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Meet The Natural Beauty Company That's Making Advocacy A Selling Point

Beautycounter founder Gregg Renfrew is mobilizing her company's legions of fans to push for federal oversight of the cosmetics industry.

Pure energy: Beautycounter's Gregg Renfrew has developed a network of at-home consultants who are as much educators as salespeople.

[Photo: Emily Berl]

Gregg Renfrew, founder and CEO of the Santa Monica, California–based skin care company Beauty­counter, set out for Washington, D.C., last fall on a mission to push for greater federal regulation of the ingredients used in cosmetics. As she spoke with senators and experts about the hidden dangers of beauty products and urged passage of a bill that would strengthen FDA oversight of the industry, Renfrew brought along some muscle: a dozen of Beautycounter’s consultants—home-based sellers who act as something akin to the Avon ladies of yore, introducing friends and neighbors to the company’s toxin-free products. According to Renfrew, their passion was invaluable. She recalls one meeting where a consultant jokingly warned Senator Lindsey Graham that South Carolina would feel like a very lonely place if his constituents were to find out he wasn’t voting for health-protective laws. Renfrew’s base was ignited.

For Beautycounter employees and consultants, selling products is as important as delivering the message of safe cosmetics­­. Renfrew was inspired to found the company after discovering that she could rid her house of the toxic chemicals hiding in everything from cleaning products to mattresses—but doing it for her shampoos, moisturizers, and makeup was nearly impossible. The certified B Corporation launched in 2013 with a commitment to bringing transparency to the murky world of personal care. It began with a handful of toxin-free moisturizers and exfoliants and now sells makeup, hair care, and baby products; in August, Beauty­counter will introduce a teen skin care line. The company, which sold 500,000 products in 2014, moved 2 million products last year and expects to sell between 5 million and 6 million by the end of 2016.

Beautycounter’s impressive growth has been driven by a multi­pronged retail strategy that includes its own website, an expanding set of partners such as J.Crew and Goop, and (starting this summer) pop-up shops. But the engine of the company remains its network of more than 16,000 at-home salespeople, who account for 35% of its sales and whose activism has become Beautycounter’s crucial marketing strategy. According to a source close to the company, Beautycounter hopes to reach $150 million in sales this year—just three years after opening—without spending a penny on traditional advertising. "Our consultants are educators," says Renfrew. "Yes, they’re selling a product, but they’re also serving the larger solution of getting safe products into the hands of everyone by talking to as many people as they can."

The organic beauty sector has expanded dramatically from a decade ago, when pioneers such as Janet Nudelman, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, started calling for regulation. Natural products will account for an estimated $11 billion of the total $70 billion global personal care industry this year and are the fastest-growing segment of the industry in the U.S., according to a recent study by Packaged Facts. Corporations have taken note. Clorox purchased Burt’s Bees in 2007; Colgate-Palmolive acquired Tom’s of Maine; and brands small and large are introducing "safe" and "natural" products.

But rare is the company that uses genuine activism to push product. With its consultants, Beauty­counter has injected the classic door-to-door model with advocacy. Its consultants’ regular "socials" are as much mimosa-filled sales parties as they are calls to action, complete with
letter-writing campaigns to local lawmakers, and their social media feeds announce both product sales and new research into the health threats posed by household products. When senators are back home from D.C., Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s director of policy and partnerships, helps consultants schedule in-person meetings. The result is an extraordinarily loyal (and growing) consultant and customer base. "[We] train consultants to understand the facts of our broken system and mobilize that big network to raise our voices," says Dahl.

Renfrew has a history of making things happen. She sold her early Internet startup, the Wedding List, an online bridal registry, to Martha Stewart in 2001 and was CEO of Tommy Hilfiger’s children’s retail group Best & Co. Noting the absence of a system that verifies the safety of cosmetics, she saw another opportunity. "In some ways," she says, "beauty is the last frontier."

She entered an industry that is "woefully underregulated" in the United States, according to Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and leader of its Skin Deep database, which assesses cosmetic safety. The FDA’s only guidelines for intervention come from a 1938 bill that has remained virtually unchanged. The agency has neither the power to check ingredients before they go to market nor the ability to recall products that are believed to be harmful. The European Union has banned about 1,400 ingredients from cosmetics. In America, that number is 11. "It’s the Wild West," says Nudelman.

Using a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to ingredients, Beautycounter has banned more than 1,500 from its own products; 80% of those it does use are organic. And it is uncompromising when it comes to performance. Beauty­counter is about to unveil its first mascara, after three years of development and finding work-arounds to common ingredients, such as parabens. That commitment, along with sleek, minimalist packaging and moderately aspirational prices (moisturizers run from $43 to $75), has attracted tree huggers and juice-bar moms alike—many of whom become consultants, making between 25% and 35% of each of their sales.

In May, 100 of Beautycounter’s consultants—two from each state—will join Renfrew and Dahl on a return trip to the Capitol to support a new bipartisan bill that, if passed, could expand the FDA’s authority over the cosmetics industry. "Historically, the industry has fought regulation," says Christine Hill, the EWG’s director of government affairs. "Now companies are starting to feel the pressure from consumers." The next step is to convince the Senate. Renfrew is relying on her consultants: "They are the voice of change for us." At the moment, they are the sound of success as well.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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