When it comes to Mindful Brands, Ethique is leading the way. Recognised in all four Mindful Values of Eco Packaging, Environmental Sustainability, Social Responsibility and Transparency, they’re committed to conscious change. And Transparency is no easy feat. Openly sharing information about a supply chain isn’t only important, but it’s often hard to uncover. These days, conscious consumers want to know the ins and outs. So, we spoke to Ethique Founder & CEO Brianne West to understand how their supply chain scrubs up, and what conscious customers should look out for to evaluate a brand’s level of transparency.
What does transparency mean to Ethique?
At Ethique, we work hard to be transparent about as much of our business as possible. Transparency to us means providing visibility into parts of the business that companies may not typically opt to share, in order to help customers feels empowered about the decisions they are making about the products they buy and company they are backing. We want to revolutionise the cosmetics industry, but we know we cannot do it alone. So, transparency gives more purchasing power to consumers – if the information they are seeing on our website is valuable, they can demand this from other brands too. We’re transparent about our carbon emissions status (recently improved from carbon neutral to climate positive), the cost of our products, why we use or don’t use certain ingredients, but probably the thing we are most engaged in being transparent about is our supply chain. We’re big believers in the honest and fair trade of ingredients and in particular, direct trade partnerships with producers, wherever possible. Direct trade ensures that local growers receive stable prices, reliable income, and good working conditions. It has far reaching benefits for the communities where our ingredients are produced.
We purchase some fair-trade certified ingredients, but also work directly with producers and growers. Direct trade is like fair trade, but instead of working through an intermediary, we hold these relationships ourselves so we can be confident that the prices we pay are fair and the community’s working conditions are safe. Unfortunately, some of our suppliers are so small they cannot afford the compliance costs that come with fair trade or similar certifications, and we don't want this to be a limitation. We strongly believe in paying a fair price for our ingredients and forming partnerships with suppliers who share our commitment for environmental protection.
We operate these direct trade relationships wherever possible, working together with farming cooperatives in places like Rwanda and Samoa. In Samoa, we work with Women in Business Development (WiBDi). WiBDi works with 183 villages helping to create organic agriculture businesses that supply products like coconut oil, dried bananas, and coffee all over the globe.
WiBDi have worked alongside families to establish coconut farms by teaching them essential processes, helping fund the purchase of equipment and offering their ongoing support. These are inter-generational businesses, as coconut palms take six to ten years to start fruiting and at least 15 to reach peak production. We use a lot of coconut oil. It makes an appearance in most of our bars thanks to its light, moisturising properties. Because we use this fairly traded coconut oil, we can replace palm oil in our products, without shifting the environmental damage somewhere else.
We aim to work in direct trade relationships because stable, fair prices lead to environmental protection. Fairness and respect for people fosters the same considerations for the environment. In places where people are desperate to feed their families, sustainability isn’t a priority. Fair wages enable people to think long-term about minimising waste, utilising raw materials, and ensuring low-to-no environmental harm.
When people aren’t focused on simply surviving day to day, it’s also easier to make choices that protect their businesses for the long term, like producing a higher quality product, increasing their range, and taking steps to preserve their local environment.
How do Ethique choose (and screen) your suppliers?
The key to choosing suppliers with whom we will have lasting and successful relationships is choosing those that are values aligned. We love to partner with local organisations – although local can vary a little by context (e.g. virgin coconut oil from Samoa is certainly more ‘local’ to New Zealand than the Philippines!). We love to partner with women-led businesses (like WiBDi) and farming cooperatives who are passionate about using business to develop their local community. Working with such organisations who prioritise transparency themselves makes ‘screening’ suppliers relatively easy. On the fun end of the spectrum, we have had the opportunity to see first-hand how our wonderful virgin coconut oil is made in Samoa (pre-COVID, of course!).
Sadly, something I say often is that the beauty industry is anything but beautiful. Ingredients are often rife with exploitation, child labour, trafficking to name but a few – manufacturers have a responsibility to closely examine their supply chains to ensure they aren’t inadvertently funding these activities. We go to great lengths to obtain legally binding declarations which guarantee that none of our ingredients are products of child labour, animal testing, or contain palm oil and so on.
In an ideal world, our stockists would be as aligned as our suppliers – like our partnership with HealthPost – however in the real world as it stands today, this isn't really achievable. To really create impact and ensure we prevent as many bottles being made and disposed of as possible, we need scale. That means partnering with large organisations and typically, those larger organisations make a lot of choices we ourselves wouldn't. If we partnered only with retailers that were values aligned, the unfortunate reality is that our ability to help people #giveupthebottle would be significantly constricted. In these instances, we work hard to challenge the status quo from the inside. Selling on large online platforms (through our distributor) has allowed us to give a wide audience access to plastic free, ethically sourced products, making us the #1 bestselling shampoo bar on the largest online marketplace and allowing many more thousands of people a sustainable option and choice. Through exerting our influence from within the system, one of the largest Amazon resellers, shipping hundreds of thousands of parcels a week is currently transitioning to an entirely plastic-free supply chain!
What interests or demands have you seen from consumers around your supply chain?
Our wonderful community are great at holding us accountable and making sure we are always striving to do better when it comes to our supply chain. Fortunately, being a better, fairer business was one of our founding principles, so we have pursued direct and fairly traded relationships from day one. But of course, we can always do more and we will continue to form new partnerships as we grow. We've certainly had some customers who waited until we were certified as palm-oil free before purchasing – as palm oil has become a more recent consumer concern, the palm oil free certification is still in its infancy, so we were one of the first cosmetic companies in the world to secure it!
Customers are curious too as to how our bars are priced – to answer these queries and in the pursuit of transparency, we made available online a breakdown of how our pricing is decided and the factors that are taken into consideration.
Transparency isn’t straightforward – what challenges has Ethique faced and how have you overcome these?
Transparency can be easy if you’re working hard to do your best and can be honest about not only that, but also your shortcomings on that journey – something we’ve always tried to do from day one. We are not perfect, and it can be scary to admit that. But we have found that when we do admit that we are still working on an issue (such as lowering our carbon emissions), our customers totally get it and are far more likely to be understanding than unreasonable about it. No company, no person is perfect, and we are all in this together, so talking about the highs and lows is important.
What should conscious customers look out for to evaluate a brand’s level of transparency?
Simply whether they can substantiate their claims. Does a brand claim to be carbon neutral? If they do, who do they engage to help them with their emissions assessment? Is that consultancy reliable? If they are engaged in carbon sequestration projects, where is the evidence of this? Are there other agencies involved in the projects that can corroborate the statements?
Maybe you’re thinking ‘where on earth would I find this information’ - all you have to do is ask (respectfully and politely – customer service teams are humans too). If you don’t hear back, follow up. If the organisation is telling the truth, sharing the information won’t be hard at all. If they are stretching the truth or outright lying, they’re likely to be evasive. Same goes for anything you want to know about – supply chain, ingredients, policies, how they are enforcing those policies, progress made towards planet-friendly goals. Think seriously about whether the answer satisfies you – does it? If not, you know what to do – switch to another (more planet-friendly!) brand.
Is there anything you would like to say to other brands who are on the journey of becoming more transparent about their supply chain?
Good luck and keep going. It's worth it. It can be mind-numbingly frustrating, you may be lied to, given false documentation, asked if you just want them to say yes but not really mean it – and that's because unfortunately a clean supply chain is really rare because it's incredibly difficult, so people don't know what they need to do. But it is so important that everyone has the same fair working conditions and economic independence that you and I would expect.
Then you can be really proud of the business decisions you are making. When you want to shout about the fact that everyone in your supply chain is paid a living wage; that you source your ingredients locally and have met and assessed the conditions in which your key ingredients are made; that your business is making an impact in communities far away from your own – transparency will come easily and may even be something you’re never quiet about again!
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