The mission is two-fold: inspire brands to rethink how they sell and package their products, and encourage consumers to question if they really need liquid body wash and shampoo… or have they just been taken in by marketing?
West has taken the business from strength to strength since its debut in 2012. US celebrities like Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher have used the products, and the brand can now be found on e-commerce giant Amazon.
Here we speak to West about launching the first zero plastic, zero waste personal care brand, the growth journey and what it’s like selling on Amazon.
Inside FMCG: You started making shampoo bars in your kitchen and now sell your products worldwide. Tell us about Ethique’s journey.
Brianne West: Ethique came about as a combination of my passion for the environment, knowledge of cosmetic chemistry – and the waste the industry creates – and the desire to create a business that had far more at its core than just making profit.
Years ago, while I was studying at university, I taught myself cosmetic chemistry from scratch with loads of research into what each ingredient does and how to build a product from the ground up. After some fabulous feedback from my guinea pigs (human ones of course) I branched out into conditioners, then started replacing everything in my bathroom with solid versions.
Ethique grew steadily for a couple of years, then bam! We were featured in an article in Forbes, which grew into an article in the Huffington Post, which generated thousands of pieces of press around the world.
Most excitingly Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher shared us on their social media! This led to interest all around the world, which of course started our export journey! As the world’s first full range lifestyle brand, we now available in over 14 countries.
Inside FMCG: How did you get a funding as a start-up business?
Funding Ethique has been quite enjoyable and reasonably straight-forward. As we have such as strong story and a real purpose beyond profit, as well as a commercially viable product, investment has been readily available. We have completed two rounds of investment through equity crowdfunding and received some traditional angel investment.
Altogether we have raised just over $3 million so far and have over 350 investors. We decided to take this approach as I really like equity crowdfunding – we are not beholden to a large equity funds requests, which may or may not line up with our values, and we are bringing people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford to invest in companies along for the ride and hopefully repay their faith in the future with some dividends.
Inside FMCG: I’ve switched from plastic bottled shampoos/conditioner this year, how does Ethique stand out from the rest of the plastic-free brands out there? Is it still a niche industry in NZ?
Awareness around plastic-waste is increasing every day and there are a lot of companies who are adapting to take a stand around plastic. There are a wealth of brands out there who create wonderful plastic-free products, however, our focus is around sustainability, so that goes beyond just plastic-free.
Ethique is the first zero plastic, zero waste personal care brand. It produces a unique range of 100 per cent solid beauty bars made exclusively from naturally-derived, sustainably-sourced and biodegradable ingredients.
On average an Ethique shampoo bar will last three months, or the equivalent of three bottles. Conditioner is even better at five bottles. Our body moisturisers replace about two bottles of liquid lotion and our face creams and cleansers replace three – all of this and everything that Ethique stands for is what makes us stand out.
Of course, there is still ongoing customer education; although people really resonate with our ‘why’ very quickly, many don’t understand how to use a solid as they do a liquid, so there is a high barrier to a customer’s first purchase. Whilst it’s still very niche in NZ, it’s growing rapidly.
Inside FMCG: Is it cheaper to produce shampoo bars compared to having them in plastic bottles?
The complete opposite.
As the vast majority of most products is water, which is effectively free, or very cheap, this lowers the per unit cost. Our bars are much, much more expensive to produce for this reason alone, but when you add the fact that we are palm oil free too (the alternatives are very expensive), packaged in compostable packaging (which is 10-12x more expensive than plastic) and that we pay our team a living wage… well it fast becomes much more expensive than plastic bottled ones. Yet we keep our pricing as cheap as possible. Whilst the bars are small, because they are so concentrated, they are the same price as a supermarket shampoo per use.
Inside FMCG: How did you come up with the compostable packaging?
Packaging wastage is huge in the beauty industry. I wanted to develop a packaging that would allow my company to be 100 per cent zero waste and zero plastic. That is why our bars come wrapped in compostable boxes – they are free from chlorine, laminates and plastic coatings and are printed with vegetable inks. They are made with FSC cardboard, sourced from New Zealand sustainably managed forests.
Whilst this is great for the environment as they are readily compostable and recyclable, it was a bit of a nightmare to develop packaging that could stand up to being shipped internationally and sit on a retail shelf and look great. Thankfully I’ve worked with some wonderful packaging companies over the years who have put lots of time into working on this for us.
Inside FMCG: Usually its more expensive to buy products which makes some consumers hesitant to switch. How do you entice them to buy Ethique?
Once people understand the concentration of the bars (hence the value), the various ethical boxes we tick, how amazing the results and the environmental issues associated with typical products, it’s not a hard sell.
Inside FMCG: Tell us how the Amazon partnership came about.
Getting on Amazon was the tough part! Luckily, we found a great distributor, Pharmapacks, who have held our hand and educated us in the ‘ways of Amazon’. It’s a great way to get in front of as many people as possible and it’s such an integral part of people’s lives here that we would be so much less accessible without it. The goal is to rid the world of plastic bottles – we can’t do that by not going where people shop. It’s a scary beast and I’m sure it’s swallowed up brands much bigger and better resourced than ours, which is why we have partnered with experts to help us negotiate it.