Gregg Renfrew is the CEO of Beautycounter, a new kind of cosmetics and personal care company that has placed 275,000 safe products into the hands of consumers. "Safe" is the key word here. Renfrew (who once sold her online bridal registry site The Wedding List to Martha Stewart’s company) is convinced that the cosmetics market is wildly unregulated, and that many leading companies currently put products on the market that harm consumers’ health. Since launching last year, the company has averaged over 30% month-on-month growth.
Beautycounter, a registered B Corp, counts spreading the word as its mission just as much as making a profit. So on the occasion of the company’s newly launched "Know Everything" website, we caught up with Renfrew to learn more about the Wild West of American cosmetics, and why she felt building a business was the best way to make a difference.
FAST COMPANY: How did you get the idea for Beautycounter?
Around 2006, a couple things were happening simultaneously. Just after having my first child, I watched An Inconvenient Truth. It was a wakeup call about what was going on in the environment. Around the same time, I watched a number of people around me getting cancer too young, and I saw friends not able to conceive children, and I started to put pieces of the puzzle together. I started making significant changes in my lifestyle—I became a Whole Foods shopper and started making better choices for myself and my family. But when it came to skin care and cosmetics, I struggled to find things that met my needs. We spent three years working on the concept, and we launched a year ago in March.
Give me a crash course on regulation—or lack thereof—of the American cosmetics market.
Congress has not passed a federal law since 1938, and that law doesn’t allow sufficient regulation over the marketplace. The FDA does not have nearly enough ability to effect change or to stop companies from doing things.
There’s no law about claims on labels, and unlike in the food industry, things like fragrance, under U.S. patent law, are considered trade secrets, so you don’t have to tell what’s in it. You can use words like "natural," "safe," "organic," "pure," "botanical," when it may be none of the above. The E.U. has either banned or restricted almost 1,400 ingredients from personal care products. The U.S. has banned 11 to date. Approximately 80,000 chemicals have been introduced to the marketplace over the last 60 years. Ten thousand are commonly used, of which 80% are never tested for safety on human health.
Why start a business? Why not become a lobbyist for more regulation, or start a nonprofit?
I believe that consumers drive change, and I think that we are aiming to create awareness and shift behavior in the consumer market. I believe the most effective way to do that is through brands and companies that consumers love and get behind. If a nonprofit tells you to do something, it can feel less compelling than if Nike tells you to do it. We felt that by bringing customers into the fold, they could vote with their wallets to demand change, and could actually move the industry in a more effective, faster way. Consumers love brands, and they love brands with earnest, authentic intentions.
You have a direct-to-consumer part of your business, but you also have an old-fashioned offline component.
We have a network of independent consultants, approaching 3,000 in number. These are representatives in all 50 states, women who sell our products through one-on-one appointments or through what we call "socials"—gatherings in venues—or through their online networks. They’re paid on what they sell, as well as on building a team. Most of these are women aged 21 to 55, who are passionate about our movement. We find it allows us to cross generations very quickly. We found our first consultants literally by going across the country and doing events with friends and family in venues in cities where we thought we could command a decent audience.
What do you hope to achieve with the new publication on your site, "Know Everything"?
We want to shed a new light on beauty, to show that you can be beautiful and sexy, but also safe and healthy. You don’t have to compromise. Originally, I felt like I was being asked to compromise. It was always: I can have high-performance on-trend chic products that are toxic to my health, or I can have arguably safe and healthy products that don’t perform in a manner I want them to, and that are not packaged in a way that is exciting or aspirational. I want to put the truth into beauty: to make aspirational, on-trend, fashionable products that don’t ask you to compromise in either health or beauty.
This interview has been condensed and edited.