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The Fundamentals of Upcycled Ingredients in Beauty Products

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Earlier this year, Mintel declared “beauty eco-lution” the next evolution of clean beauty. The market research firm explained that the trend marries ethics with safety to cater to conscious consumers reevaluating their purchase priorities as they emerge from the pandemic.

The environment is a driving force in their ethical considerations. According to a 2019 study by the Personal Care Product Council, 84% of millennials say sustainability influences their purchase decisions, and 60% of gen Z and millennial consumers say they pay attention to how a product is made or sourced, while 66% of them relay they’re willing to pay more for brands committed to positive social and environmental impacts. Center for Sustainable Business’s 2020 Sustainable Share Market Index report shows that, from 2015 to 2019, brands marketed with sustainable claims registered sales that were 7.1X those without such claims.

Sustainability, of course, is a broad concept. There’s more to it than simply using recyclable packaging. The promotion of a circular economy, which is defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a “systemic approach to economic development designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment” that is restorative and regenerative, is increasingly becoming the expected standard, but it’s difficult for brands operating in the existing beauty industry model.

“Taking this circular approach to ingredients and managing to scale it to the extent that we have, it’s not easy,” said Anna Brightman, co-founder of UpCircle, a beauty brand that started with the idea of giving used coffee grounds a new purpose, last Wednesday during an episode of Beauty Independent’s In Conversation webinar series sponsored by specialty chemicals company Croda. She added, “It takes a lot of experimentation starting from scratch, and my goodness that has been a process.”

For the webinar, Brightman was joined by Alejandra Camacho, business development director at Crodarom, the botanical extract division of Croda, and Lorne Lucree, chief innovation officer at contract manufacturer Voyant Beauty. They discussed the challenges of developing eco-conscious products and why the circular economy is the gold standard for beauty brands, and also offered tips for beauty brands interested in incorporating upcycled ingredients.

Recycled and upcycled materials are different

Recycled products have to go to a facility to be broken down in order to be reused in the manufacturing process, which consumes energy and can involve dyes or other chemicals, though it still saves materials from going to landfills and helps lower greenhouse gas emissions. Upcycling takes materials and reuses them without destroying them with the goal of forming a different product. It reduces the consumption of virgin raw materials and, as a result, is a comparably energy-efficient route to product creation, and lessens the waste stream, air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural ingredients aren’t necessarily sustainable

Brightman shares an estimate that 500,000 tons of coffee grounds end up annually in landfill sites in the United Kingdom, where UpCircle is based. The brand works with local coffee houses to collect their used coffee grounds and put them to work in its skincare and body care products. After their initial use, Brightman details that natural ingredients such as coffee are often stored in bags and sent to landfills, where they have trouble breaking down due to the lack of oxygen. Upcyling increases the chances that natural ingredients will properly aerobically degrade.

Croda takes a holistic view of the supply chain to foster sustainability. It aims to be land-, climate- and people-positive by 2030 in part by investing in crop seed technology and escalating its use of renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint. The company achieved platinum status in 2021 from EcoVadis, a ratings platform that evaluates how well a company has integrated the principles of sustainability and corporate social responsibility into its business and management. Camacho said, “Just because you are sourcing from plants doesn’t automatically make these products sustainable either because they come from different partners and farms, so we have made sure that we have a positive impact in the workers’ communities as well.”

Camacho continued, “We are a chemical supplier, but we aren’t just making chemicals for the sake of it…We always keep in mind what they are going to be used for and how we can make them in a way that we minimize any negative impact. We started upcycling just because it was the right thing to do.”

Sustainable ingredients are generally costlier

Croda’s eco range of ingredients offers “pretty much zero differential” on cost, according to Camacho. Brightman doesn’t pay anything for UpCirle’s upcycled coffee grounds. The cafes the brand gets them from like not having to deal with costs of disposing of the grounds. However, logistics and processing upcycled ingredients can be tricker than traditional ingredient sourcing. Lucree said the biggest source of upcycled packaging currently is ocean waste plastic, but cautioned brands may be paying prices between 30% and 50% above conventional plastic for ocean waste plastic.

As more consumers demand these sustainable ingredients, costs will drop. “It’s not if, it’s when that we will see a real rise in asking for these types of materials and, because of that, you’re going to see cost reduced, see more availability and a wider selection of materials,” said Lucree. UpCircle has managed to keep accessible pricing. The prices of its products are all under 24.99 pounds or about $35 at the current exchange rate. Brightman said, “If we want a truly sustainable future, then it can’t be that sustainability is an elite privilege only on the table for a few. It needs to be appealing to the masses.”

Consumers aren’t familiar with upcycling

Start with ingredients that come from a single source, advised Brightman. The chai spices that UpCircle uses in its organic soaps come from one business, enabling the brand to keep an eye on the quality and consistency of the discarded product. Brightman chooses UpCircle’s coffee shop partners based on location, ethics and ingredient sourcing practices.

Within the beauty industry, the skincare and body care segments have taken a particular shine to upcycling. Camacho noted some of Croda’s most popular ingredients include Scrubami ER, a natural alternative to polyethylene beads developed from fruit stones and shells, Amiporine ER, an anti-aging and moisturizing agent developed from pomegranate aril; Glucohyami, a hyaluronic acid synthesis booster developed from non-marketable chicory root; and Pearlami, an anti-aging and radiance-amplifying developed from non-tradable pearls.

While skincare and body care brands are embracing upcyling, it isn’t yet recognized by the general public. In December last year, Voyant conducted a sustainability focus group of over 100 participants, and 78 of them had no idea what upcyling is. “We hear these terms, and we are in the business, always looking at what’s new, now, next, so it was surprising,” said Lucree. He elaborated, “We actually threw out some terminology coming from fashion because cross-category inspiration can be a source of rich content to be able to reapply.” Among the terms that resonated with the focus group are zero waste, recrafted and repurposed. Lucree suggested clients use familiar terms in marketing. He said, “We want these upcycled concepts to be successful, so we try to connect the dots where possible for clients.”

Partnerships are key

Unless it’s farming, manufacturing and packaging ingredients and products itself, there’s no way a brand can certain an entire supply chain is sustainable. Camacho stressed transparent partners offering visibility into their practices is key for brands trying to be as sustainable and cost-effective as possible. Brands partnering with Croda are able to rely on the chemical manufacturer to perform due diligence for them. Croda partners with local farmers in the South of France and checks on them to assess the ways in which botanical ingredients are being produced.

The company has begun partnering with rural farmers around the globe and helping them implement sustainable practices. Camacho said, “We give them some training, help them with their operations and, in exchange, we’re able to have access to an amazing flower or an amazing fruit that now we know exactly how it’s being grown, and we know that whoever is participating in that farming operation is having their rights protected.”

The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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