Interview: How A L'Oréal-Backed Brand Is Changing The Conversation Around Organic Beauty
The founder of sustainable & organic beauty brand Seed Phytonutrients explains how the shift in natural beauty and personal care distribution channels has the potential to benefit everyone, from farmers and brands to consumers and the environment
Though shelves from the grocery store to the department store beauty department are increasingly dotted with “natural” and “organic” beauty and personal care products, brands often leave consumers woefully undereducated when it comes to what that actually means.
Seed Phytonutrients is expanding beyond marketing buzzwords, however, prioritizing transparency and consumer education by sharing everything from aroma formula and locations of its seed farmers to the exact amount of plastic packaging used. The brand was founded by Shane Wolf, a former L'Oréal executive who noticed the coming sea change in consumer preferences for products that are both good for the environment and the self.
PSFK spoke to Shane about his commitment to environmental sustainability, organic farming and seed diversity, and how it's led to customer loyalty and distribution relationships with retailers from Aerie and Whole Foods to Sephora and Neiman Marcus.
PSFK: Could you explain what Seed Phytonutrients is and the work that you do there?
Shane: I've spent my entire career in the beauty industry. Although I was raised on a farm in the Midwest, somehow I found my way out to be involved in the world of beauty and fashion. I got a wonderful career in that. My roots from having grown up on a farm never quite left me, and in particular, my understanding of the impact that every choice we make can have on the environment, on the integrity of our soil and water.
For years working in the beauty industry, I was determined to find a way to help reverse the impact that the space has had on the planet. In response to items like the climate report being reissued, consumer behavior is changing.Take the #strawssuck moment. It was amazing. In only a couple of months, lots of consumers went from thinking nothing about their daily iced beverage with a plastic straw to carrying around their own little metal straws.
We are at such an interesting moment right now in consumer behavior and awareness of issues around sustainability, but the beauty industry has a long way to go. I thought it was the right time to introduce the concept of a brand that was as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside.
I was sitting on the executive committee of the world's largest beauty company. There's no better place to make an impact than from the inside of it. I pitched the idea for a brand that would at one time be based on four core parts: One around preserving seed diversity, knowing that 93% of seed varieties have been lost over the last 100 years. Second, around supporting independent American organic farmers to grow those seeds. Third, around promoting natural beauty with great products. Fourth around leading by example in environmental sustainability.
Are you part of the L'Oréal umbrella or just funded by L'Oréal and operating independently?
The brand is fully funded by L'Oréal, but we operate independently from the larger organization. We're based out in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in a little farming community town about 75 miles away. What's amazing about that is while we operate entirely autonomously with a lot of independence, we at the same time have access to the resources of the world's largest beauty company.
It allows us to do things like extensive consumer research on our packaging, and on actual formula and product behavior, which is a resource that not so many independent brand have the luxury of having access to.
How do you think the rise of consumer awareness and sustainability is affecting shopper behavior and retail specifically?
There are two big shifts. One is in channels of distribution and availability of products that offer consumers new options. The second is in those options and details around sustainability.
The silos of distribution in beauty, in particular, have really crumbled over the last several years. That blurring of lines has really accelerated, where no longer is it considered unusual to find a brand that historically would have been considered only a luxury, department store brand available in big beauty retailers. Or, a brand that was only in salons in the past now available at Sephora. We also see fashion retailers becoming a fast‑growing channel for beauty retailing.
For natural and clean products, this is changing the game, where historically, maybe there weren't so many places to sell natural brands. Maybe natural grocers were the only real option historically. Then we started to see a couple of indie retailers pop up who were specialists in this segment.
Today, we find distribution everywhere, from clothing retailer Aerie, which is one of our first retailers, up to Neiman Marcus on the luxury side, and Sephora on the big specialty retailer side. Now we're launching in Whole Foods in the natural channel.
It's a fantastic shift because it benefits everyone. In our case, it benefits our farmers who grow our seeds. It benefits the independent, female‑owned, entrepreneurial company who produces our unique paper packaging. It certainly benefits me as a brand. It benefits all of the retailers, because they build brand awareness.
Ultimately, who really wins is the consumer in the center of that ecosystem. No longer is she held hostage by what the industry thinks should be her options for shopping.
Finally, there's huge potential for sustainability in general. To me, plastic is going to be the cigarette to the next generation. We're only at the very beginning of this.
How do you think consumer perception of the beauty category has changed in the past five years or so?
There is a more holistic point of view now. It became less about natural or clean for the sake of the planet and a little more around what's safe for consumers and what they put on their body. We see this in particular with women who are expecting. Because the consumer demand was growing, the research and development improved. As a result, there has been such an improvement in the pleasurable experience of using natural and clean products.
You sell DTC on your site and with retailers like Aerie and Whole Foods. How do you decide on retail partners?
I recognized that there was a tremendous opportunity at Whole Foods, in particular. When we look at the size, the returns prior to its Amazon acquisition, you could see that our category was still so small for them. In some stores, it was 15, 20% of its footprint, but it was nowhere near that in its turnover.
I always found it odd that WF was the creme de la creme of organic produce, and yet in beauty, it was missing out. I'm super excited to be announcing that we've gone into partnership with them, working with the local team who has a clear vision and a strategy for how to reinvent beauty within the Whole Foods environment. We're so proud to be part of that, because the shopper is already in the store. She's just not in the category with them.
The second one that I was really excited by was Sephora. When they launched the Clean at Sephora initiative, there was the news, of course, that they hired a new head of sustainability in their corporate headquarters in San Francisco. From the first conversation that we had with them, we had the same vision for escorting a new era of sustainable responsibility into the beauty industry.
How do you manage the balance between having to sell at a higher price point but also occupy a more accessible eco‑friendly space?
When we apply marketing fluff to sustainability, it doesn't work. But when you put your money where your mouth is, when you really go in and you do something as radical as reducing plastic by 60 to 70% and replacing it with paper on shelf, that is arresting.
We got the attention of the consumer who cares about that from the beginning. We know from all of the research that we did in the beginning in our concept testing that the price elasticity was a lot higher than what we had anticipated, particularly when we explained how we're supporting farmers with the money we make, how we're helping to save seeds, how we're promoting natural beauty using the right quality of products, and obviously, how we're using a paper bottle that consumers can easily understand.
It's interesting that we can be, for example, on Grove Collaborative and Thrive Market, as well as Neiman Marcus. We can serve the consumer well in both of those environments.
How do you educate consumers about the ingredients you use, packaging and your brand's values overall?
Social media and building of our community is our number one vehicle for direct-to-consumer communication. I don't have a marketing team at all. For me, it's not about the number of followers. It's about the engagement rate and the degree to which we're having an authentic conversation. It's about how they're informing us of the decisions that we're making and how we're bringing value to their everyday life through the lens of our core focus.
How do you plan to gain market share and grow in the space?
Gaining that distribution was the first hurdle. As you can probably tell, I'm capable of dreaming. I'm so incredibly humbled and feel so blessed by the partners that we have been able to bring on board.
The responsibility I have to these partners is to drive the conversation, to drive consumer awareness. We're doing that largely through our social communications. We also love relevant events, either in the sustainability space or in the natural space.
We're not BS‑ing anybody here. We're radically transparent about the amount of plastic that we're reducing in our packaging, about the naturalness of our formulations, right down to disclosing a full aroma recipe, for example, which very few brands do. Because of that authenticity, what we're seeing is that the organic growth of our community is building in a way that I'm very pleased with.
It's interesting that you have a relationship with L'Oréal still and that they're so supportive of the brand. We see a lot of consumer willingness to change behavior around environmental concerns, but we can only get so far with all the onus on consumers. Do you think in the future the industry might need to shift the onus onto corporations?
Consumers are queen. All decisions that are going forward are made by them. The day of sitting around, pontificating in a boardroom about what she wants and then informing her of it are over.
Consumer expectations will continue to drive the evolution, particularly around topics like sustainability, safety, etc. The great thing is there's a new generation of product marketers who are themselves every bit as passionate on this subject. All of these things are coming together in a glorious way so that the consumer will continue to be the driving force behind the change.
The companies will see that there are opportunities with some crazy maverick people, like myself, who are willing to try something completely unique, lead example and show all of the rest of the brands how far you really can go.