultimately creates a more sustainable product that less rapidly depletes resources, does it matter to the brands that prioritize that factor? These are the conversations we can expect to be having as technology continues to advance and proliferate in the space.

By and large, the brands operating in the natural beauty space are hoping that the current momentum the category has going will also help to facilitate the changes they're hoping for. For Carriol, whose lanolin-containing products are regarded as more environmentally friendly alternatives to petroleum-based Vaselines and Aquaphors, that has been the case, to an extent. "Blogs and consumer demand for natural, non-petroleum alternatives are really heeded to by retailers," she says. That, in turn, she's hoping, will put pressure on the industry to find ways of making materials widely available to keep shelves stocked. After all, she says, "you cannot underestimate consumer power to change behavior."

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Homepage photo: Courtesy of Tata Harper

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