This article first appeared in our Organic September issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 September 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Jayn Sterland, MD of Weleda UK, is an energetic environmental activist and a campaigner for responsible business. We talked costs, greenwash, the plastic free movement and why organic beauty’s here to stay.,/span>
You’re regularly ranked #1 in the Who’s Who in Natural Beauty list; what drives you to keep pushing for positive change in the sector?
JS: ‘There is so much more to do! Certified organic beauty accounts for less than 5% of the total market in the UK, but we can be fooled into thinking many more products are natural and organic because of beguiling claims and the natural plant images used on the packaging. We call this ‘greenwash’: we buy a product thinking it’s natural, when it isn’t.
‘There is little legislation to stop this happening. It isn’t fair for the purchaser – or for brands like Weleda that go the extra mile and certify every product.’
How does Weleda go beyond organic, and why?
JS: ‘Organic refers to how an ingredient is grown (using no artificial chemicals) whereas the regenerative farming methods we use at Weleda (called biodynamic agriculture) go beyond this, incorporating the whole biosphere – such as the health of the soil microbiome, the biodiversity of nature and the unseen planetary rhythms (such as the phases of the moon).
‘We operate a triple bottom line policy for our decision-making, taking into account the economics, plus the impact our choices will have on the environment and culturally for people. It isn’t easy but it’s the only way a responsible business can operate.’
What’s organic beauty’s role in the wider shift to sustainable living?
JS: ‘Buying organic is an essential part of the shift to sustainable living. Every organic purchase does three things: it gives you a better product, it supports regenerative farming practices – and the organic movement as a whole – and it also sends an important message to retail buyers to invest in and grow their organic offering. A virtuous circle. I like to think of an organic purchase as the simplest form of climate activism.’
What are the main challenges facing the organic beauty sector?
JS: ‘Thanks to a desire for ‘cleaner’ beauty products, the organic sector of the cosmetics industry has grown significantly over the past few years. This is great news on the one hand; on the other it has encouraged conventional, mainstream brands that use synthetic ingredients to jump on the bandwagon and make out they are more natural than they really are. This is greenwashing and it is a huge problem. It can be hard to know that what you are buying is the real thing.’
What do people need to look out for when choosing organic beauty products?
JS: ‘Greenwashing in the beauty industry includes on-pack claims that don’t bear close scrutiny and even product names that make formulations sound much more organic than they really are.
‘It’s good to be aware of reputable organic standards that match our personal expectations, such as the NATRUE certification which appears on packaging and is a guarantee of a strict level of naturalness.
‘Third-party certification labels or logos are currently the only way to easily tell if a product meets a high standard. For example NATRUE-certified organic products contain at least 95% organic content (the remaining 5% still being all natural) and water is not included in that analysis.
‘Often respected certifications also stand for other things as well as the organic level of ingredients – for example with NATRUE, certified formulations are free from artificial ingredients, petrochemical derivatives, microplastics and GMOs.
Is it enough for a company to create products that contain organic ingredients, or should we, as shoppers, demand more?
JS: ‘Switching to organic ingredients is an important step towards producing more sustainable products, but it is only the first step on the journey. The next step is organic product certification through an independent body such as the Soil Association, COSMOS or NATRUE.
‘From there a company should be setting itself annual targets to reduce its carbon and water footprint and the amount of waste it generates, as well as looking to pay fair wages. It should get these activities certified, for example with the Living Wage Foundation, the Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT) and B Corp. At Weleda these practices are a given, but we are conscious that we can always do more. Becoming sustainable is a journey, not a destination.’
Is the plastic free movement a distraction from deeper issues in the beauty industry?
JS: ‘Yes and no. Frankly the plastic used as packaging is a small part of a huge systemic problem. If all the plastic packaging used for beauty products stopped tomorrow we wouldn’t fix the problem. However, there is another big plastic issue here, not just packaging, and it isn’t as visible.
‘Many personal care products are formulated using semi-solid or liquid plastics and modified hydrocarbons. Not the obvious solid plastic microbeads. These other synthetic polymers aren’t natural and may impact human health – especially if they enter the body.
‘The European Parliament is currently looking into the evidence of the impact that these ingredients have on the body, and their potential carcinogenic effects, which may result in new legislation.
‘Unless our industry is forced to clean up the environmental damage caused by these ingredients, such as coral reef destruction, water contamination and microplastic pollution, nothing will change.
‘In the meantime, as consumers we all need to be super aware and simply not buy any product that contains these nasties. Look for beauty brands that have ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ certification from the Plastic Soup Foundation.’
Is organic beauty feasible in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis?
JS: ‘This depends on many factors. Firstly, every purchase is a drain on limited resources and should be seen as an investment. Many of the products we buy today aren’t ‘essential’ and are over-consumed. For example, washing hair daily with two applications of product can easily switch to every other day with one application, thus reducing our consumption of shampoos and conditioners by 75%!
‘By applying the mantra ‘buy less, buy better’, we can reduce what we use, invest in higher quality products that deliver better results and at the same time look after ourselves and the planet. For example, we sell a tube of Weleda’s top-selling cream Skin Food every five seconds and our sales have increased during this economic crisis because it is such a great multitasker! We have to think about value over price for every purchase.’
How has the sector evolved since you joined Weleda?
JS: ‘I’ve been at Weleda for 15 years and during this time we have seen ‘organic and sustainable’ beauty go from being niche and only available in specialist retailers like health food shops, to being not just widely available but also widely copied by mass-market mainstream brands. Why? Because we have all become more aware of what goes into our beauty products and the direct link between this and our health and that of the planet.
‘There are also so many more young startup brands available, which is fantastic to see, with great innovations and new ways of challenging the industry. Every brand in the industry benefits when the bar is raised with more choice and more competition.’
What’s next for you – and Weleda?
JS: ‘That’s such an interesting question because there is so much to do. For me personally, it’s about ensuring we are all informed about what we are putting on our skin so we can make informed choices. I’d love to see certain chemicals banned from personal care products now we have scientific evidence of the harm they do, for instance.
‘For Weleda, it’s to become a better citizen-company by improving the footprint of our packaging to ‘do no harm’ by 2030. And we need to do much more to show the world the benefits of regenerative agriculture for sure.
‘We are constantly looking to increase the organic certified content of our products – currently over 80% of our ingredients are organic, which is hard work but a very important goal for us. And just as Yeo Valley has in the yoghurt category, I’d love to see a Weleda heritage product like Skin Food become the bestseller in beauty, to prove that organic is no longer niche but can be mainstream, too.’