Consumers today are certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting beauty products that tick all the boxes. Just about every celebrity has launched a self-care range with a string of promises attached to their products, making it only ever more difficult for the discerning customer to make an informed decision.
You can just imagine what it might be like for budding beauty entrepreneurs to make their mark in an over-saturated market.
For Brianne West, who’s been operating Ethique for just over nine years, the beauty space – while teeming with one new formulation after the next – ultimately needs brands that deliver outstanding products that are supported by solid green credentials and transparent supply chains.
"To me, a brand that wants to truly futureproof itself actually has to care about people and the planet," West points out. "It can’t rule the market by fear, which the beauty industry is largely built on, and it has to have science-led marketing because consumers are smarter now and they have access to more education and information than ever before."
Despite her lifelong passion for science and protecting the environment, West knew while studying biochemistry at university that business was her forte.
"It was probably halfway through my degree when I realised I really didn’t want to work in a science lab my whole life. It’s just not me, and I was beginning to understand how powerful business can be in creating change around the world," she reflects.
Unexcited by the prospect of working as an employee, West spent her early university days running several businesses where experience was her greatest teacher.
"I don’t like rules, so I don’t fit in typical boxes, and if I am told you have to run a business a certain way, unless there’s a good reason, like a legal reason, then I won’t usually do it – so I’m quite innovative thinking," she says.
From tackling finance and communicating with customers to the creativity and hard work that goes into establishing a business, West admits that "I learned more what not to do and that’s just as helpful as learning what to do."
Like the countless number of successful entrepreneurs who commenced their ventures in garages, Ethique was born from West’s tiny kitchen in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she began formulating her revolutionary, award-winning product – the solid shampoo bar.
Fast-forward to 2022 and Ethique has become a global household name with more than 40 products that are shipped internationally and a strong presence in Japan, the US, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"Timing is also key, hard work for sure, but also having such a good product and such a good purpose that people talk about your brand for you." – Brianne West
"Japan is one of our biggest markets and I wouldn’t have guessed that one because plastic was not a concern when we first entered that market," West shares.
"When we develop a product, it has to be as good as, if not better than, the leading liquid alternative because people aren’t going to give something up just because it’s good for the environment," she affirms.
However, there were two factors that West would need to address in order to grow the brand to the size that it is today: financial resources and expertise.
"Money was fun. There wasn’t any for about two and a half years. I didn’t raise any capital," she says.
After receiving her first funding from an angel investor and subsequent business partner, equity crowdfunding caught the entrepreneur’s attention. Following two equity fund rounds in 2015 and 2017, the business brought an estimated 352 shareholders on board and, to her surprise, additional customers.
"Equity crowdfunding was incredibly good marketing," West recalls. "That was how most of New Zealand found out about Ethique, so it was a very helpful local marketing strategy."
With these funds, West was able to invest in the eye-catching branding that is synonymous with Ethique and scale its manufacturing.
"We wanted to go in a direction that was completely different to everything else on the market, although the market has shifted towards brighter and more vibrant colours now," she says.
However, it was a story published by HuffPost and an astounding surge of interest that followed that planted the seed for Ethique to go global.
Armed with a highly competent COO, whom she hired in 2016, West decided to make a bold move to launch in the US as its first export market.
"For years, I was always told you never start exporting until you are profitable in your home country and that has merit, but when I brought on my current COO, he was of a different opinion – that you shouldn’t have all your eggs in one basket because something can happen to the market," West explains.
Partnering with US-based Pharmapacks, Ethique earns close to US$1 million a month through Amazon sales alone.
"Luck is really important in growing a business and anyone who says they don’t have any luck, they’re not thinking it through," she insists.
"Timing is also key, hard work for sure, but also having such a good product and such a good purpose that people talk about your brand for you."
A recognisable figure in the world of sustainability and ethical beauty in 2022, West found that establishing a business that didn’t fit the mould – as a young female entrepreneur – was not the easiest task.
"In the early days when Ethique was quite small, it was very hard to get packaging companies or logistics companies to pay attention because not only was I a young inexperienced woman, I was also asking them to do something different and more difficult than your more typical customer," she says.
While West attributes the success of her business to "luck, timing and a genuinely brilliant product and purpose", she’s not afraid to admit making plenty of mistakes along the way.
"I hired people I didn’t think were the right fit and in the end, they weren’t," she admits. "I spent a lot of money on a branding exercise that was completely unnecessary and was more than we really could afford that we never used in the end."
Well versed in the business of communicating – a skill she’s been mastering through working with philanthropy experts – West knows that connecting with customers and staying on top of trends is the key to lasting success.
"The best way to stay relevant is to talk to your customers, and it’s amazing the number of businesses that don’t do that," she says. "I talk to a lot of people on all sorts of social media platforms."
Purpose at its core
While Ethique is best known for its plastic-free offering in the form of a solid bar that is believed to contain the equivalent of three shampoo bottles, it also has a number of sustainable and ethical certifications, which are raising the bar for other beauty brands.
Most notably it’s one of the first B Certified Corps in New Zealand alongside the following certifications: palm oil free; compostable packaging; cruelty free and vegan; and living wage certified, to name a few.
This means that every Ethique customer supports a number of causes beyond reducing water and plastic waste.
A true pioneer of purpose, West decided not to cut corners in her planet-first mission by steering clear of palm oil, an early decision that is now serving her well.
"I think we were the first cosmetic company to be certified palm oil free, and it was very difficult and very expensive and it continues to be a difficult and expensive decision, but one that I believe at the moment is right for the planet and that is now becoming something that consumers are more aware of," she explains.
With major brands releasing their own version of liquid shampoo alternatives, it’s clear that Ethique is filling an essential gap when it comes to its purpose-driven goals.
"It is hard to reverse-engineer sustainability and regenerative thinking into an existing business," West affirms. "We don’t have that conflict, so naturally consumers believe us more."
Despite having saved more than 20 million plastic bottles to date and growing her team from eight to 25 staff in one year, West’s products are ultimately a means to serving a grander environmental purpose – one that knows no bounds.
"I want to be a billion-dollar global trusted brand because that will not only enable us to save however many plastic bottles and pay our team a bigger wage, but also work with more direct trade suppliers," says West.
"It will inspire other businesses to do the same," she points out. "When you see a business that operates as regeneratively as possible and is financially sustainable, you realise that you don’t have to make decisions that negatively impact people and the planet to be successful. You can do both."