You've probably heard of the concept of 'carbon neutral'. A classification that applies where businesses or individuals offset the carbon they produce. But what about being carbon positive?
If you haven't heard the term 'carbon positive' before, I'm not surprised. It's a rare instance where a brand offsets more carbon than it produces - and Emma Lewisham has officially become the world's first beauty brand to achieve this milestone. Through over 1000 hours of work, the Emma Lewisham team has ensured every product is designed for 100 percent circularity and is also labelled with a carbon footprint number.
This marks a huge step forward in the journey to a sustainable future, as Emma Lewisham has made the decision to share the intellectual property and research behind the groundbreaking announcement with her competitors - free of charge. For the company and for Emma herself, this is more than a business decision, it's a heart-felt one.
"To make the change and to have the impact that we need as an industry, we need scale, and we’re only one brand. The more brands that do it, the more chance we have to have a positive impact and change the world," she explains.
We caught up with Emma ahead of the announcement - via Zoom of course - she's currently living life in lockdown, tucked away in Auckland. Even through a virtual meet, it's hard not to feel revitalised by her effervescent optimism and hope for the future amidst a world that ordinarily only has distressing climate news to share. She told us all about how she got her business to this place - "it was very hard!" - what more consumers need to know, and what her own beauty routine looks like.
In your words, what is carbon positive and how it’s different to being carbon neutral?
We proudly announced that we’re the first carbon positive beauty range, and the first to now label every product with carbon footprint numbers. We also now have a 100% circular-design beauty model.
To achieve the carbon positive certification we worked for over 12 months with world-leading carbon certification agency to measure the carbon emissions of every decision we make across each stage of our product lifecycle. That includes our growing; our shipping, and our packaging and end-of-life. What the process allowed was for us to understand for all of our products the amount of carbon emitted to create them. It offered insight and empowered us with the information to reduce the carbon emitted. You can’t change what you don’t know of course.
What it means is that we’re now taking more carbon emissions out of the atmosphere that we’re putting in. Carbon negative and carbon positive are the same thing: carbon neutral is that you’re just offsetting carbon emissions that you’ve created. We’ve done more.
How did you manage to do this? How is it possible and what was the process?
I don’t think it’s impossible at all to measure the carbon across your whole lifestage of your product. It’s hard work, absolutely, but it’s not impossible, and it comes down to how hard you want to work.
It took us over 1000 hours to do so, because you’re understanding essentially every product that we’ve ever produced and where they’ve been transported to, as well as the amount of distance that they were shipped or air freighted. We understood and had to understand - and it was very hard - 150 ingredients that we use and where they come from. In order to find that out, it’s a lot of hard work for 150 individual suppliers, or going to the wholesalers who may hold 30 of them. Getting that information from the beauty industry has come with the veil of secrecy for a long time. There was a lot of pushing for that information.
It’s not impossible, it’s very very hard. Why I think our achievement for us is so rewarding is because it’s not an easy feat to do. There’s not many brands globally, not even in beauty, that have measured at a product-level their carbon emissions and can associate a carbon number. But if we don’t do so, how do we understand what we need to fix and change as a business? You don’t, right? You’re stumbling the dark. We now know where we’re emitting a lot of carbon and what work we have to do to reduce it.
For example, in the transportation of our supply chain, we could see that Australia is our largest market and we air freight from New Zealand because our warehouse is here, so as soon as we could see the amount of carbon that was emitting, we recognised we needed to understand that we had to set up a warehouse in Sydney, where our largest market is, and we ship our products over there and then transport them within Australia.
Seeing this information empowers businesses to improve the way they work. Essentially every business right now has a role to bring down carbon emission, and that has to be the North Star for every responsible business. If you don’t have the information, how do you know how to improve the way you do things?
It’s a lot of hard work, but we have the responsibility as a business to do that hard work.
Did you ever get stuck and think it can’t happen?
No. I didn't.
There were times when it was feeling really hard and we couldn’t get certain information, or that it was really complex to calculate, but we’ve got really talented people in our business and in our team, and the organisations we worked with on the certification process. We were a team that came together to problem solve this. We wanted to do something really great and set a benchmark for this industry and show this was possible.
We have shown it is possible, and we’re also willing to offer all beauty brands this insight into how we did this by offering our IP to this industry.
Why share it for free?
To be honest, I think it comes from me being a generous person. It’s a heartfelt decision. We don’t feel threatened in doing so. We feel that if anything, it would help raise more awareness of the importance of refillable products and circularity. To make the change and to have the impact that we need as an industry, we need scale, and we’re only one brand. The more brands that do it, the more chance we have to have a positive impact and change the world.
What are some of the hidden environmental costs in the beauty industry? The ones people don’t think about.
I think that the packaging aspect - people not realising that beauty packaging is not being recycled curbside, and that the economics are not there to do it so it’s rubbish going to landfill or being burned - if we’re going to solve the carbon issue in beauty, we have to solve the packaging issue.
At the moment, there’s 120 billion units of packaging created annually in the beauty industry and it’s going to waste essentially, it’s not being recycled and it’s the largest carbon emitter. I don’t think that people realise that. Why we’re championing and why it has to be a circular model in the future where all brands and all products are refillable - not just one, all - and brands take ownership of that at end-of-life and prioritise reusing [packaging], and redistributing it. And if they can’t, recycling it.
We’ve got material that comes back to us. Of that material, if it’s not damaged or broken, 78 percent of it we can sterilise and reuse. Only 12% of that at the moment goes to recycling which we pay for to make sure it is recycled.
I feel that if you look at what other big stores are doing, I don’t want those recycling programs to let brands off the hook for not prioritising refill and reuse. Recycling has to be the last resort. Reduce, reuse and then recycle.
It’s all science-led as well. We’re not making this up! That’s the only concern we have with [retail recycling programs]. I think they’re important, and I’m not talking them down, but it can’t be the priority.
How does packaging return work?
In the case of Australia, there are two ways. Firstly, all of our products you can buy refillable. You can buy the skin reset serum, and then ongoing, you buy a refillable pod which has 74% less carbon emissions. It has a carbon number lower than the original.
Once you finish with that material, we give you within your order a return shipping label for free which comes up on our website as an option, and explains why and what the program is about. You then add that to your order, you get your new products, pop your old in there and drop it off. You don’t have to do anything else, we make it easy for you to return that material. It then comes to our Sydney warehouse and we filter it, and anything that is damaged that has to be recycled and done so via Terracycle. Then it's put on a ship back to New Zealand where there is capacity - only if there’s space because it’s not urgent so we don’t create any excess shipments - we bring it back to our lab, sterilise it and clean it, and then put it back in our supply chain for reuse.
That’s how you do it.
Also, excitingly, David Jones from the end of October will be having dedicated Emma Lewisham Beauty Cycle box. That means you can return your Emma Lewisham material to David Jones. They’re really championing the work we’re doing and are fully behind it. Despite them having a Terracycle box, next to it they have Emma Lewisham Beauty Cycle. Ours is about reuse, the others are about recycle. We’re really educating retailers on these moves. We want to make it so accessible for our consumers to understand and be part of. We put a lot of time into the processes of our businesses to do so.
What is your position on plastics?
I don’t think plastic is the problem, it’s how we use it. If we reuse the plastic we’ve brought into the world and it’s not ending up in our oceans or waste, there’s a lot of benefits to plastic.
It’s very durable, very usable, doesn’t break easily and it’s very light so there are a lot of benefits to the material. It’s not the material that’s evil, it’s how humans use it, and how brands don’t see it as precious and use it as a take, make, waste approach. We’re going to collect it back from our customers and value it and reuse it.
For us, our goal is to use no virgin material, and within the skin reset serums or the day creams, the inner pod is made of a minimum of 30% recycled plastic, and that can go up to 100%. That’s to do with what’s viable at this point. Where we’re pushing our manufacturers is that all of that packaging is made from recycled materials for that story of circularity and what we’ve already created.
A lot of packaging is made via fossil fuel, so as an industry, let's reuse what we’ve created and push these manufacturers with our collective voices to start reusing material and to make recyclable products. That’s now where we’re heading: to increase the recycled material in our products.
Where we manufacture our products and our boxes, they’re manufactured with 100% renewable energy, so in that area we’re doing a really great job. We’re looking at what we can do now and going forward.
We also have a carbon number on our products which is an admission that we’re adding carbon. We have to take ownership for that and there’s still work we have to do. We’re not saying we’re perfect, but we’re saying we need to tackle this problem and do the hard work that’s required.
What’s next for the brand?
We’re really doubling down on our focus in Australia. We set up our warehouse in Australia and we’ll expand there. We’ll also launch in Net-a-Porter in a week’s time, and we’ll be the only New Zealand brand and the youngest brand ever on the site, which is cool! We’re increasing our distribution and launching in the United States, and we have new products coming out which are also refillable.
When it comes to new products, we are mindful of that triangle of reduce: we only bring out a product if we feel it’s different and can be category defining, and offers something that isn’t already on the market.
We have a big range as you know, but we have a few products that we’re bringing out really in response to customers who say they love our brand and our ethos and our circular model, and then ask for an eye cream which we don’t have. We’re filling gaps in our range and working hard to our goals of sustainability. We want to reduce the amount of virgin and fossil packaging we use and embracing our sustainability practices. We’re loving doing it, and we’re running our own race as a business.
If brands are really serious about climate change - and that is to say carbon emissions - they need to have circularity and measuring their carbon numbers and carbon footprints on their agenda.
Skincare-wise, I cleanse with our Illuminating Cleanser in the morning and then use our Skin Reset Serum and our take on the day cream which is SPF30 and 100% natural and meets Australia and New Zealand testing standards. It’s super important that we test in our markets. Big advocate of wearing daily sun protection. I exercise nearly every day, 6 days a week I run and I love it. It’s the one thing that helps me to decompress and I love listening to podcasts like Brené Brown and Oprah Soul Sessions. I get a lot of “me time” from that.
Then in the evenings, up until 7pm I’m really busy with my daughter getting her fed and bathed, and reading books and doing things together. Then I spend time with my husband and I’m normally in bed by 9pm reading. I love to read on all sorts of subjects like business, sustainability, women’s wellness. I live a really simple life and have a plant-based diet. I don’t drink a lot of coffee, and probably have like one alcoholic drink per month. I drink a lot of water and that really sums me up. Nothing complicated; really core basics in terms of my health and wellbeing. Lots of sleep and mediation.
What are your favourite products from the range?
The Skin Reset Serum was our original product and was in the top three selling products at David Jones. It’s one of our favourites. When I was looking for a product to combat hyperpigmentation, and I couldn’t find a product that solved that that didn’t come at a compromise. A lot of those products are really toxic, particularly hydroquinone which I had been using.
The Skin Reset Serum is proven independently in biomedical tests and outperforms competitors by being 100 percent natural. It changes the picture of the skin, and I think it has made the biggest difference on my skin. I had terrible hyperpigmentation and it has given me a lot of confidence.
All of our products take a least two years to produce and we think about what we want to solve and how to create the very best products we can.
What can more consumers understand about the beauty industry?
I think they need to understand that when it comes to products efficacy, one thing we really believe in is backing up independently - ensuring that a product does what we say it does. We do independent testing to make sure it’s efficacious. I feel that there’s more that’s needed from other brands in the industry so consumers can look for that. That can be an area of the industry that’s a little bit loose.
Consumers should also be able to ask and understand what happens to products at end-of-life, and if brands have take-back programs and ask what happens to the material that they’re finished with and where it’s going to go. Start to question brands a bit more and question everything. Ask who’s responsible so they can take a little bit of ownership and take a more critical eye.