Welcome to the next instalment of the #beautyinsider Q&As, where you can find out who is behind some of your favourite natural beauty brands, what they are working on and how they got there. This month’s guest is Anna Brightman, Co-Founder of zero waste skincare brand UpCircle, offering vegan and cruelty-free products made with upcycled ingredients. I first discovered UpCircle and the concept of upcycled beauty ingredients back in 2019 thanks to Leo’s eco-friendly subscription box. When, years later, I went to a sustainable beauty symposium where natural beauty disruptors such as Evolve Beauty, SBTRCT and UpCircle discussed their inspiring work in regenerative beauty, I knew I had to ask Anna to share more about the brand’s mission to fight waste as well as her career highs.
1. Hi Anna, thank you for being my #BeautyInsider Q&A guest! Let’s start from the beginning: every beauty brand has a story, what’s UpCircle’s?
It all began six years ago when I asked a local coffee shop what they did with their waste coffee and was shocked to hear that they were producing so much that they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed of on landfill sites. Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so… that was my lightbulb moment! Why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable circular skincare products? We began our journey collecting used coffee grounds from one coffee shop, we now collect from hundreds of coffee houses across London – our list is always growing!
2. What is it that makes UpCircle stand out from other natural skincare brands?
Skincare is a crowded market. Lots of skincare brands can claim to be vegan, natural, handmade, organic, cruelty-free etc. and so can we… but we want to go a step further. How many brands can claim that their products have saved literally hundreds of tonnes of valuable skin-loving ingredients from ending up in landfill? We certainly can.
We say, “natural” is the new “normal” and normal is boring. To stand out you have to go a step further and that’s why we create waste-fighting formulations. No other beauty brand is doing what we do. We’re the only brand to scale up repurposing ingredients into skincare.
We are also more broadly challenging people’s perceptions of what they consider as waste in the first place. Rather than bombarding people with doom and gloom headlines about the scale of environmental issues, we focus on positive change and that we can all make a difference in small steps. Rather than saying 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds are sent to landfill in the UK each year, we say, each of our face scrubs rescues the equivalent of four espresso shots from being discarded. It’s tangible, it’s uplifting, it makes you feel good, it’s something to be proud to support.
3. You have made it your mission to fight waste by rescuing by-products from the food industry and using these ingredients in your products. Which one has been most challenging to work with?
The pioneering nature of what we do is illustrated by the extent of the opposition to our idea at the start, mentors and investors told us that the industry wasn’t ready, that tackling issues of waste in the “shallow” beauty industry would not work. Our rapid growth has proven that not only is it possible, it’s extremely popular!
I’d have to say that the most challenging upcycled ingredient to work with for us so far has been coffee. Because of our circular economy ethos, we rely on the functioning of other industries to get the ingredients that we reuse. During Covid having coffee shops shut for months presented supply chain issues for us, but we managed to come out the other side standing strong! During this time we launched with our first major US retailer Ulta Beauty who alone launched us into 750 doors. We managed all of this as a team of four, so despite the supply chain complexities we’re capable of keeping our products in stock in large volumes.
A big challenge or limitation for us in developing our upcycled products is certification. We have been certified by Soil Association and COSMOS from the start, however some of our individual products currently cannot be certified, as the percentage of upcycled ingredients is well above 50%. This means that despite being unparalleled in terms of our sustainability credentials, we are not eligible for certification. Soil Association acknowledges that they may need to rethink their approach to reflect this shift towards a more circular approach. This is a good example of the open-mindedness of the industry to accommodating the use of upcycled ingredients.
Being a disruptor brand means that the path that you forge will always be bumpy. Being the first to do this in our industry, we’ve had to figure out our supply chain, manufacturing and general operational hurdles ourselves.
4. Today eco-credentials must be at the heart of every brand to earn a place in customers’ bathroom cabinets. What does the future of sustainable beauty look like to you?
I’m a firm believer that the future is (and has to be) circular, not only when it comes to ingredients, but also when it comes to packaging. Preserving, regenerating and making the most out of resources that already exist, needs to be the primary goal.
5. What exciting projects are you working on right now?
New ingredient saving opportunities land into our inboxes every day! Our product launches for the rest of this year include a Hand Cream, Lip Balm and a bath range. The upcycled ingredients for those include seaweed extract and discarded flower petals from florists and wedding venues! We also only just released our brand new SPF with upcycled raspberry extract which has already become a best-seller.
6. As Co-Founder of UpCircle, what so far has been your proudest career moment?
A couple for me would include being listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 or having three dragons fighting over us on Dragons’ Den. Both are things that I can’t actually believe happened!
But, to be honest I cherish the little things the most – they are my highlights. When customers take the time to email or even send letters, showing before and afters of their skin and letting us know how much they love UpCircle – those sorts of things that make me most proud. Knowing that I create products that make people feel good about themselves is the best and most inspiring feeling in the world.
If you have any burning questions you’d like to ask Anna why not leave a comment below? Or you can get in touch with her directly by addressing her a direct message on Instagram.