Aether Beauty’s Tiila Abbitt: Leading The Zero Waste Beauty Revolution
When the question of integrating sustainability into your business arises, there are many considerations to be made because it has an impact on nearly every part of a company. Are you working to uphold corporate sustainability and do good in the communities where you operate? And what about for the people who work for your company? Also consider the product itself — is it made in a sustainable fashion? Is the business working to source sustainable ingredients and resources as well as reduce carbon emissions in the manufacturing process? Is the product delivered to the store or end user in a sustainable fashion? Finally, what happens to the product and its packaging once it has been used and discarded by the customer? These are a few of the many conversations companies need to have as they work toward becoming more sustainable.
Tiila Abbitt, Founder & CEO of Aether Beauty, a clean vegan beauty company which harnesses the power of nature, joins us for a truly thought-provoking conversation about running a sustainable operation and, in particular, the end use of a product and its packaging. Tiila incorporated sustainability into the very DNA of her company at the outset, and after a career working at a leading cosmetics manufacturer, she became obsessed with the ins and outs of corporate social responsibility and sustainability as it relates to every aspect of the beauty products industry.
Tiila takes us on the fascinating journey of her career in fashion and beauty products — including the road to bringing Aether Beauty to market — and she invites us to think about product packaging and what happens to those materials at the end of an item’s life cycle. Her key takeaways are below.
- Get to know everything about how your product is made: Visiting factories offshore is vital to understanding the entire life cycle of your product and the people involved in making it. Once you get a dose of reality in this process, you recognize there is always someone on the other side of making a product. (2:15)
- Recognize there is a huge disconnect between the formulation of a product being good for you and the single use packaging it comes in: While something you produce can be clean and healthy and good for the consumer, quite often the packaging it comes in goes straight to the landfill and is therefore not good for the environment. (5:40)
- Look at absolutely every aspect of your product if you want to be completely sustainable: Question everything that goes into both your product AND the packaging. While you might be focused on the ingredients which go into the product being safer, cleaner, greener, etc., most companies never look at their packaging through the same lens. (8:10)
- Learn about materials to use for the most sustainable packaging: You might be surprised to learn that some materials in your product’s packaging simply don’t break down and end up in a landfill. Don’t always discount paper as quite often it is more biodegradable and less harmful to the environment than plastic. (8:28)
- Conducting market research with your customers can lead to insights to help with sustainability: Do your customers really want everything you include in your product and packaging? We learned, for example, makeup artists didn’t want mirrors and magnetic closures in makeup palettes because it made them much heavier to carry around. From a sustainability perspective, the ingredients used to create a magnet contribute to rare Earth mining which means terrible human conditions to mine those ingredients and they ultimately do not break down in a landfill. (10:00)
- Review the inherent value of your packaging: For many years, the packaging space has really been all about how we can make something really luxurious to help sell a product. We were not looking at the landscape for the end cycle of the product and now we are starting to change that conversation. (11:24)
- Take a very close look at everything which goes into your product: Consider if every item in your product from ingredients to labeling to packaging is biodegradable. Look at all of the raw materials including films, inks, closures, and absolutely every aspect of everything in your product and its packaging. (12:28)
- Get an education in packaging and recycling: There is a growing movement out there checking up on companies who greenwash and put a “sustainable” or “recyclable” symbol on their packaging which isn’t true. It is vital for organizations to get up to speed and understand packaging and recycling before they design something. This is particularly true in the beauty industry where the EPA reports that one third of the landfills contain products from the beauty industry. (14:10)
- Recognize you don’t have to sacrifice product quality, efficacy, or top ratings to be a more sustainable company: For the consumer, it’s very difficult for them to understand what is going on behind closed doors in the production of your product or what bad ingredients are included in the products they are buying. As a top five-star rated beauty brand, Aether Beauty’s products are of the highest quality and highly rated and yet I’ve taken a stand against utilizing child labor, forced labor, poor ingredients, etc. (15:45)
- Take responsibility for what your company is producing: The consumer drives change and more and more they are asking about environmental footprints, packaging, labor, etc. This is driving change in all industries to becoming more sustainable. While you can’t implement 100% change overnight, look at the areas where you can make quick enhancements and then work toward long-term improvements. This is better than overpromising and under delivering because if you disappoint a customer or create an untrustworthy reputation, it is very difficult to get that customer back. (18:22)
Watch the video or read the transcription below.
Jennifer: I’d love to hear how you decided to start this new beauty company, with sustainability at the core and focus.
Tiila: You know, I’m a firm believer in, like, following your path and sometimes when you don’t know what your path is going to be, sometimes just having faith and opportunities and taking them and see where they lead you. So, I’ve always been, even from being a small girl, I always made stuff and sold it, so I’ve been an entrepreneur since the get-go. But I didn’t know if I would actually do or create anything in my professional career. So I have an artistic background so I have a BFA in sculpture, I came out to San Francisco to get a double masters in fashion design and network design and I worked [2:00] in the fashion design world before I transitioned to beauty. Which really gave me an understanding of the circular economy. So I was really young at the time, I started as an intern and I worked my way up and I worked for a small design house in San Francisco that had all their production in house which was kind of unheard of for the time. And I worked there for a few years and in that time, they transitioned everything to China. And I used to have to go to China once every two months to work with the factories for fittings and various other reasons, but they were incredibly small factories because she was producing a small amount of units. And I saw a lot of things that I wish I could unsee. From just living conditions, to child labor, to, you know, a lot of toxicity going into the environment, a lot of force labor, a lot of things that I did not realize I had any impact to change. I always questioned it, but I was super young, it wasn’t my decision for any of that business, sort of change in the business structure. But it always sort of stuck with me that there is always someone on the other side of someone making a product and taking that sort of knowledge, I started working for Sephora and I became their head of product development for their private label brands. For a collection, in charge of their makeup accessories. So, like, makeup bags, tools, makeup brushes, those sorts of things that were not formulated, and then in true Sephora fashion, I was thrown into formulation two months on the job. And had to roll up my sleeves and just dive in and learn, which is kind of the best way I like to do things. And I became in charge of all of their makeup collaborations and so anytime it said a brand plus Sephora from Pantone to Museum of Ice Cream, to Mar Hoffman, to Moschino, and many in-between. And I had a great [4:00] creative outlet, I had a great job, great salary, I got to travel the world but at a certain point, you know, I really just started to have a disconnect with formulating conventional cosmetics and living an organic lifestyle. So I’ve been a vegetarian for over 27 years, I worked as an organic cook in college and was pronouncing Quinoa correctly before anyone knew what the heck it was, and I got an organic couch made because I’m terrified of fire retardants. So kind of, I really wanted to do something in my role at Sephora to do something better, so I actually volunteered there and became their head of research and development for sustainability for all of Sephora, on top of my day to day role. And in that role, I got to go to tons of sustainable cosmetics conferences, I talked to many packaging engineers in the space and really sort of learned how bad the single-use packaging is in the cosmetic world. And at the same time, Sephora was ideating their clean category and I was really brought in with the buyers because they knew how obsessed I was with this category, to come in when all these third party brands were presenting as options for Sephora to bring in. And I had never been so bored in meetings at Sephora. So, you’re used to formula innovation and colors and trends and all this makeup that will, like, do your dishes too, right. And what was being presented was about 10 years behind conventional beauty. I knew I could formulate better. I even told the brand how to fix one of their products in a meet and they stopped the meeting and were like, “Who are you?” And then I started really looking at the space and I was like, you know, none of the founders at the time, came from true product development. Nobody was looking at it from a sustainable lens, I mean, all the packaging was still single use. And to me, that was such a disconnect, something being clean and healthy but the packaging going straight to the landfill [6:00] and so I just decided to sit down and put pen to paper and came up for an idea for a makeup brand that really sort of had a good, positive spin to the space because something that happens in anything sustainable or anything clean, or anything, sort of, green, there’s a lot of guilt associated with it. So if something is clean then it, you know, other products are not, other products are bad for you, and XY and Z chemicals are going to give you cancer and all sorts of stuff, or, you know, living sort of a zero waste lifestyle you get a lot of guilt. Like, oh my god, you’ve got to buy something that isn’t necessarily circular. So, there’s a lot of, like, negativity in this space. So I wanted to bring a lot of positivity into this space which is actually why I infuse crystals into all the formulation to be able to add a touch of wellness, a touch of spirituality, but then each mineral actually has a skin care benefit to them which is why I actually utilize them in my formulas.
Jennifer: That’s an amazing story. I noticed that one of the first awards that you won was actually the industry’s first zero-waste palettes. Why did it take so long for there to be a zero-waste palette?
Tiila: Yeah, so I just started, you know, really asking questions and that’s, even when I did, when I first started my job at Sephora, because I had no experience in beauty and I had no problem telling people that and saying, “I have a question,” stopping a meeting and asking a question and learning. And so, I always have that sort of, built into me as [8:00] just wanting to know more. So, I would just keep questioning all the packaging engineers that I had relationships with, manufacturers, all of that. And what usually happens is that a brand, you know, goes to a packaging supplier and asks for a lipstick component or a quad, or whatever they need, mascara for their project and they’re not looking at it from an end perspective. So, they might be interested in the ingredients that go in there for having safer, cleaner, greener ingredients but they’re not looking at the packaging at that same perspective. So, a lot of times people don’t even know that the packaging that they are producing or using for their brand isn’t going back into the environment. And I just started asking questions because I actually went to the San Francisco local recycling facility when I was ideating my brand. Very naively and, like, brought all these different materials. I always says I’d probably be an industrial engineer in another lifetime because I just love different materials and how to use them. And I brought them there and I was like, thought I could just watch them go through, like, the recycling facility and see where they end up kind of like, PBS style or something and so not the case. And they, you know, just dump tons at a time through these conveyer belts but I got to talk to the people that ran, like, racology, and were doing everything, at least in San Francisco, they have industrialized compost machines so I talked about bioplastics, I talked about different types of materials and really was able to come to the conclusion of the best material to use was really paper. And just because you use paper does not mean that that can be recycled, or just because you use paper does not mean you might be contributing to things that aren’t necessarily good for the Earth. Like, deforestation and stuff. So, all the paper that I use is FSC certified [10:00] but I started just gathering all these pieces of information. So, I learned that mirrors and magnets are completely unrecyclable. And so, I removed them.
Jennifer: I learned that too. Right on the package.
Tiila: Exactly, so I write on there why there isn’t a mirror, but when I worked at Sephora, I used to work with so many pro makeup artists and we would design all these palettes. And they would be huge and bigger, and they travel with them and they would get so mad. They’re like, “Stop putting these heavy mirrors into these palettes. We travel with them, its really heavy, and they break all the time. And we don’t use them, like, its such a waste.” So I had that in my head anyway and I was like, oh, when I travel I use a mirror anyway so why are we adding this extra material that renders something not recyclable and then on top of it, digger deeper into magnets, who the ingredients used to create a magnet contribute to rare Earth mining and are horrible for the human conditions to mine those ingredients, but create a horrible environment surrounding the mines. So it’s like taking the same lens to what people are looking at in ingredients, to the raw materials in packaging and really understanding how our infrastructures work because our infrastructures are so complicated and so broken and how can you still work within that system in order to create anything. And when I first started talking to all these packaging engineers, they all laughed at me. They’re like, “Okay, let me go to the archive and get these bamboo samples that we did 10 years ago,” and I was like, no, there’s a way to do this in like, a prestige, sophisticated way that does not necessarily feel like Whole Foods granola because that’s just not what I want it to be. And so now when I go to tradeshows pre-covid, everyone has like some sort of sustainable packaging option, like, I’m just happy to sort of be leading the way for people to care and understand. I think the packaging space [12:00] was really all about how could they make something really luxurious and help sell a product and wasn’t looking at the landscape for the end cycle for the product and its starting to change that conversation.
Tiila: I’m always the Tetris type of person, like, how you figure something out and make it work and successful. So even like the films I use are biodegradable. Even the inks I use matter to render something as recyclable or not, the pans inside are recycled aluminum and then, you know, I always say, you know, you try to do your best so I use an elastic on there for closure instead of a magnet, which its still, you know, elastic, which is still plastic and all of that, however, you can cut it and re-use it as a hair tie so there is a reuse actionable item to it and I am a mom so I’m always losing my hair ties. So its like, how can you figure out these little pieces that can be a better option and, like, that’s sort of the mindset that I take to all my products so I won’t launch a product, especially being a product developer. I have two years of formula I have created but its really finding out a packaging sell before I put it in the market because I’m a firm believer in making sure I put out there, my best, and not having to clean it up later sort of deal.
Jennifer: What has been the business value of building a brand where sustainability is at its core?
Tiila: Yeah, it’s a lot easier when you start [14:00] when it is at its core versus trying to figure out what’s right for your brand or trying to get on the bandwagon, which everybody needs to get on, but I do see a lot of greenwashing in this space and still a lack of understanding on our basic infrastructures. I see it all the time, you know, symbols on there for recyclability that aren’t true. That, I know there’s been lawsuits about that lately so that interesting to watch but I feel like people need to go to school and just understand packaging and recycling system before they design something. But, you know, having it at its core has really been easy to make decisions for the company and the brand because its always there and its always, like, the main piece of the pie. So I think it would be harder if I was a brand that was just starting to figure out what’s right for them and how they can do better, and, sort of, always, you know, almost being an afterthought where for me, it’s really the essence of the company and trying to lead the charge in change in the industry because this industry has been operating this way for many years and the numbers are staggering. So, there’s over 120 billion, with a B, components produced every year annually, that are single use and go to the landfill in cosmetics. So that to me, you know, the EPA reported that a third of the landfill is from the beauty industry. And do you know how many industries there are? Like, that is not okay. So, you know, being able to lead the charge in that way but at the same time, making sure that the product works. So, I can talk day in and day out about sustainability, that’s great, but if the product doesn’t have that oo and ah factor and doesn’t work, people aren’t going to buy it, right? So, for me, the most thing I’m proud of actually, which all this stuff is just like a big, [16:00] sort of, Tetris game, is really the ratings and reviews on performance. So, when I worked at performance, we used to watch the ratings and reviews like a hawk because people do not hold back in this space. Especially cosmetics. And you would know immediately if you had hit or if there was a production issue, or if there was some sort of issue with the product. So, for me, all my products are rated either 4.9 or 5 stars on Sephora, which…
Jennifer: I noticed that. Across multiple websites. If I looked for this palette on Sephora, Credo Beauty, its all 5 stars and I’ve never seen that.
Tiila: So, like, you know, and average conventional beauty brand averages like a 4.2 and if you take my brand at a clean makeup, clean makeup is like at a 3.8. So that to me is really what I’m proving. That you do not have to sacrifice, you know, efficacy, you don’t have to use all of these elements that people aren’t talking about in the beauty industry from child labor, to force labor, to a lot of different horrible attributes like palm oil, many different topics and, you know, its very hard for the consumer to really understand what’s going on behind closed doors because its very hard just to read an ingredient list and understand what you’re buying. So that’s why I’m a huge component for education and also for sampling in a sustainable way that is also a big puzzle during Covid and this whole world because for me, you know, a lot of people have a misconception that clean beauty doesn’t work or its not as great as conventional and all this stuff, and that’s what I really set out to prove. That you can have the world with innovation and efficacy and not have to contribute to, not have to sacrifice anything for it.
Jennifer: What do you think its going to take [18:00] for more companies to make a larger investment in sustainability?
Tiila: I’m a firm believer that the consumer drives change. So when the consumers are asking, you know, about environmental footprints, about, you know, anything they want to know about packaging, people have to answer and people have to take responsibility for what they’re putting out there. However, there is change already going on in the industry. So, I know, even internally with Sephora, like, they’ve used my brand as an example for other brands to, sort of, follow suit. They say the brand is a gold standard when it comes to how they’re pushing their partners as far as having them think about sustainability. I do think as a brand you should start small and then keep building. Instead of, I’ve seen companies have, like, these crazy goals in like 4 or 5 years, and, like, we don’t know how we’re going to do it but we’re going to do it. And that’s fine, but I think it’s a little bit more realistic to affect things that you can affect and then keep growing versus almost making all of these over-promised statements and underdelivering because at the end of the day, this client, if you disappoint this client or create a conversation of untrust, that is a very hard client to get back.
Jennifer: Tiila, thank you so much for your time today.
Tiila: Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer.