In 2019, we expect to be able to find out every ingredient in our food before we put it in our grocery carts. We're hesitant to slather skin-care products on our faces unless we know what chemicals they contain. And increasingly, we're asking for access to information about the factories and farms that make our clothing.
It's a question that Michelle Pfeiffer began asking years ago. A longtime lover of perfume, Pfeiffer became aware of the potential carcinogens that could be hidden in fragrances — which, unlike many consumer products, are not legally required to disclose full product lists — when her father and best friend both got cancer around the same time. That, combined with the fact that she was a new mom who was increasingly conscious about what she was exposing her kids to, convinced her to stop wearing fragrances entirely for almost ten years.
"I felt like, on a daily basis, I was having to choose between quality and safety," Pfeiffer says when I meet her at the Public hotel in New York City. "It was like, 'Okay, do I wanna feel my best today, or do I wanna feel safe?'"
It was this conundrum that inspired Pfeiffer to launch Henry Rose, a new unisex line of fine fragrances with fully disclosed, verifiably safe ingredient lists. The five fragrances the brand is starting with have been so thoroughly vetted that they're the first ever to be named Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified and Cradle to Cradle Certified at the Gold level, with a Material Health score of Platinum. (Editor's note: Pfeiffer is on the board of the EWG.)
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If that doesn't mean much to you, know this: Cradle to Cradle and the EWG are non-profits with rigorous testing methods that take into account things like chemical toxicity, environmental impact, carbon management and more.
As an actress who's played iconic roles in films like "Batman Returns," "Scarface," and "I Am Sam," Pfeiffer could easily have gone the typical celebrity route and opted for a fragrance licensing deal. But she was consistently dissatisfied with the level of transparency available if she did things that way, so instead she opted for the much more labor-intensive — if rewarding — process of taking things into her own hands and partnering directly with International Flavors and Fragrances, the organization many brands work with to create their own fragrances.
Working within the stringent guidelines set out by Cradle to Cradle and the EWG meant Pfeiffer only had a few hundred ingredients to work with, down from the thousands available to most perfumers. And Pfeiffer's commitment to sustainable packaging presented challenges, too.
"Nobody has really tried to develop a product like this before," she says. "This has been such a really steep learning curve for everyone involved in the process."
A few weeks before Henry Rose launched publicly, I sat down with Pfeiffer to chat about safety, sustainability and being told no. Read on to see the highlights from our conversation below.
Once you knew you wanted to get into fragrances, how did you get the ball rolling?
I looked into the licensing route and met with a few of the major cosmetic companies, and nobody was really willing to be 100% transparent with the ingredients. I was told no in the beginning by everyone. I was told, 'You will never get this off the ground. Why don't you do a cosmetics line? Why don't you do a personal care line?' Anything but fragrance. It was very hard to find anyone that would formulate it. I think the fact that I'm sitting here looking at these bottles... I mean, this has been a nine-year process.
But I just didn't feel like I could put my name and my face on a product that I wasn't willing to wear myself. It was really important that we established the credibility of the brand separate from me. It's my company, I'm the founder and I'm always going to be a part of it, obviously, and I can help get it launched. But after that, the product really has to speak for itself. And if the brand is going to have legs, then it has to be something that people learn to trust as being high quality and safe, and they continue to come back.
Eventually the EWG recommended that I go directly to fragrance houses. I was skeptical, but the climate was really changing. Transparency of ingredients was everywhere but fragrance. It was still literally the black box of transparency.
How did you first get connected with the EWG?
I had started to look for products that were not only healthier, but that also offered me the same kind of quality that I was used to in the products that I was using. That was really, really hard to find.
One day, I sort of stumbled upon the EWG's 'Skin Deep' database. That was in about 2004, and the EWG had kind of taken on the role of personal care products safety watchdog, because the government just doesn't have the authority to really regulate the safety of the ingredients in this space. The EWG would always flag fragrance for a high hazard. This happened over and over and over again, so I took that to mean fragrance must be really toxic.
I've since learned that it's a bit more complex than that. Really, they were giving it that high hazard rate because of its lack of transparency. So if you don't know what's in something, you can't be sure that it's safe.
What kinds of ingredients that are commonly used in perfumes were you particularly trying to avoid with Henry Rose?
We don't have any suspected carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, bad preservatives. And not all naturals are safe for everyone, because of the allergens, so we don't have a lot of the allergens that people react to.
I found as a consumer that it was really confusing and really stressful trying to decipher all of the buzzwords. Even in the green space, there's a lot of "natural," or "organic," or "clean." People assume it means it's safe when the truth is, it doesn't always mean anything.
I felt that with the EWG and Cradle to Cradle giving their stamp of approval, we could assure people of its safety, because I didn't even really trust myself, you know? I knew that I was not equipped to make these kinds of claims to people, because I know a lot, but I'm not a scientist.
How did sustainable packaging become so important to you? I know the secondary packaging is biodegradable and compostable.
Any business today has to concern themselves with sustainability, because there's too much waste. And the consumer is really, actually demanding it. People are a lot more aware, and they want their products safe for not only themselves, but for the environment.
Our glass is 90% recycled. Our caps are soy. And, you know, we're hoping to do better. It upsets me that we can't recycle our caps yet because they're too small, but that's kind of where we are. But the hope is, as we grow as a business, we also will have more leverage to say to our suppliers, you really should be doing this. Like there is one company that does these bottles. Nobody else wants to get into it because there isn't enough interest. So it's sort of like, well, there isn't enough interest because there isn't a product out there.
Often when brands are asked about a lack of transparency, they'll say that they don't want to lose their competitive edge or they don't want someone to copy their sources or their ingredient list. What would you say to them?
All fragrances are pretty much copied and sold on the black market. But even if you know exactly what's in something, it's all about concentrations and there's a lot more that goes into the formulation of the fragrance. So you could maybe get close, but it would be very, very hard to get it exactly.
And honestly, the benefit of transparency for the industry as a whole should outweigh any other concerns.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.