The circular economy sits at the heart of UpCircle. Their mission? To leave the world better than they found it by transforming used ingredients into natural, organic beauty products – better for you and the world. We speak to their co-founder Anna Brightman to learn more about their sustainable initiatives, and all the ways they're making waves through their activism, education, and eco-driven product offering.
What is the story behind UpCircle?
One-third of all food in the UK is wasted, yet nearly one-third of people have a skincare routine. That’s one huge opportunity to save the planet through skincare.
At UpCircle, we make sustainable skincare products from ingredients that would otherwise be discarded. When we discovered that more than 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds consumed each year in the UK alone are sent to landfill (where they produce methane), we decided to start collecting coffee grounds from cafes and transforming them into skincare products. Since launching, UpCircle has saved over 450 tonnes of used coffee. Based on our current rates of growth, it's estimated that this will rise to 5,000 tonnes in the next 4 years. We also repurpose more than 15 other by-product ingredients from varied industries, including the argan, tea, juice, date, olive and wood industries. Even our packaging is circular, with over 12,000 products hand-refilled to date.
Our brand has seen staggering growth in the last six years, selling hundreds of thousands of products annually in over 40 different countries. We have over 20,000 5* reviews, and a cult following that we fondly call our “UpCirclers”.
We're proud to be the UK's #1 upcycled skincare brand.
How do you ensure the ingredients you use are sustainably sourced? Could you tell us more about the repurposed ingredients in your products, and how you created this circular supply chain?
We seek independent Natural & Organic certification through COSMOS and the Soil Association as well as B Corp, who assess every aspect of our supply chain, from ingredient sourcing to packaging type, to make sure we are sustainable in our methods and practices.
Our products are made by people instead of machines using simple methods such as melting, blending, whisking, and pouring by hand. This enables us to monitor the process closely to ensure that the result is skincare of the finest quality. It also enables us to reduce our energy consumption as a business. All our skincare production happens here in the UK.
Every repurposed ingredient that we work with has been taken from another industry. This means that it needs to be processed in one way or another so that it’s appropriate for use in skincare. Being a disruptor brand means that the path we forge will always be bumpy. More often than not, we’re the first beauty brand to be working with these ingredients at scale — so we’ve had to figure out our supply chain, manufacturing, and general operational hurdles ourselves. Our upcycled extracts, waters, and powders are obtained without flash distillation or microwaves, they are the result of only natural processes.
What are some of the unique benefits of the repurposed ingredients you use?
At UpCircle, we believe we need to move to a circular rather than a linear approach. One of the 20 by-product ingredients we repurpose is residual fruit waters left over after the creation of juice concentrates. Water is often the first ingredient in skincare. It, therefore, plays an important role in the sustainability of the overall formulation and is a great target ingredient to replace with a more sustainable alternative.
There’s no point in us going to all of this effort to rescue ingredients if they have no benefit for your skin. The efficacy of the products has to come first, this is always our main priority. For example, research has shown that the level of antioxidants in coffee actually increases as it’s brewed. Antioxidants fight free radicals which contribute to the signs of ageing. So, it can be argued that the coffee brewing process makes the coffee even better for your skin. The performance of the ingredients within our skincare formulations is essential. No amount of pretty packaging or clever marketing can make up for a product that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do!
If we can provide competitively priced, high-performing products from upcycled ingredients then we are demonstrating that the beauty industry can become a lot less wasteful — it is an innovative approach and a fresh perspective.
Tell us a bit about the different kinds of skincare products you make, and who might benefit from these.
We want our brand to represent skincare for all. We’ve got a broad range that has products to suit all ages, all skin types, and all skin tones. From gentle cleansers including our palm oil-free Chai Soaps and apricot Cleansing Balm, to detoxifying products like our olive and kaolin clay Face Mask. We have products that you can use for a full skincare routine tailored for your specific skincare needs or skin type. We even create skincare bundles that group together our top picks for different skincare concerns — two of the best-sellers are our Acne Bundle and our Sensitive Skin Bundle. Not only that, but we also have a full range of plastic-free accessories which includes our best-selling Safety Razor, reusable Hemp Makeup Pads and biodegradable Bamboo Cotton Buds — plus lots more!
Are all your skincare products vegan and cruelty-free?
Yes. Always have been, always will be. We're certified cruelty-free by Leaping Bunny and we’re Soil Association and COSMOS Organic certified, meaning our ingredients are grown responsibly and promote soil fertility. We’re also certified plastic negative and will be certified vegan and B Corp in the next 6-8 weeks.
If you ask me there’s simply no need for the use of animal-derived ingredients in skincare. Or ingredients that have been tested on animals for that matter — it’s important to us that we are both vegan AND cruelty-free. I want to know that the products that I use (and that I make) have not harmed any living thing in the process of their production. I can’t think of a single animal-derived ingredient that doesn’t have an equally effective plant-based equivalent... so what’s the need?
Your fantastic product refill initiative - please tell us more! Also, the simple genius of it has us wondering: why aren’t more brands doing this? Why do you think this is?
Last year we took the step to make our packaging circular with the launch of our refill scheme. We designed the packaging return scheme to be simple and streamlined. We want as many UpCirclers as possible to make use of the scheme, so we’ve ironed out any pain points! There’s a separate “Refills Collection” page on our website which lists all the products that are available to be refilled where prices are subject to a 20% discount vs. the usual retail price. Each of those product pages has a one-minute video which walks you through the process from start to finish. By combining text, video and imagery we’ve found that there’s no room for confusion! (Although we still have a separate FAQ section for refills jusssst in case!) We’ll also continue to shout about the scheme in email newsletters and via our socials. We also automatically email a Freepost return label, so it’s as simple as could be! Circular ingredients, circular use of packaging. It just makes sense!
I think other brands don’t prioritise similar schemes as it’s very complex behind the scenes. For us, the main challenge was researching what equipment we would need, purchasing that and setting it all up. There are several sterilisation options available each with its own pros and cons. We’ve had to become experts fast!
We also put great thought into creating a scheme that was as easy as possible for our customers to use. Through our research, we came across a LOT of brands that had set up refill schemes that were extremely complicated and expensive for customers to make the most of. We got the impression that they’d set up a scheme in order to say that they had one, but in most cases, the schemes were hard to find and hard to make sense of (perhaps intentionally so).
From what we’ve seen so far the appetite for a circular packaging scheme like ours is huge. Our scheme is growing 23% month on month. We had people asking us to set this up for a long time and those requests were coming in every single day. Despite this, we still could not have anticipated the scale of the reaction when we announced the launch of our scheme — everyone was extremely excited!
How does UpCircle vet its manufacturers and suppliers and ensure their ethics align with the brand?
As we’re London based, we outsource our manufacturing. We select our manufacturers and suppliers based on five key pillars: quality, supply chain, ethics, innovation, and use of green processes. We have a strict Corporate Ethical Policy, and we request the completion of our Ethical Vetting Questionnaire before entering an agreement with any third party. At UpCircle, we reserve the right to withdraw any agreement on the grounds of a supplier being found to act in contravention of our Ethical Policy. This means we can always guarantee ethical practices are performed by our manufacturers and suppliers. Our choice of manufacturers is also dependent on their commitment to being certified COSMOS organic.
Whichever manufacturer we work with needs to be totally behind our circular economy ethos. This is important because there has been a LOT of trial and error. We’ve faced a lot of hurdles and had to start over on numerous occasions, there have been highs but there have also been lots of lows! The most important thing is that we kept going and found solutions that work.
How has selling wholesale with CREOATE helped grow your business? What advice would you give to businesses looking to take the leap?
We love working with CREOATE! Our incredible Account Manager is always on hand & happy to help, and especially as the platform grows, we’re reaching a range of new customers. They have an incredible referral scheme that benefits us AND our retailers, and the onboarding process for our existing customers is quick & painless — often a barrier with other wholesale platforms. It’s a great way to target new customers, especially if you don’t have the time or a large enough team for effective outreach. We recommend CREOATE to other brands we know, if they’re not sure about onboarding we always suggest they take the leap!
How is UpCircle’s cruelty-free skincare packaged? Is all your packaging recyclable?
Our packaging is made up almost entirely of glass jars, aluminium lids and cardboard outer boxes, making them both recyclable and refillable. Our packaging is 99% plastic free, and we offer plastic-free refills for the 1%.
If customers choose not to return their packaging to us, they can simply recycle it at home, without the need for specialist recycling services or drop-off points. We choose the materials our packaging is made up of based on how easy they are for our customers to recycle at home as well as how effectively the materials can be recycled. Aluminium for example can be recycled infinitely without the quality degrading. In fact, 70% of all aluminium ever produced is still in active circulation.
We also encourage our customers to upcycle their packaging! We have LOADS of content on our social channels demonstrating how to turn empty glass jars into products like makeup brush cleaners and candle holders.
UpCircle is certified ‘Plastic-negative’. Can you tell us a bit about what this means, and what steps you have taken to reduce your plastic use as a brand?
We’re a certified plastic-negative brand. For this to be the case we have to actively remove twice as much plastic from the environment as our brand produces, both directly (eg. Packaging) and indirectly (eg. Supplies that we receive into our warehouses). For every product we sell, we are contributing a percentage towards vetted impact programs that will remove more plastic waste from the environment than we create in our packaging and operations. Plastic neutral would be the removal of as much plastic as your brand uses, plastic negative means we remove twice as much as we use. At UpCircle, we always go one step further and so it was never an option to settle for anything less than becoming plastic negative — plastic neutral or "offsetting" just wouldn't cut it!
What does UpCircle do for local communities?
Sustainability isn't a campaign for us, it's built into everything we do. Also embedded in UpCircle is the desire to have a positive social impact. Our marketing plans aren’t just centred on product sales but on speaking up on social issues too.
At UpCircle, we endeavour to reduce negative impacts on the local community. As a London-based business, it is our prerogative to reduce pollution in any way we can. UpCircle employees understand this, with 100% of the workforce using public transport, walking or biking to work. Our marketing materials are also made from recycled coffee cups! Our production uses zero impact methods and ensures no damage to endangering the environment and local habitats.
COP26 saw world leaders meeting with the aim to update plans from the Paris Agreement. We teamed up with other like-minded brands combining our voices to drive real change. On Saturday 6th November 2021 (Global Day of Climate Action) we went live with our letter to the Prime Minister across as many channels as possible. Our open letter to the PM, submitted to parliament also went live as a full-page ad in The Guardian's Green & Ethical section. We also gave talks at 8 universities.
In the wake of Sarah Everard's death, we created a campaign to send a free UpCircle Soap Bar to anyone who emailed their local MP asking them to make public sexual harassment a crime, urging everyone to sign the change.org petition. We relaunched this when Sabina Nessa was tragically killed, we were inspired by her teaching legacy, so for anyone that emailed their local secondary school asking them to make PSH (Public Sexual Harassment) part of the curriculum we gave a free UpCircle Soap Bar.
We frequently talk on podcasts and webinars to knowledge-share and inspire the next generation of “green” entrepreneurs. Most recently, The Youth Climate Summit, and the Conference on the Ethical Responsibility of Business. We support sustainability leaders through funding and working with our eco-friendly independent stockists, like Plastic Freedom.
We’re still a small brand, but we’re being used to demonstrate how big brands can improve, and as a source of inspiration for new brands. When Prince William and David Attenborough announced the new Earthshot Prize, which will award £50 million to organisations that help repair the planet, the BBC chose to interview US as an example of a successful planet-friendly business!
What do you believe are the main issues facing the beauty industry, and what are other skincare and beauty brands doing wrong? How does UpCircle plan to affect wider change?
The beauty industry is a major contributor to the serious issue that we have created on our planet with regard to plastic. Billions of units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, bulked out by the use of complex lids, multi-layered boxes and cellophane, much of which is superfluous, non-recyclable and ends up in our landfills and oceans.
However, it's not just packaging that beauty contributes to the waste problem — it's the products themselves too. In the UK alone, we are estimated to have made our way through 10.8bn wet wipes and 13.2bn cotton buds. 93% of blocked sewers are caused by wet wipes!
Furthermore, not all ingredients are sourced sustainably. Sadly, the prevalence of palm oil-based products is still common — think bar soaps, shampoo, and lipsticks. The huge increase in demand for palm oil (7.7m tonnes consumed in the EU in 2017) has led to mass deforestation and destruction of the wildlife habitats in Indonesia, amongst others.
Your social media accounts suggest some great tips on how to reuse and repurpose your packaging, as well as simple household products and ingredients. We love this! What advice would you give to customers looking to shop more sustainably? Is there anything we should be looking out for when choosing beauty brands?
Start with easy improvements and, as a consumer, be conscious that you vote with your money – so choose brands who have a genuine interest in positive impact.