Here are the lessons learned from running a plastic-free beauty brand
Svante Holm, co-founder of Beauty Disrupted, on what it takes to create a next-level responsible beauty venture.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
October 10, 2023
When Svante Holm and Alban Mayne read the statistic that 80 billion shampoo and conditioner bottles are trashed each year, they both quit their international tech careers. Keen on offering an alternative, the goal right from the start was luxurious beauty without the use of plastic and the copious amounts of water normally found in beauty products. After two years of researching ingredients, creating their own formulations, developing fragrances from Grasse, and benchmarking the products against the liquid alternatives, Beauty Disrupted launched its line of beauty bars two years ago.
— And what a journey it has been! Holm tells us.
Now selling at several of Europe’s leading niche beauty retailers and department stores, such as Nose Paris, Skins Cosmetics, Galleries Lafayette, Nordiska Kompaniet, and Heaven Scent, the brand is often the only plastic-free beauty brand available.
— So we tend to get great support from their teams and owners, Holm continues, as they want us to succeed in moving the industry away from plastic. That said, it can be challenging for less established brands like us to stand out in-store. This is when being placed next to big traditional brands that have been around forever and invested fortunes in shop-in-shops or in huge in-store signage. In many ways it feels like online is a more level playing field from that perspective — and our online sales are now about 5 times higher than at this time last year.
The brand has also entered a new space when more and more luxury hotels want to get rid of plastic bottles in their rooms.
— Some of them have moved to refill solutions, but that is not a very luxurious proposition for guests and many experience problems with bacteria entering the refill bottles. Earlier this year, we launched smaller amenities-sized versions of our bars, and, according to the luxury hotels we meet, what we offer is unique in the hotel space today. We could move much faster in the luxury hotel space if access to financing was easier. We are supported by far-sighted and amazing investors from across all our target markets, but we now experience exponential growth in a huge market where we are currently the only ones with a luxurious yet plastic-free offering. And then we can’t fully realise the potential due to cash constraints…
Can you take us through other challenges?
— Greenwashing is rampant in the beauty industry. I find it hard to see all the brands that call themselves ’sustainable’ or ’conscious’ while offering their products in plastic bottles. It is just so far from sustainable. Take a liquid conditioner for example. About 80% of the content is water. That water is then mixed with some conditioning ingredients and put in a bottle that lasts about 1 000 years. All that water then gets shipped around the world, even though the consumer has all the water he or she needs in the shower… Once the conditioner is finished, it is extremely unlikely that it will get recycled. Because even if the consumer wants to recycle the bottle, the vast majority of countries in the world don’t have facilities that can recycle the type of plastic used for beauty products. In the unlikely event that it actually gets recycled, about 10% of the plastic escapes the recycling facility, as microplastics, during the recycling process. So, seeing brands touting their sustainability next to their plastic bottles is just so misleading.
If we look at the consumers, are they in general open to new brands like you?
— We see strong growth across Western Europe but there are some key market differences. In Southern Europe, people have always used bars, so, unlike in Northern Europe where many people have never heard of a conditioner bar, we don’t have to explain the concept there. However, many of the haircare bars they have used have been formulated with soap ingredients, which dry out the hair, rather than with fine haircare ingredients. So, in those markets, we need to explain that our formulations are radically different from the bars they might have used in the past. While, in Northern Europe, it is much more about communicating that bars are an option.
It can be challenging to get the right premium feel in a solid bar. How have you worked with that?
— As mentioned, my co-founder and I spent a long time in the international tech business, and I think that has helped us here. For example, I spent 5 years at Apple, a company that knows how to really obsess over every detail that goes into everything from the design, imagery, brand, and product. Similarly, my French co-founder Alban spent many years at companies like HP and Logitech where he was involved in creating some of the most ergonomic tech products the world has ever seen. Thanks to him, I’d say that our bars are probably smoother than any other on the market, and really follow the contours of the head and body.
— We also decided early on to only work with the finest 100% organic fragrances from Grasse. The perfumers there warned us from using 100% as it is very hard to get it right. And, we could have taken very significant shortcuts by doing like nearly all other beauty brands and adding some chemicals and fragrance enhancers to the mix. But we stuck to our conviction and after 9 months of creating and testing fragrance samples, we had finally created three fragrances that were exactly how we had envisioned them.
— We drove our production partners crazy by requiring that everything they do for us must be produced by 100% renewable energy, and we wanted details as to exactly where each ingredient actually comes from. We thought that sounded like a very reasonable demand, but when we for example requested algae from a certain area in the Mediterranean, the ingredients people came back with algae that was ’probably from Europe or maybe from Asia’. We spent months and months pushing back and digging into the details of each and every ingredient. In fact, our producers nearly kicked us out because of this.
— After a while, they all came back and told us that our demands for renewable energy and insights into the sourcing of the ingredients actually made sense, it was just that the traditional beauty brands hadn’t started requesting it yet. So they kept us on and since then we have worked really well together. And I think all this focus on getting the exact right ingredients, from the right sources, combine to make for a beautiful luxury experience, in a bar format.
Beauty Disrupted’s packaging, Holm shares, is made by a fourth-generation artisan package maker in the South of France that otherwise creates packaging for the champagne industry.
— We use FSC-certified recycled French cardboard that we coat with beautifully textured Italian paper. The result is packaging that is not only beautiful in terms of look and feel, but also sturdy and water resistant, so perfect for transporting bars in when travelling or going to the gym.
What’s your view on the future of waterless beauty?
— Bright! Now, I might be biased, but when I see all the traditional luxury brands we are replacing right now at some of the world’s finest hotels, there is no doubt in my mind as to where this business is heading. One challenge we face is that not enough people have tried our bars but, through the hotels, we now exponentially grow the number of people…
After launching with solid bars, consumers asked how to properly store them in their showers and to easily tell the bars apart when using them.
— We struggled to find a premium, plastic-free, beautiful, yet functional solution. One day, we talked to our retail partner in the Benelux, Skins Cosmetics, and they asked if we couldn’t store bars in a similar way to how people had stored their music collections in the past — when LPs or CDs used to stand next to each other in racks. That kicked off the idea and after two years of materials and sustainability research, we registered the design and launched the TRIO bar holder. We handcraft it in Portugal using natural clay. Draining holes, strategically placed underneath each bar, help keep it dry in the shower and make it last longer.
— Thanks to each compartment being clearly labelled, it ensures that you pick the right bar at all times. In my humble view, it actually makes it easier and more convenient to use bars than plastic bottles. And consumers seem to agree because it has already become our best-selling product — lifting our bar sales exponentially, Holm concludes.