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Athena paginton carbon neutral beauty products
Photography Piczo, make-up Athena Paginton, courtesy of HIM + HIS

Is soil the new frontier in sustainable beauty?

Soil holds the key to many climate solutions, so beauty brands are beginning to look to agricultural methods as a way of mitigating their environmental impact

When we’re all espousing the benefits of scientific-sounding ingredients like glycolic acid, retinol and ceramides, it’s easy to become divorced from the fact that so many of the raw ingredients used in beauty products come straight from nature. Willow, grapes, lavender, rose, almond, aloe, lemon, corn and rice are just a fraction of the natural resources used by the beauty industry to create cosmetics, hair care and skin care.

The beauty industry depends upon nature, and it has a habit of overexploiting it too. The production of palm oil, which is in everything from shampoo to toothpaste, is believed to be responsible for 8 per cent of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. While the production of frankincense, often used in fragrance, is expected to halve in the next 20 years as unsustainable cultivation has led to a devastating decline in new tree growth.

But it’s not just harvesting that has an impact, the agricultural methods used to grow natural ingredients in the first place are depleting and damaging our soil, and that’s a serious problem. Not only do we need healthy soil to grow healthy food and raw ingredients, it’s also a vital tool in the fight against climate breakdown. As most of us know, we breathe out CO2 (carbon) and plants absorb it. And when they absorb carbon, they send it to their roots and it gets stored in the soil, which is exactly where it needs to be. Damaged soil, however, releases carbon back into the atmosphere, which contributes to the warming that we’re already experiencing.

As the importance of soil becomes clearer, several beauty brands are beginning to commit to a better way of doing things: regenerative agriculture. The clue is very much in the name, it’s an agricultural methodology that regenerates the soil rather than depleting it via practices including cover-cropping (planting to feed the soil in between harvests), crop rotation (planting different crops on the same land over time to increase soil nutrients), composting, and no-till (not digging and turning the toil). Rotational grazing, which allows animals to graze for short periods of time before moving elsewhere, is another key principle.

Davines is one of the brands aiming to take on the problem. In July 2022, the Italian, family-owned brand launched We Stand / for Regeneration, a hair and body wash, and physical manifesto for its commitment to regeneration. “We saw this as an opportunity to let people know, rather aggressively, that we are in it for the long haul,” says Jorge Blanco, creative director at Davines. “This product allowed us to start experimenting heavily and start making changes internally.”

We Stand is the first marketable outcome of a partnership between the brand and the Rodale Institute, a non-profit dedicated to researching and educating people about regenerative organic agriculture. Together they formed the European Regenerative Organic Centre at the Davines Village HQ in Parma, Italy, a 10-hectare site where researchers focus on small to medium-sized farms growing crops for food, nutrition, and beauty. 

Davines isn’t alone in its quest to promote a different way of growing. Lush sold a ‘Regeneration’ perfume gift set, each of which used a regenerative ingredient from around the world, while True Botanicals started working with regenerative farms in 2020. As part of its 2030 sustainability vision, Natura & Co, which owns The Body Shop and Avon, has pledged to invest $100 million or more in regenerative solutions including farming, and Guerlain’s 2022 fragrance Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Nerolia Vetiver features regeneratively farmed beetroots. Italian haircare brand OWAY uses biodynamic farming methods, similar to regenerative farming, to grow its ingredients.

The fact that many brands are newly embracing regenerative agriculture, and other alternative methods, likely feeds into the fact that it’s regularly reported as a new phenomenon. However, regenerative agricultural methods are very much rooted in history and lean frequently on Indigenous knowledge (often without attributing that knowledge or encompassing the inherent cultural intricacies).

But while it’s not a new way of working, it is timely. Modern, industrial agriculture relies heavily upon tilling (ploughing and churning up the soil), monocropping (growing one crop in one place over and over), and the use of chemicals, and it’s turning soil into dirt. Since the 1970s, when chemical agriculture really kicked into gear, we’ve lost one third of the earth’s topsoil and as the soil degenerates and dries out, it’s estimated desertification will be a factor in one billion people becoming climate refugees by 2050.

“We believe regeneration is the future of sustainability. It is more than simply limiting our impact, it is about active land stewardship to replenish depleted soil for generations to come,” say Giselle Go and Philippe Terrien, co-founders of skincare brand DAMDAM

DAMDAM works with a focus on ancestral ingredients which have a history of being used for wellness in Japan such as shisho, a mint used in the Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine; konnyaku, a root crop that is part of the ancient Buddhist vegetarian culinary tradition “Shojin Ryori"; and komenuka, rice bran which has been used as a skincare ingredient for over a thousand years.

“In the process of sourcing our hero ingredients, we were naturally led by our local community to collaborate directly with independent farmers practicing regenerative agriculture in northern Japan,” say the duo. “Everything is about nourishing the land. Our farmers use the residue from distilling the oils as organic compost to enrich the land, creating a circular cycle. They do not use any synthetic product, instead allowing and encouraging diversity within crops to further enhance the soil.”

Brands investing in regenerative agriculture is not just a positive for the environment, in some cases it’s vital to sustain the practices financially. The regenerative methods DAMDAM’s farmers use mean they can’t sell their crops as food as they don’t have the homogeneity that industrial farming achieves. The brand bought an entire harvest of shiso to use in its Mochi Mochi Luminous Cream, enabling the farmer to keep “nourishing the soil and the community.”

For brands to retain regenerative farmers within their supply chain, and transition more into the practice, the demand needs to be there, which is why consumer education is such a big part of the puzzle for Davines. It will dedicate Earth Month 2023 to the subject. “It's one of the big challenges,” says Blanco. “We spent months on our social media platforms and channels, educating people on what [regenerative organic] even is. We hope that people will see that biodiversity, climate change and agriculture are intrinsically connected.”

Of course, Blanco admits, there are some people who still don’t engage with sustainability as a topic. But just as those who don’t care about sustainable fashion might inadvertently shop sustainably because they prefer longer-lasting clothes or higher quality fabrics, consumers may well invest in regenerative ingredients simply because they offer better results. 

“A lot of the research we've now started aims to, amongst other things, show that an ingredient farmed this way can actually have a higher potency or higher efficiency, while at the same time being good for the planet. If we can show that through really thorough data I think that it'll be compelling for everyone to just make it an easy decision,” Blanco says.

With the potential for better efficacy, and consumer indicators emerging including Regenerative Organic Certified (which has A-dae Romero-Briones from the First Nations Development Institute on the board), Certified Regenerative, and Ecological Outcome Verification, regenerative could soon become just as big a consumer driver as organic. With soil holding the key to so many climate solutions, brands should be jumping on board to collectively race towards that goal.