The Sustainability of Natural Ingredients in Beauty
Finding the perfect vanilla
Blood Orange + Vanilla Sugar Scrub was one of the first products I ever created and one of the few that made it to the final cut of the range that launched almost three years ago. Arriving at the optimum ratio of ingredients of the scrub itself was half the battle. The other half was a quest for the perfect vanilla. Finding a quality vanilla that was pure was less than straightforward, and meant sampling many different types from different suppliers, before landing on the sumptuous Madagascan vanilla that was to become the seductive scent of the scrub.
Some oleoresins, diluted vanilla variations, and adulterated versions later, I found the one; pricey but pure, this Vanilla absolute was thick, syrupy and aromatically as close to the real thing I could get. Little did I know though, I was becoming part of the problem of the ‘vanilla rush’ - a consumer demanding regular supply, and contributing to a complex web of vanilla growers, intermediaries and exporters.
The provenance of ingredients had been central to me starting my own journey in to skincare formulation and eventually developing my own brand, but I knew much less of the economics and the bleak social realities of what it meant to have the ‘real thing’ when I was starting out.
Problems in Sustainability
Growing, maturing, harvesting and curing vanilla, and eventually extracting the absolute is a very slow, lengthy and laborious process that requires timing in all of these stages to be just right, which is all reflected in the hefty price tag. From my point of view, when I was formulating Blood Orange + Vanilla Sugar Scrub, I loved how the vanilla wasn’t overpowered by the Shea butter and that it didn’t obliterate the delicacy or dull down the vibrancy of the blood orange essential oil. The harmony of these ingredients was simple but magical. Customers thought so too. After launching the range, it quickly became a firm favourite.
In 2017, at the end of summer, I began to prepare inventory and stock in anticipation of a busy Christmas period, and I noticed for the first time that my trusted supplier was out of Vanilla and ‘awaiting fresh stock.’ In almost four years I hadn’t experienced a delay before, but I did know things in the vanilla world were going awry. Months rolled by with no status update; my supplier just as much in the dark as I was. With uncharacteristic uncertainty, thoughts of having to make a big decision about the future of this product swirled around in my head. As time progressed, I began to worry how I would cope if I ran out of this product to send to customers and retailers.
In what seemed like no time at all, the pure vanilla absolute that I had searched high and low for had disappeared altogether from my supplier’s inventory, and I was quickly wrestling with my options; trying to weigh up the commercial implications of a hugely inflated raw, problematic and unsustainable ingredient, against my most popular product, which not to be too dramatic about, seemingly faced extinction.
The Madagascan vanilla crisis
What had at first seemed a case of ‘force majeure’ stemming from Cyclone Enawo in early 2017, which lead to a record surge in the price of vanilla; I realised that this was just another sad chapter in the industry’s chequered history of destructive cycles of boom and bust. With growers keen to capitalise on the rush caused by vastly increased demand for vanilla in recent times, many have abandoned other crops to focus exclusively on vanilla, leaving them out in the cold when the market, as experience has shown, inevitably crashes. For a small country with small-scale family-run farms operating under dangerous conditions to fulfil 80% of the world’s vanilla production, makes for a volatility that causes ripples on a global scale.
Growers find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea; huge demand for a hard to grow crop that’s dependent on so many external variables. Production conditions are troubling and lives are often in jeopardy. Vanilla crop, extremely precious especially to those farmers that rely on it exclusively, is guarded and failed attempts to protect the crop from theft has seen vigilante justice emerge and become the norm.
This situation is just a microcosmic example of the vanilla crisis, and truth be told, my concerns seemed trivial in the wider context that this shortage was striking at the heart of vanilla growers’ livelihoods, and a much more concerning problem of a corrupt and careless supply chain culture.
This actually made it an easier choice to come to; and was a stark reminder of the challenges that natural beauty brands face. I had to take it on the chin rather than forge ahead with a product that had become tainted.
I am not the first and I’m sure I won’t be the last to have to do it but there is I think, a normal reticence when it comes to reformulating an existing product that customers particularly love. It’s complicated, time-consuming and costly, and running a business alongside this undertaking isn’t easy. Consumer driven production development and re-development certainly has its place and it’s my belief that feedback from consumers is incredibly important in shaping and informing research and development, but this was quite a different thing. Embracing the situation for what it was; outside of my control and a very hard lesson, actually took me back to my early days of product research and formulation and I found that I reveled in the creative problem-solving of what was for me, a unique dilemma. I approached the new ingredients I was testing differently.
I pondered a parallel universe where Blood Orange + Vanilla Sugar Scrub bowed out elegantly, in no need of replacing; I considered reformulating the whole thing; and, I tested just some new essential oil blends to replace the vanilla. For a product that had consistently received rave reviews, I am glad to say that I went with the latter, opting to continue the product as it was but with a new aroma. Rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, I saw it as a chance to re-evaluate the product as a whole and with that, I re-housed it in a much more user-friendly, larger, squat jar, and gave it a new name, Body Exfoliant + Balm. The new blend of essential oils is energising and a perfect match for a product I encourage people to use particularly in the mornings to kick-start their day, their circulation, and to engage in regular practice that promotes lymphatic drainage.
The irony of greater consumer consciousness
Being at the mercy of the forces of nature is in many ways an obvious limitation in this line of work, however it’s been a valuable lesson in what happens when you’re forced in to a reaction AND the importance of sustainability, especially in this current collective movement of consumer need for the real thing - across many industries, particularly artisanal. Understanding that there are NGO’s that work hard to bring attention to these issues and to highlight the plight of growers in being unable to convert their natural wealth in to a decent standard of living has been eye-opening.
The irony of increased consumer consciousness is not lost. Consumers are no longer wanting to purchase at arm’s length. Yet the vanilla crisis in Madagascar demonstrates the tension between the demand for the real thing and the lengths growers must go to - to their own detriment, and with relatively little recompense to boot, in response to this demand, AND exposes the shortcomings of supply chains that have little regard for anything other than sourcing a cheap commodity.
I have seen businesses hike up the price of their vanilla products. For an enterprise like mine, that wasn’t financially viable, nor was transferring the cost to customers. I have seen suppliers now exclusively offering dilutions of vanilla, mindful of the difficulty in shifting such a massively inflated product and of course, in obtaining it. An alteration that included a dilution could have been an option for Blood Orange + Vanilla Sugar Scrub instead of discontinuing the product but financial viability aside, the purist in me, and with the values I pride the business on, and on the back of the hard lessons I learned here, I opted not to.
Lastly, I wanted to share my account here because I think it’s important for natural beauty brands to highlight the challenges and realities they face behind the scenes, and to explain big changes to product lines with honesty. Hopefully it’s a worthwhile insight!
I welcome your questions and comments below. Thanks for reading!