The ethics of Ethique – and how a Kiwi brand saved 25 million plastic bottles


Ethique founder, Brianne West

This month (October 2022) marks a particularly significant highlight for New Zealand conscious beauty brand Ethique – a joint celebration of 10 years in business and 25 million plastic containers saved.

From a concept that began with an unassuming entrepreneur quietly making a solid shampoo bar in her uni flat kitchen (with a pink mixing bowl), Brianne West has become quite the disrupter.

Her brand Ethique has become a leader in the sustainable beauty and lifestyle industry, saving more than 25 million single-use plastic bottles from ending up in landfills and oceans across the globe, with its 100% plastic-free, home-compostable, vegan, cruelty-free, palm oil-free and sustainably sourced, regeneratively farmed and directly traded ingredients.

While that’s quite a mouthful, it’s worth taking the time to absorb those credentials, as they aren’t earned lightly. But those crucial focus points have seen Ethique catapult into a global brand over the last decade, capturing the attention of celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears along the way.

Specialising in the creation of plastic-free beauty products, the Ethique range gave the beauty industry a little nudge this year, launching an award-winning collection of lipsticks.

However, it’s the original super sudsy shampoo bars that continue to shine as the hero, even 10 years on.

Now available in 24 countries and more than 6500 retailers worldwide, Ethique stands by its early mission to leave the planet and its people better than they found it.

As well as being climate positive, at least two percent of Ethique’s sales are donated annually to key partners who work to make a difference in the world of animal welfare, biodiversity, and conservation globally.

Earlier this year, Ethique launched the Ethique Foundation – a formal commitment to support international organisations fighting for change, with the goal of donating $10 million dollars.

That’s quite a commitment from a business that evolved from a uni student’s desire to ‘do better’ after being frustrated at the ‘abhorrent amount of waste created by the cosmetics industry, in particular, the amount of plastic and waste created by bathroom essentials.

FashioNZ catches up with Brianne to celebrate the growth and achievements of Ethique.


Ethique face range

What’s given you the most personal satisfaction around what Ethique has achieved over the decade?

It used to be the number of bottles saved, but now I think it’s watching the team grow, gain skills, and experience. Most of the team are young (under 30), and several of them were straight out of university when they joined. We hire for attitude first and foremost, and train for skills. Working for a fast-growing start-up is no easy ride, and I’ve seen the most incredible progression in every one of them.

What’s been the most surprising part of the business journey?

How big Ethique has grown. People encourage me to look back and think about where we started, and when I do, I am always slightly taken aback that Ethique grew as fast as it did. That is a testament to the people around me, who believed in the vision and threw their whole support behind the idea. You start a company in your kitchen and while it’s a nice dream that it will one day be a global company, I didn’t really believe it would be. I guess I’m surprised at how much I changed too. I went from an idealistic, insecure, naïve entrepreneur who was terrified of public speaking and confrontation, who had no idea how to run a business, to someone who is much more confident, pragmatic (though still idealistic I suppose), who instead of being insecure and defensive about my weaknesses, finds people who are good in those areas and surrounds myself with them.

When you first started the business 10 years ago what was your goal?

To save the world, of course. To show business can be done in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment or exploit people. I’ve always had a passion for our environment and during my time at university, it was increasingly evident to me that plastic was a real concern. As I was studying biochemistry and interested in cosmetics formulation, I also knew that personal care, skincare, hair care, etc. was all mostly water and that just seemed ridiculous to me when you use those products in a room where water is literally on tap. While it might make sense for a business financially, it sure doesn’t for the environment, as you’re shipping water and plastic around the globe. So, a logical solution was to simply sell the active ingredients in a bar format, remove the plastic, and dramatically lower the carbon footprint of the products – without compromising on quality or efficacy.

That was the aha moment that became Ethique 10 years ago. It started with a small range of plastic-free, waterless shampoos and has now become a global beauty brand with a range spanning haircare, skincare, body, and cosmetics – all solid, home-compostable and plastic-free, palm oil-free, vegan and cruelty-free, and climate positive. What has become more apparent in the past few years is that most plastic never actually does get recycled. Just nine percent does – the rest ends up in our oceans, gets incinerated, or for the vast majority just goes to landfill. And that’s not because consumers don’t rinse and recycle their empties – it’s because waste management isn’t equipped to deal with the sheer volume of it.

So creating a genuinely easy-to-use, high-performance alternative to plastic-bottled beauty products was the core part of Ethique’s mission – alongside climate-positive operations, genuinely fair relationships with producers, and a staunchly anti-cruelty stance.

When I started Ethique, I wanted to save one million plastic containers from landfill by 2020. It seemed like a totally impossible vision at the time but somehow, we reached it well ahead of schedule in 2018. By 2020, we hit 10 million bottles saved, and today, we have saved almost 25 million! The next is to save half a billion by 2030.


Ethique haircare range

How and when did your goal change to something bigger?

Regeneration is at the core of everything we do, though we haven’t always used that word to describe it (if sustainability is replenishing what you use, regeneration is giving more back to the planet than you ever take away. Think of it as ‘sustainability plus’.) Our mission is to regenerate the planet through products and practices that give more than they take away. This was always the mission, even if I didn’t put a name to it. We’re known as a plastic-free company, but we’re much more than that.

One of the most important elements of this is our approach to ingredient sourcing via direct trade. By working directly with our producers, we can be confident they get a genuinely fair wage, a source of income year-round, and have our support to grow their business. Though this tends to make our ingredients more expensive than mass-market sources (usually five to 10 times more expensive), the benefits are huge and worth every penny in our minds. Producers who are properly paid and supported are able to invest in education and regenerative farming techniques, rather than being trapped by the predatory business practices that so often accompany ‘business as usual’. Several of the huge social and environmental issues that we face today are driven by opaque supply chains and low wages, such as child labour, human trafficking, and deforestation.

Our packaging is also regenerative – when it’s put in compost, buried in the ground, or a plant pot, it will break down naturally to return nutrients to the earth and contribute to the soil ecosystem. No plastic, laminate, or chlorines are used. Our solid bars are designed to do away with water, and with it, the plastic bottles. But just swapping out plastic for paper isn’t good enough – paper production can come with a raft of other environmental concerns too. For example, it can be a massively water-intensive process, using between 300 and 400kg of water per kilo of paper. We considered this factor when designing our packaging to make it as earth-friendly as possible. Comparatively, our production uses just 10 to 25kg of water per kilo as it’s recirculated and recycled.

We’re climate-positive, offsetting more carbon than our business has ever produced (and yes, that includes the products themselves and shipping). We believe that offsetting should be a last resort, however, so our first step is always to eliminate and reduce our carbon footprint wherever possible. As a result, we were able to reduce our carbon footprint by 60% between 2018 and 2020 (and offset all emissions that couldn’t be eliminated while still growing as a company).

Of course, all our products are also vegan and cruelty-free, palm oil-free and we’re a Best in World BCorp for the fifth year running! We also have a set of really strict rules when it comes to product formulation. Of course, every product has to be plastic-free, vegan and cruelty-free, palm oil-free, made with sustainably sourced and regeneratively produced ingredients. We also don’t just make
products for the sake of it (like eye creams). But significantly, it must perform just as well as – if not better than – the liquid equivalent. If it can’t hold its own against the big-name brands, we go straight back to the drawing board until it can.

Charitable donations and reinvesting in sustainable businesses and organisations have always been a key component of the Ethique brand – as we have grown so has the ability for us to do this on a larger scale. This led to the creation of the Ethique Foundation through which we actively contribute to charities and organisations working to tackle society’s biggest climate-related challenges. Every year, we give at least two percent of sales to charities addressing deforestation, marine collapse, animal welfare, and biodiversity.


Ethique body range

What positive changes have you seen over the last decade in terms of sustainability and in particular sustainable beauty?

It is great to see so many brands taking positive steps to reduce the impact of their packaging (for example, offering plastic-free options) and to rule out animal testing and animal-derived products. We’ve seen an explosion in the number of shampoo bars available and that’s amazing to see.

On the other hand, a lot of people brands to look at sustainability as a single issue, so if packaging is plastic-free, they say it’s ‘sustainable’, or if it’s recyclable it’s ‘sustainable’ – regardless of a murky supply chain or ingredients associated with deforestation and human suffering or high carbon operations. This isn’t so. Yes, virgin plastic packaging is usually the least sustainable option when it comes to beauty and cosmetics. But switching to a glass bottle is scarcely any better – usually worse – when it’s designed to be used once and thrown away. Even when it’s intended to be recycled, it’s still a problem because just nine percent of plastic ever made has ever been recycled. And that’s without getting into the very complex issues the beauty industry has with opaque supply chains, child labour, forced labour, and deforestation. So beauty brands need to start looking at the bigger picture of sustainability – what is the carbon footprint of the product, what (actually) happens to the packaging when it’s finished, how much do they really know about where their ingredients come from – to become environmentally-sound in a genuine way. This is definitely something we are starting to see happen, so I look forward to seeing what companies create in the next few years.

Is there a singular moment/achievement that makes you most proud?

Personally, winning Young Entrepreneur of the Year was a nice achievement. Professionally – both of our equity crowdfunding campaigns. When we brought on more than 350 shareholders across both rounds who held ownership in the company and helped us champion it around the world. Even more so when we did an investment deal in 2020 and they were able to exit with a 48x return for the original investors.

Photos supplied