The future of Nordic beauty
The informed conversation on cosmetics used to be about organic farming and ”free from” claims. Now the industry is changing its focus to sustainability, responsibility, and inclusivity. The future of beauty is clean — and inclusive.
30 Nov 2020

Scandinavian fashion and design have always been known for minimalism, simplicity, and an air of effortlessness. Cleanliness, if you will. So much so, that a UK-based organic brand named itself after the Swedish word for clean, ren, in 2000. A smart move — Ren Skincare had sales of $62.6 million in 50 countries in 2013 and was acquired for an undisclosed sum by Unilever in 2015. And for a long period of time, Sweden — a country with a mere 10 million inhabitants — was American fragrance brand Clean’s number 1 market. It should come as no surprise that the Nordic countries love everything clean. 

The four countries are at the forefront of the clean beauty movement, but in the Nordics, the word has a slightly different meaning than in the rest of the world. Whilst — especially in the US — clean is often synonymous with various ”free from” claims, the level-headed Scandinavians have a more rational interpretation of the word. In Scandinavia in general, and in Finland and Sweden in particular, clean stands for science, safety and sustainability.

— Many consumers today are very knowledgeable and interested in ingredients and formulations, I get asked more questions today than 10 years ago. They want products that are safe, of high quality and that work, says Anna-Karin Wahlberg, founder of innovative Swedish skincare brand Acasia Skincare. 

This is also the direction where the beauty industry, in general, is heading. Tiffany Masterson, founder of cult skincare label Drunk Elephant, coined the term ”clean beauty” in the 2010s. She launched her label in 2012, emphasising the fact that her products did not include ”the suspicious six”— six ingredients Masterson claimed had harmful effects on skin, including parabens and mineral oils. But the queen of clean surprised the industry last year when she changed her take on skincare communication. Japanese conglomerate Shiseido acquired Drunk Elephant for us $845 million, and while Masterson remained its CEO, she also started to distance herself from the term she once invented. 

”We need to stop talking about being ’clean’ and just make sure we all are,” she said in an interview with Cosmetics Business. ”Also, I think ingredients like parabens and mineral oils, among others, have unfairly had a bad rap and are not actually even bad for us. The consumer is scared in many cases for no reason. More education is needed and we all need to remember it’s not always as black or white as it is being presented.”

Her statement is a testament to a major shift. Clean beauty won’t be a viable marketing term for much longer. In five years, what is now known as the clean beauty industry will simply be the beauty industry, as most brands will renew their focus on transparency and eco-ethical issues. Brand communication will switch from ”what’s not in it” to ”what’s in it and why”. 

— It makes sense focusing on the actual ingredients and their benefits instead of scaring people with perfectly safe skincare ingredients, says Marie Lodén, associate professor in dermatology at Uppsala University. 

— Parabens used in skincare are actually safe to use as preservatives in creams and serums, the alternatives can actually be worse.

The Nordic consumer isn’t all revved up about organic farming either. Last year, organic brand Weleda did a survey on natural skincare in Sweden. It turned out 56 % of Swedish women and 37 % of Swedish men had bought natural skincare in the previous six months, but while 37 % of the subjects liked the product to be sustainable, only 20 % cared whether it was organically farmed or not. The main concern for the population of Greta Thunberg’s home country was biological diversity; 43 % of Swedes consider it very important to maintain the natural selection and variation of flora and fauna. 

There are other concerns, too. The world’s largest ­cosmetics conglomerate, L’Oréal, includes not only carbon footprint, ­biodiversity and green energy in the sustainability policy, but also social factors. 

— We believe it is our responsibility to involve our consumers, suppliers and the communities we work within our transformation process and to help them transition to a more sustainable world. Here also lies the important social aspect of sustainability, for example, co-creating disruptive solutions with suppliers for social inclusion programs, says Beatrice Fahlkvist, Scientific, Regulatory & Sustainability Manager at L’Oréal Sweden. 

— With our 1,5 billion consumers we have a big role to play in making this change.

And the trend is global: the view on sustainability is evolving. It is believed that climate change and population growth will place more demand on land use for sustainable food production rather than natural ingredients for cosmetic formulas. Naturally derived, lab modified ingredients will take the place of organically farmed ingredients, both in fragrances and in skincare. Packaging is another great concern for consumers and most plastic will be recycled or upcycled in the future. Sulapac — a Finnish startup company that creates bio-degradable and micro-plastic free materials from wood chips and natural binders as plastic alternatives — secured Chanel as its first cosmetic investor in 2018.

While the cosmetics market has been growing rapidly for many years now, the pandemic has hit the industry hard and might have changed the beauty industry for good. Retailer Sephora lost more than 18 % of its sales during the first quarter of 2020. L’Oréal which generates over us $30 billion in annual beauty product sales, had a 19 % decrease in turnover during the second quarter.  The colour cosmetics and fragrance sections suffer the most, as many women only wear makeup to work and on social occasions. On the grainy screen of a video meeting, no one can see your carefully applied contouring and if you don’t even need pants for a meeting, nor do you need perfume. The overall pandemic impact on the cosmetics industry is undeniable: Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reports that earnings from the global beauty industry will fall 20–30 % during 2020. 

Historically, crisis can be a great catalyst for innovation and growth. For ­Swedish model Roger Dupé it sure has been. Dupé has modelled for brands such as Kenzo, Vogue, and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and became historic as the first black model to front the exclusive Rolls-Royce brand campaign with the message ”The Future is Here. He has harboured the concept of a new skincare brand for years, but it didn’t come into fruition until Autumn 2020. The pandemic radically changed his job situation, accelerating his entrepreneurial plans. His brand Melyon taps into the growing market for inclusive skincare, creating serums and creams for black skin. 

— The brand’s focus is on pigmentations, dryness, and ingrown hairs, concerns more often seen in pigmented skin with curly hairs than in white skin, he explains. 

— Growing up, and during my years in the fashion industry, I’ve seen the lack of diversity in beauty. I want to change the view on cosmetics and the cosmetics industry.

Melyon launched in Sweden in ­October 2020, but Dupé has his sights set on the American market. The generation born after 2007 will be the first minority white generation in the US, driving a demand for skincare for all skin types and shades. And the demand is great, as already demonstrated by Fenty Beauty. The brand, launched in 2017 by superstar Rihanna and LVMH group, made many jaws drop. Fenty Beauty launched not less than 40 shades of foundation, totally disrupting the industry and making the world more inclusive at the same time. The brand racked up a reported us $100 million in sales in the first few weeks. 

Catering to new demographic groups will be important in the coming years, not only to people of colour but also to the growing population over 70. In 2030, it is expected that 25 % of the Swedish population will be 65 years or older. As life spans get longer, and people stay vital well into their nineties, the demand will grow for example larger mascara wands that are easier for older hands to grip, or shampoo bottles you can read without a magnifying glass. As beauty brands abandon the term ”anti-age” and choose the more positive-sounding ” well-ageing” (Givaudan) or ” pro-ageing” (Dove, The Body Shop), the senior consumer is becoming more valuable — and profitable — for beauty brands. 

As the meaning of clean beauty changes and inclusiveness regarding both skin tone and age is deemed important, the future for Nordic beauty is really bright.