Are natural and clean beauty products scalable?
R. Alexandra Keith // WTF BEAUTY
Alex Keith has concerns that many start-up and boutique beauty brands don’t.
Procter & Gamble is a big company with big brands. Items billed as natural, and clean and organic are all the rage with some consumers. But are these products really better for the environment or the consumer? When Keith thinks What the Future, she’s thinking about the sustainability of natural.
WTF: Why were these important questions to ask?
Alex Keith: There’s a lot of discussion about natural beauty and clean beauty, but ultimately here at P&G Beauty we’ve really started to think about it much more broadly as responsible beauty. It’s not just about the naturals and clean, it’s about the safety, quality and efficacy of the products. These things are critically important to be a responsible beauty company, but they don’t necessarily result in each other –they’re independent.
“If the entire industry switched to organic and natural materials, it would be a problem for the Earth and for food sources.”
WTF: What do you mean by “independent”?
Keith: It’s a bit of a Venn diagram. There are overlapping spaces between naturals and clean beauty and sustainability. But they’re not entirely overlapping, and they could sometimes be at odds with each other. For instance, if you’re not sourcing natural ingredients in a responsible way, that can actually have a negative impact on sustainability.
WTF: I would imagine that at P&G’s scale, if you decided to use Costa Rican volcanic clay in a product, that could very well decimate Costa Rica.
Keith: Because of our scale it’s very important that we have this responsible beauty platform that we have established. I think it’s something that the industry needs to take a good hard look at. If the entire industry switched to organic and natural materials, it would be a problem for the Earth and for food sources.
WTF: Can you give an example of ways you address that?
Keith: We partnered with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London, the world’s foremost expert on plant and botanical science and benefits on human life. They are helping us to authenticate the botanicals we’re using in our products as responsibly sourced applications with meaningful levels in the product.
WTF: You mention it’s an industrywide problem, that not everything can be “natural”?
Keith: The good news in this survey is that not every consumer is demanding purely natural and organic products. The interest level is certainly going up, but as we look at it there are certain things that I would call must-haves for consumers in this space. Getting all the way to completely natural and organic still remains a smaller part of the market.
WTF: That’s got to be a tricky thing to communicate to the consumer: Be careful what you wish for.
Keith: In many cases people are searching for more natural solutions because they think they’ll be safer. But nature isn’t always safe. We do a lot of safety testing on our ingredients in our finished product formulations because sometimes ingredients that might be safe on their own, if not formulated correctly, end up not being safe and being irritants in those type of things.
WTF: What were some of your takeaways from the survey?
Keith: The consumer that is really looking for a natural product. She or he is also looking for a product that works. If you want to label products “natural” you need to be able to call out ingredients that actually occur in nature. That’s why the authentication we’re going through with Kew is so important for the consumer.
WTF: What else?
Keith: For instance, amongst African-ancestry consumers, that interest in naturals in the beauty spaces is significantly higher. Through a haircare lens, that mix makes inherent sense because of the rituals that these consumers have gone through with their hair for years. The chemical [mix] necessary to [create] some of the transformations that they desire, maybe first to straighten their hair and now to make it go back natural again – these type of things can be very harsh processes.
WTF: While people do prefer brands that they know and trust over new brands, the survey shows that the idea of “natural” can be a tipping point where people say they would try a new brand.
Keith: It’s obviously true, because the markets are fragmenting, and many of these new brands are gaining significant momentum with consumers.
WTF: How do you think some of these results will change, and how do you think this landscape will play out in the coming years?
Keith: I don’t think [terms like natural and clean] are going to go away. I think they are part of the general wellness trend that is happening in the world across food and vacations and everything. The question is how big it becomes in the beauty space. I think it’s going to be linked to the authenticity of the offerings. Ultimately the onus is on the manufacturers to help this segment grow by providing products that work. The good news is this consumer is engaged and wants to learn.
What the Future is a quarterly deep dive into different aspects of consumer and social thought and behavior. Each edition features exclusive new data from world-leading research firm Ipsos. WTF explores how a single industry or behavior fits into the broader culture now and in the coming decades. Read Previous WTF Issues »
WTF: How has the definition of beauty changed over your career, and how do you see that continuing to evolve moving forward?
Keith: If I think back to when I started my career in beauty in the early ’90s, there was such an idealized thinking of what everybody ought to look like. Now certainly it’s moving much more to [how] each person can be “the best me.” I think that social media will continue not to create ideal states per se but create aspirations for certain different micro-tribes, for lack of a better word, especially with Gen Z girls. The hardcore definitions of what beauty is, just like almost everything in our world today, is becoming a lot more fluid and a lot more self-defined. People feel more in control of what they want to be and how to achieve that.