New Zealand’s Beauty Brands Are Setting The Standard For Sustainability

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In New Zealand, the quality of life is high, the health care is universal, and the best-selling beauty brands are environmentally conscious by default. The country's track record on climate change isn't perfect — research shows that precious few of its top 30 corporations report their contributions to or efforts to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions — but initiatives to change that are underway, beginning with the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act announced in 2019.

One look at Piha Beach or Aoraki/Mount Cook, and it's not hard to see why New Zealanders take such pride in its abundant natural resources — and want to keep it that way. "Protection of the environment and our native plants is high on our government’s agenda," says Elizabeth Barbalich, CEO and founder of cult-favorite skin-care brand Antipodes. "[New Zealand] is extremely lush, biodiverse, and rich in supply of exciting ingredients. We're therefore immersed in living and breathing a clean, green approach to nature and life."

Finding inspiration in the North Island's rolling hills and the South Island's snow-capped mountains is easy. It's committing to sustainability in all aspects — like harnessing the beauty benefits of those natural resources without exploiting them, and using packaging that won't end up part of a different kind of mountain in a landfill — that's a challenge, especially with the very definition of "sustainability" as ill-defined as "clean" or "natural."

Ahead, these five companies prove it's possible to build a beauty brand without contributing to the climate crisis. All it takes is a little innovation — and a lot less plastic.

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By launching a 100% plastic-free brand that consists entirely of body-, hair-, and skin-care products in solid bar form (plus household and pet offerings), Brianne West, Ethique's founder and CEO, might just have taken the most radical approach to eliminating waste.

"We’re the world’s first full-range zero-waste beauty brand and have prevented over 9 million plastic bottles from ending up in a landfill or the ocean," West says. From raising capital through fundraising in 2015 to dominating shelves at more than 2,500 retailers in 16 countries, the little project West started in her Christchurch kitchen has overcome the limitations and learning curve (slide the bar down your hair, don't rub it!) to become one of the highest-rated shampoo and conditioner brands on Amazon.

Not only is Ethique projected to offset 200% of its carbon emissions this year, it's also certified palm oil-free, an often overlooked issue that West is passionate about. "Palm oil use is environmentally devastating," she says. "Ancient forests are being leveled at breathtaking rates to make way for palm plantations. We’re losing those precious areas that support so much life and a healthy biome."

For West, sustainability isn't limited to conscious ingredients and fully compostable packaging (though Ethique has both). "Social sustainability means including everyone. It means paying people fairly throughout the entire lifecycle of the business and not valuing shareholders above all else," she says. "It’s treating everything and everyone like you want it to be there in 100 years."

Ethique Gingersnap Face Scrub for All Skin Types, $, available at Ethique


New Zealand is home to a number of native plants that don't grow anywhere else in the world, some of which have serious beauty benefits. The conundrum is that relying on rare ingredients in formulations meant to be produced in large quantities can jeopardize the sheer existence of those resources — like the Kanuka tree, which, in close partnership with some flying insect friends, is responsible for what might be one of the world's most powerful natural anti-inflammatories.

By maintaining 40 active beehives on a grassy knoll just beside four acres of Kanuka trees at its gardens, Snowberry has effectively addressed any concerns of over-harvesting kanuka honey, its star ingredient. "We only take what we need," stresses Dr. Travis Badenhorst, president of the New Zealand Cosmetics Society and the brand's chief scientist, who has worked closely with founders Soraya Hendesi and Mark Henderson for the better part of a decade. "Each hive produces around 30 to 50 kg of honey per season. We take a small portion from each hive only once a year."

Beyond serving as an end-to-end honey-harvesting ecosystem and home to more than 8,000 endemic plants, the 54-acre Snowberry Gardens make use of carbon blocks, where new trees are planted to help offset the company's carbon footprint. Snowberry was the first New Zealand skin-care company to achieve carboNZero certification for all of its products, and won the national Excellence in Climate Action award in 2019 for cutting its carbon footprint by 80% over a seven-year period — all consistent with what Dr. Badenhorst calls "a unified mission to leave the planet better than how we found it."

Snowberry Youth Renewing Face Serum with eProlex, $, available at Snowberry


Already a homegrown hit in New Zealand, this affordable brand launched its best-selling Rosehip Oil collection stateside just this month. You can find the 12-piece lineup in stores and online at Rite Aid and in select CVS and Harmon locations nationwide — all for under $20, proving that eco-friendly and budget-friendly are not mutually exclusive.

Even as Essano gears up for international expansion, all products are made in its on-site lab and factory; the cruelty-free brand remains 100% locally owned and operated, maintaining control over products, packaging, and ingredients every step of the way. The term "organic" gets thrown around a lot, but Essano comes with receipts: It offers the largest percentage of certified organic skin-care products of any leading brand in New Zealand, all certified organic by Ecocert, the world's biggest authority in the area.

Essano's parent company, Mix Limited, is also a member of the New Zealand Sustainable Business Network, a social enterprise with the ultimate goal of making New Zealand the prime example of a sustainable nation, and has signed the New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration, which means all of Essano's packaging will be 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. As it stands, Essano is the first Australasian brand to launch body- and hair-care products in bottles made completely out of recycled plastic; all of the packaging is currently biodegradable or recyclable.

Essano Certified Organic Rosehip Oil, $, available at Rite Aid

Au Natural Skinfood

This up-and-coming brand, whose skin-care entrepreneur founder Tracy Ahern cites primatologist-turned-conservationist Jane Goodall as her inspiration, zoomed in on a rapidly growing trend in sustainable beauty: refillables.

There is no single-use packaging to be found in the entire Au Natural Skinfood line; rather, the aluminum (or aluminium, as a Kiwi would say) containers are created to be reused and refilled ad infinitum. Refills are sold in the form of recyclable plant-based pouches made of annually renewable corn starch and sugarcane, including the cap. Because sugarcane grows quickly, cutting down the crop for usage in turn eventually removes more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than it emits.

Like many New Zealand-born brands, Au Natural Skinfood is a proponent of manuka honey, which has been a hero ingredient in the region for centuries thanks to the Māori people who first used manuka as medicine. While the brand does not have its own hives (yet!), it does work with ethical, sustainable local apiaries to source its honey, ensuring transparency along the production chain.

Au Natural Skinfood Prepare Spray On Brightening Lotion, $, available at Au Natural Skinfood


"High-quality, low-consumption" is the name of the game for Antipodes, which has been bringing healthy, high-performing products to the table for over 15 years. Elizabeth Barbalich, the brand's founder and CEO, came from a background in science and sales — the perfect Venn diagram from which to launch a clinically-tested, plant-based skin-care line before "clean beauty" became an industry buzzword.

"We work with some of the world’s best certified organic farmers, who practice sustainable farming methods by utilizing natural alternatives to chemical pesticides and harvesting at times that are in synergy with both the crop rotation and the seasons," Barbalich says of the ingredients used throughout the brand. "This allows the land to recover and be used again for effective outputs."

With the notable exception of products that capitalize on the healing powers of New Zealand's famous honeys (which Antipodes culls from sustainable apiaries), the majority are certified vegan by the UK Vegetarian Society; several are certified organic by BioGro New Zealand, too. The tinted glass apothecary-style bottles and jars are fully recyclable, and every box the brand uses is made from 100% biodegradable cardboard from sustainable forests.

Barbalich emphasizes that part of being fully sustainable means developing customer loyalty: If users don't get the results from eco-friendly skin care that they get from traditional brands, they won't stick with it. "For sustainability, it is critical that consumers 'come back for more' and achieve the outcomes that would otherwise be expected," she says.

Antipodes Aura Manuka Honey Mask, $, available at Amazon

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