Founded in 2016, UpCircle offered a range of natural and sustainable skin care products made with different upcycled ingredients, including coffee grounds, fruit stones from olive oil and jam industries, and discarded rose petals from florists. Its range included moisturisers, cleansers, exfoliators and serums, all certified cruelty-free and vegan and packaged in 100% recyclable glass bottles, jars or aluminium tubes. The brand also offered a return and refill scheme to its UK customers via a postal service.
UpCircle, now a €4 million-a-year business, was growing fast as demand for sustainable and natural cosmetics continued to soar amidst consumer concerns around the environment, animal welfare and health. And although yet to turn a profit – it lost £393,000 (€458,000) in the 2021-22 financial year – the London-based firm had achieved high-level exposure in major retailers like Holland & Barrett, Sainsbury’s, Space NK, Ocado and Whole Foods in the US with its range of skin care products.
The company now planned to use its latest crowdfunding round to expand reach further.
Crowdfunding boost – production sites and brand awareness
The crowdfunding round, completed this August, saw some 1,300 investors pledge €480,000 for a combined 2.25% equity stake in UpCircle – 38% above the target of €350,000.
UpCircle said it planned to use the funds to establish production sites in the US for the first time, including “local manufacturing of our three best-sellers”.
Some of the capital would also boost existing sales in 40 countries as well as bolstering marketing spend and brand awareness in the UK.
The company was also eyeing expansion into adjacent beauty categories like hair care, oral care and makeup and planned on expanding its portfolio of upcycled ingredient sources. The company currently worked with more than 15 upcycled ingredients, from fruit stones, leftover oats, rose petals and unused hibiscus flowers from the food supplement sector, but by the end of 2022 it would add five more waste sources, along with six new skin care products.
‘When it comes to by-product ingredients, there is an endless supply’
Anna Brightman, co-founder of UpCircle, said the potential to expand into other repurposed ingredients was vast.
“When it comes to by-product ingredients, there is an endless supply,” Brightman told CosmeticsDesign-Europe. “We always like to remind ourselves that one-third of all food in the UK is wasted, yet nearly one-third of people have a skin care routine. That’s one huge opportunity to save the planet through skin care.”
Since 2016, UpCircle had already ‘saved’ 400 tonnes of its pioneer upcycled ingredient coffee, she said, and that was set to build further. “Based on our current rates of growth, it is estimated that this will rise to 1,000 tonnes in the next five years.”
Navigating circular supply chains
Being in the circular beauty business did on occasion present supply chain challenges, Brightman said, noting the temporary, or in some cases permanent, closure of coffee shops during COVID-19 lockdowns causing difficulties.
“Every repurposed ingredient that we work with has been taken from another industry,” she said. “This means that it needs to be processed in one way or another in order that it’s appropriate for use in skin care. 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.
“Being a disruptor brand means that the path that you forge will always be bumpy,” she said.
UpCircle’s wider goal, and challenge, Brightman said, was to shake out the “bad reputation” beauty had, in terms of its environmental impact.
“If we can provide competitively priced, high performing products from upcycled ingredients then we’re demonstrating that the beauty industry will be greener. 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.”
Passing the win-win-win test? Skin, business, grower…
The co-founder said navigating such paths was made easier because of the clear principles that formed the foundation of the business and circular beauty’s potential to offer real solutions to pressing environmental and beauty sector problems.
“We say that ‘natural’ is the new ‘normal’. So, let’s stand out from the crowd by going a step further. To us a beauty product is only truly sustainable when it ticks all the boxes and one of those boxes must be circularity,” she said.
“Each decision we make has to pass what we call the ‘win-win-win test’. Is it a win for the skin? Is it a win for UpCircle as a business – cost, availability, supply? Is it a win for the grower – fair trade, adding value to a plant already being harvested for another purpose?”
And transparency on all of this was vital in an age where more and more people were voting with their cash and quick to sniff out greenwashing or purely profit-driven motives, she said.
“Not so long ago, the gold standard for beauty brands was to deliver a great product,” Brightman said. “Now, brands are expected to go much further; to stand for something beyond their products. Beauty brands must prove that there is a reason for their existence, one that contributes in some way positively to the environment, to society, or to supporting individual expression.”
With green packaging as important as green ingredients in the circular beauty equation, Brightman said UpCircle’s ‘Return, Refill, Reuse’ scheme was growing 20% a month, and would be processing 9,000 packaging units a month by March 2023. “It’s currently only available to our UK customers but we have big plans to roll it out into the US and Europe next year.”
However, she said the beauty sector had a long way to go in tackling a vast problem created by billions of cosmetics packaging items each year, “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”.
“We’d love to see more beauty brands move to plastic-free packaging and launch their own Return, Refill, Reuse schemes.”
The natural cosmetics market was worth €36bn in 2019, according to Future Market Insights.