Monday, June 17, 2024

Kim Kardashian, the Unlikeliest of Sustainable Beauty Champions, Takes Up the Torch


The Body Shop and Aveda sparked a sustainable, clean beauty revolution nearly fifty years ago. Now the Kardashians are stepping in.

The natural beauty industry has come a long way in the last half-century. And in a surprising twist, the Kardashian family, long the antithesis of “natural”, may just be the ones to stamp sustainability and ingredient integrity into permanence. Can they really do it?

Natural beauty pioneers

Anita Roddick opened the first Body Shop in Brighton, UK, in 1976. She wanted safe, clean beauty products for herself and her daughters. The motivation was born out of the movement spurred by Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” about the risks of agricultural chemicals.

Like the nascent organic food movement at the time, Roddick had a similar quest, but hers was about what went on the body, not just in it: could beauty care products be simplified? Could they also be healthier for us and the planet?

The answer to those questions, as Roddick proved, was yes. Roddick’s Body Shop became a global sensation before it sold to L’Oréal for £652.3 million in 2006. (L’Oréal sold The Body Shop to Brazilian cosmetics company Natura in 2017 for €1 billion).

The Body Shop sparked the clean beauty movement | Courtesy

In 1978, a few years after Roddick opened her first store, Austrian hairstylist Horst Rechelbacher founded the natural haircare brand, Aveda. It was nearly a decade since he had first visited India and learned about the natural healing modality there called Ayurveda — it’s where Aveda takes its name from. (Estée Lauder acquired Aveda in 1997.)

Ayurveda is a widely regarded practice that looks to botanicals, not lab-made versions, for beauty and anti-aging secrets as well as general health care. It takes a holistic approach to healing — considering diet and lifestyle as much as what’s used topically to treat and prevent all manner of conditions.

Cleaning up beauty

What Roddick did for consumer-facing beauty products, Rechelbacher did for the service side, becoming the first to create salons with a focus on clean ingredients. Visiting an Aveda salon or The Body Shop store wasn’t cheap, but both offered patrons something often promised but rarely delivered: security. Aveda and The Body Shop boasted the safest products that promised to work just like the mainstream competition. For the consumer who could afford it, the choice was simple.

Both Aveda and The Body Shop immersed themselves in the dizzying world of beauty ingredients — natural and synthetic — aiming to filter out those linked to health and environmental risks, and find the most effective yet gentle alternatives.

Aveda ushered in the clean hair salon movement | Courtesy

Synthetic ingredients, like parabens, used as preservatives, and phthalates, which extend fragrances, are two of the most problematic. They have been linked to a number of health issues including hormone disruption and metabolic disorders — but the complete list of offenders is long and complicated.

It was only last year, after nearly 50 years, that The Body Shop announced it was able to phase out animal products from all formulations.

In the quest for sustainable beauty, animal products are an ongoing problem. For one, animal agriculture is a leading producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Beauty products, especially those touted as “natural”, can also feature honey and other bee products.

The demand for these ingredients is putting pressure on already struggling bee colonies. The insects pollinate about 30 percent of our food. There are ethical considerations, too, with ingredients sourced from animals as well as those formulations that require safety and efficacy testing on animals.

Enter: the Kardashians

For more than a decade, the Kardashian-Jenner clan normalized glamour. They peddled excessive cosmetics use with little consideration for how it was made or its impact on the planet. Keeping Up With the Kardashians sparked the Age of the Influencer, where contouring, fake eyelashes, Botox, and fillers became the norm, along with elective cosmetic surgery gaining popularity with the barely-adult Millennials and Gen-Z.

But could that all be about to change?


In a statement posted on Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty Instagram page last August, the brand, which had deleted all other images from its feed, said it was “currently away” and working on a “new, more modern, elevated, and sustainable brand and customer experience.”

KKW Beauty was the cosmetics brand founded by Kim Kardashian in 2017. It’s big business for the reality star — she became a billionaire last year when Cody took a 20 percent stake in the brand. Her first product, the KKW Creme Contour Kits, sold out in hours. That launch alone earned the brand $14 million.

“It all started with a contour kit and expanded to eyes, lips, body and many incredible collections over the past four years,” Kardashian announced in an Instagram story. “On August 1st midnight we will be shutting down the site so that we can come back to you under a completely new brand with new formulas that are more modern, innovative and packaged with an elevated and sustainable new look,” the statement said.

Kim Kardashian's SKKN skincare line.
Kim Kardashian’s SKKN skincare line is clean and sustainable | Courtesy

KKW first announced its plans to rebrand last July. Fans speculated Kardashian would be dropping the “W” from the label name after her split from performer Kanye West. But the reality star said that’s not the case and that her ex-husband was instrumental in the rebrand.

There are speculations, too, that lawsuits filed by Seed Beauty, are behind the rebrand. It’s the beauty incubator that helped launch both KKW Beauty and Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics. Seed alleges the brands stole proprietary formulations.

Trademark filings and website purchases by the Kardashian team for “SKKN” were also met with legal action. A cease-and-desist was filed by Beauty Concepts LLC over the use of that name. But the reality star prevailed, launching SKKN — a nine-step clean skincare brand earlier this year. The vegan products are formulated with “clean, science-backed ingredients designed to nourish all skin types,” the company says. Products also come in minimalist, refillable packaging.

KKW also shuttering its fragrance division, telling fans in April:

“On May 1st at midnight, @KKWfragrance will be shutting down the website so that we can relaunch fragrance in the future under a brand new name—and under a new web store where you can purchase from all beauty categories under one site,” Kim announced in a statement. Kardashian said the fragrance line is “deeply personal” adding that she put “‘my heart and soul into every bottle.”

Kylie Cosmetics

KKW Beauty’s move also comes after Jenner rebranded her Kylie Cosmetics label to all vegan, clean, paraben-free formulations last summer. The brand did $420 million in retail sales in 18 months, according to Jenner, who became the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire in 2019.

“Innovation has come far in the past few years,” Jenner said in a statement. “When creating this line, it was so important to me to commit to using clean ingredients across the board, but to never sacrifice performance.”

It’s a harder task than it may sound. Long-lasting cosmetics often come with ingredients that pose health risks.

Image courtesy Kylie Cosmetics

“It’s not surprising to see the Kardashians’ beauty lines move towards becoming vegan and clean beauty,” Andrew Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of the leading vegan beauty subscription box brand, Kinder Beauty, told Ethos via email.

Beauty consumers are paying more attention than ever before to what’s in the products they use, and they don’t want to see toxic chemicals like SLS, PEGs, or phthalates, or animal ingredients like beeswax, carmine, or lanolin.

Andrew Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of Kinder Beauty

The pivot also mirrors Kardashian’s shift toward a cleaner diet. In 2019, Kardashian announced she had gone vegan “at home.” Last year, she announced she’d gone fully plant-based. The star also hosted a vegan cooking class last spring for Poosh, the lifestyle website founded by her sister Kourtney.

Kardashian says she switched to a plant-based diet as part of her effort to reverse psoriasis. She has suffered from the autoimmune skin condition for years. Jenner, too, has been eating cleaner, and more plant-based. And Kourtney is eating mostly, if not all, vegan — as she recently married Blink 182 drummer, Travis Barker, who is vegan and co-owner of the popular Los Angeles plant-based restaurant, Crossroads Kitchen.

A Clean Beauty Boom

The clean beauty trend sparked by Roddick birthed others, like the body care brand Lush, founded in 1995 in the U.K. by trichologist Mark Constantine and his wife Mo Constantine. Like The Body Shop, its products promised cleaner ingredients and a focus on botanicals with a modern spin.

Celebrities aided the emerging interest in “natural” products, with brands like the Gwyneth Paltrow-backed Juice Beauty, makeup artists Rose-Marie Swift’s RMS, and real-estate-mogul-turned-luxury-skincare-icon, Tata Harper. They all stood on the backs of the hippie-era natural beauty pioneers like Roddick and Rechelbacher, as well as legacy brands like Aubrey Organics, Dr. Bronner’s, and Kiss My Face.

Whole Foods Market’s meteoric ascent in the U.S. in the 1990s and early 2000s included an expansive array of “clean” beauty options — a selection that was buoyed by the USDA’s national organic program in 2002. The interest in organic and the absence of controversial chemicals led Whole Foods to develop a list of more than 100 banned cosmetics ingredients.

Courtesy Kiss My Face

In 2004, The Environmental Working Group launched its Skin Deep database to help customers better understand the risks of cosmetic ingredients.

But with synthetic products dominating the industry, clean beauty, for all its successes, still sat on the perimeter — mostly unaffordable to the mainstream consumer.

Many of the cleaner products were suspect, too, like the snake oil supplements in the next aisle over — did they even work? Or were clean cosmetics just expensive facsimiles of the “real” stuff?

Hollywood makeup artists favored synthetic products that lasted longer, and celebrities signed multi-year spokesmodel deals with mainstream chemical-laden leaders. And they packaged their not-so-natural products as natural: nature-rinsed brands like Neutrogena and St. Ives fetched premiums at retail despite little to differentiate the products beyond the earth-toned labeling.

The Kardashians go eco?

But things have indeed changed. Kardashian’s new formulas are simplified and clean and Jenner’s newly formulated range is noteworthy. It now excludes more than 1,600 potentially harmful ingredients, the brand says. A recent study found traces of PFAS “forever chemicals” in an array of leading cosmetic products, most often waterproof mascara, liquid lipstick, and foundations described as “long-lasting.” These chemicals have been linked to a host of health issues, including cancer.

“Beauty consumers are paying more attention than ever before to what’s in the products they use, and they don’t want to see toxic chemicals like SLS, PEGs, or phthalates, or animal ingredients like beeswax, carmine, or lanolin,” says Bernstein.

Courtesy Kylie Cosmetics

The target consumers for both Kardashian and Jenner are the younger demographics more interested in sustainable and healthy products than older generations.

According to a study published last year, Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail, younger shoppers prefer to buy from sustainable brands and are even willing to pay more in order to do that. Along with Millennials, Gen-Z is more likely to make value-driven purchases.

Big green beauty

The Kardashians may have pushed their way to the front of the line, but shifting to sustainable ingredients is happening across the beauty industry. Some of the industry’s biggest offenders — brands older than The Body Shop or Aveda — have finally committed to cleaning up their products, sourcing, and packaging. Last year, beauty giants L’Oréal and Lancôme announced bold sustainability initiatives.

Biodiversity and social inclusion are paving a new way forward for the luxury skincare giant Lancôme. The Paris-based L’Oréal brand’s debut sustainability effort is called “Caring Together for a Happier Tomorrow.” The three-pronged initiative includes commitments to protect biodiversity, helping people make sustainable choices, and empowering women.

“Lancôme is a brand that has long had a ‘caring’ facet,” Françoise Lehmann, Lancôme global president, told WWD. “It has always been very close to women and their concerns.”

Courtesy L’Oréal

Nearly all of the ingredients used by Lancôme’s parent brand, French cosmetic giant L’Oréal, will come from renewable resources by 2030. The company says 95 percent of all ingredients will be plant-based by 2030. The L’Oréal Group, which has already invested more than €1 billion into sustainability targets, says it is prioritizing “green science” as the way forward. The L’Oréal Group encompasses 35 brands across the globe and generated more than €28 billion in sales in 2020.

“Sustainability is an imperative now more than ever, and it is our role to allow consumers to make educated choices,” incoming deputy CEO Nicolas Hieronimus told Vogue Business.

Chanel has also ventured into its first sustainable offering, launching No. 1 de Chanel earlier this year, highlighting sustainable packaging and botanical-based ingredients.

The Kardashian effect

The biggest problem with the Kardashian-Jenner family as spokespeople for sustainability, though, if there is one, may just be in the unattainable standards they promote. Bianca Betancourt explains in Harper’s Bazaar:

“Health” through the eyes of the Jenners and Kardashians, however, is infinitely easier to obtain when one has a multimillionaire’s bank account, and the amount of funds matching their determination in obtaining the dream body. Since the Kardashian–Jenner household altogether is worth a whopping $2 billion, their rigorous workout routines and chef-curated meal plans are just another day in the life—a life that’s so far away from reality for the average woman.

This privilege can’t be bottled and sold to clamoring fans. And the Kardashians, it seems, are, at least, trying to do better. Skims, another Kardashian-owned brand, donated more than $1 million to families impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Skims also donates 20 percent of profits to Baby2Baby’s response program, which is committed to providing essentials to babies in need. Khloe Kardashian’s Good American denim brand achieved Certified B corporation status last year. Kendall Jenner’s 818 Tequila has shifted its focus toward sustainable production and conservation efforts.

But are more products really what’s needed, especially in the context of a sustainability ethos? Can a family frequently the epitome of disconnection from real-world problems be the ones to truly address them?

Courtesy KKW Fragrance

Ultimately, Bernstein says, yes. Shifting to a sustainable and more ethical economic model will take every facet of commerce, including celebrity trends and fads. The climate emergency is only worsening, and changing human behavior is the quickest way to remedy it.

In a recent warning, nearly 14,000 scientists have called for urgent action to increase efforts to address the climate crisis. And if the Kardashians can aid in that even slightly, through their millions of followers and customers, it’s not a bad thing. It could even help to spark a pivotal shift—as contoured and glossy as it may be.

“This is a good move for the beauty industry, and for consumers,” Bernstein says. He says Kardashian and Jenner embracing better ingredients and sourcing protocols provides “better alternatives for shoppers and puts pressure on other large brands to make similar changes.”

But, he cautions, too. “The danger, however, with these types of brands adopting words like ‘vegan’ and ‘clean’ is the risk of half-measures, which leads to even more greenwashing. That’s why we ultimately need the FDA to step up and create defined parameters around what makes a product ‘cruelty-free,’ ‘vegan,’ or ‘clean.'”

For Kardashian, it’s all a journey. But she seems ready for it, telling her 241 million Instagram followers,

“I’m excited to continue to develop and expand my product range, and for you to finally be able to experience it the way that I have always envisioned.” 

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