Organic beauty is going through a boom but, as Liz Hancock discovers, it’s nothing new. Sixty years ago the pioneers of the movement were already teaching our grandmothers all about looking beautiful naturally
My grandma, Alice, had the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen. Creamy, smooth, soft as a baby’s bum and largely wrinkle-free when she died, at the age of 85. She put it down to eating a teaspoon of honey each morning, and washing her face daily from an early age. But I’ve always wondered if it hadn’t something to do with her natural approach to beauty. Yes, she wore the trademark red lipstick and face powder of many women from her between-the-wars era, but she also stopped using the more traditional cold cream and in her twenties began to look to nature for her skincare.
Over the past five years there’s been a flood of natural and organic beauty companies, all waking up to the idea that synthetic chemicals can be harmful to our health and the environment. Yet this notion is not entirely new. In our grandmothers’ time a handful of pioneering beauty brands began to emerge whose influence is still felt in today’s market. The likes of Weleda (founded in 1921), Dr Bronner (first sold in the 1940s ) and Dr Hauschka (which launched in 1967) are now thriving in our increasingly environmentally aware climate, and are influencing many of the new beauty-brand launches.
People have long used natural ingredients for their beauty-giving benefits. But around the turn of the 20th century the advent of mass production, the boom in the consumer-goods market and the discovery that oil-industry by-products could be used as cosmetic ingredients resulted in the launch of synthetically processed beauty products. Yet as far back as the 1920s a handful of natural beauty visionaries foretold of an era when intensive farming, chemical overload and stress would dominate the globe. ‘Up until the end of the 19th century the approach to beauty was traditional, using mainly natural and herbal ingredients, more from necessity than design,’ says Roger Barsby, the general manager of Weleda (UK) Ltd. ‘These had no shelf-life or commercial viability, and were often home-made or tailor-made by an apothecary or pharmacist. But towards the end of the 1800s things had begun to change, with technological advances in healthcare and beauty, and sophisticated processed ingredients.’
One pioneer who foresaw problems with this shift was Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher and co-founder of Weleda. ‘He recognised the long-term potential damage from cumulative chemical build-up in our systems,’ says Barsby. ‘He also understood the environmental impact this might have, and he began to formalise ideas about agriculture that kick-started the organic movement. His views were considered eccentric by many of his contemporaries, who were impressed with modern technology. But today we can see that his concerns were valid.’
The great-grandmother of all natural beauty ranges, Weleda was founded in a Swiss hillside town in 1921 by Steiner and a female doctor called Ita Wegman. Taking its name from a Germanic healer and priestess of the 1st century, Weleda began producing health remedies and beauty preparations, linking the two together for reasons of physical wellbeing rather than vanity. Under the mind-body-spirit philosophy of anthroposophy, which Steiner developed, the company’s approach has remained largely unchanged today – it uses only natural and sustainable ingredients, environmentally sound production methods and biodynamic and organic agriculture. Almost 86 years on, many of its product formulations have altered little, and even the packaging has been treated with a restrained hand. ‘In the 1980s Weleda’s packaging was not considered sufficiently “designer label” for the fashion press,’ says Barsby. ‘But, ironically, as Weleda stayed true to its original values, fashion came round full circle and suddenly the retro packaging was back in vogue.’
In the 1940s another revolutionary began climbing on to his soapbox. Dr Emanuel Bronner, a third-generation soap-maker from Germany, had emigrated to America in 1929 in order to escape religious persecution. He lost most of his family to the Holocaust, but was determined to carry on the Bronner tradition of master soap-making. ‘He initially worked as a consultant to various soap companies,’ says Ralph Bronner, one of Emanuel’s sons and part of the family group that took over the company following Dr Bronner’s death in 1997. ‘But most of them were converting to the complicated synthetic formulations that comprise modern body-care products, so he struck out on his own.’
That Bronner’s soaps were made with organic vegetable oils, scented with organic essential oils and contained no synthetic surfactants or petrochemicals, was – and still is – pretty revolutionary. Yet it’s his packaging that has kept the cult of this individual brand going. Bearing his highly personal philosophies on everything from cleanliness to religious tolerance, the labels of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soaps read like the incendiary pamphlets you’d expect to find at Speaker’s Corner. FOR ON GOD’S SPACESHIP EARTH, WITH BOMB & GUN, WE’RE ALL-ONE OR NONE, reads one. Ahead of its time, the company found favour with the counter-culture of the 1960s. Today Dr Bronner labels still bear many of his original rants, and are a welcome fresh breath in the predominantly bland beauty industry. The company is run with a profit-share scheme for its employees and gives a percentage of its earnings to charity. ‘Dr Bronner was considered a crackpot for supporting environmental, anti-communist and pacifist causes,’ says Ralph. ‘But today mainstream America is all for promoting those very things.’
It was also in the 1960s that another of today’s leading natural beauty brands was taking off. Inspired after a meeting with Steiner, the medical chemist Dr Rudolf Hauschka developed a method of extracting essences from herbs and plants that was based on a theory of the cyclical rhythms of nature. Forming his own company, WALA (which stands for Warmth/Ash, Light/Ash, after the process he discovered), Hauschka began creating remedies and medicines with his extracts. In 1967 he collaborated with the Swedish cosmetologist Elisabeth Sigmund and launched Dr Hauschka Skin Care, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Changing little in the past 40 years, the company’s ethos is about teaching the skin to self-correct any problems it has; and it still uses the same extraction method, despite today’s high-tech advances. ‘We can only get a special component out of the plant by this typical rhythmical process,’ explains Inka Bihler, a spokesperson for Dr Hauschka. ‘Today we sometimes use machinery, but the method is almost the same as in the 1950s, or even in the 1930s when Dr Hauschka invented it. Why change a system that works?’
In the 1950s a second wave of nature-driven brands began to launch, with the likes of Yon-Ka (founded in 1955), a Parisian company that did pioneering research into aromatherapy, Eastern healing techniques and holistic botanical skincare; and Jason Natural Cosmetics (founded in 1959), which focused on healing herbs and began looking into vegan ingredients and recyclable packaging. But the greatest legacy of the pioneering brands was probably felt in the eco-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of companies such as Aubrey Organics (1969), the Body Shop (1976), Aveda (1978), Neal’s Yard (1981), Burt’s Bees (1984) and the Australian brand Jurlique (1985). In the current eco-wave, Ren, Living Nature, Nude, Spiezia, Trilogy and Vaishaly are bearing the fruits that the ‘granny brands’ put down to seed long ago.
That brands which set out to revolutionise both our lifestyles and the industry have remained at the top of their field 60 to 80 years on, with very little deviation from their original ethos, is astounding. For a product created in a pre-war laboratory to retain a relevance in today’s high-tech world is surely vindication of our grandmothers’ way of life. ‘We have so many chemicals in our lives, often unwittingly, and this puts additional stress on our health, often expressing itself through our skin,’ says Roger Barsby. ‘It has never been more relevant for products to be eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical – these are bigger issues today than they were in the 1920s.’