Our Second Life podcast (released on Mondays) is growing! On Wednesdays, we’ll be releasing a limited series called Life Lessons, in which Who What Wear co-founder and Chief Content Officer Hillary Kerr will chat with women who’ve had incredible careers within a single field or industry. Subscribe to Second Life on iTunes, and stay tuned. This week, Kerr talks to Gregg Renfrew, the entrepreneur behind innovative natural beauty and skincare brand Beautycounter.
These days, clean beauty is a key category for almost every retailer selling makeup, skincare, and haircare products, but that definitely wasn’t always the case. Back when most of us were coming of age and starting to get into makeup, natural brands were super-niche (and regarded as maybe a little hippie-dippie, if we’re being honest). We slathered our faces with products filled with all sorts of chemicals and preservatives and dyes willingly—without even a second thought.
Entrepreneur Gregg Renfrew was right there with us—until she saw the award-winning climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. At the time, she was a consultant who had already founded and sold a business (The Wedding List) to Martha Stewart (definitely listen to the podcast for the full scoop on working with Martha!), and she was still reeling from being unceremoniously fired from her position at Best & Co. “I mean, I think it’s actually a valuable lesson,” she says of that experience, now that she has some distance from it. After all, it freed her up to explore and pursue the things that mattered to her.
Speaking of which, the further into the environmental health movement she got, the more potential she saw for a beauty brand that focused on producing products that were nontoxic and natural but also chic and effective. “I was obsessed with the environment, toxic products, trying to learn as much as I could, trying to figure out what was an opportunity,” she told Kerr. The seed for Beautycounter had been planted…
Her mission was also personal: She learned more about the potentially hazardous nature of so many products we use every day when her children’s nanny, Cindy, was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31. “I spent the next six or seven months of my life basically holding her hand until she died, which was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Renfrew explains. A subsequent trip to the Mayo Clinic was an eye-opening experience: “They had this whole list of things of why she would have gotten ill, which made me start making sweeping changes in my life, and I got rid of my plastic containers; I stopped microwaving things in plastic.”
Drawing on her experience building The Wedding List, she set out to change the way we formulate (and think about) beauty products by founding Beautycounter. Not that was without its challenges: “We started researching it and really quickly realized when we talked to chemists that it’s not so easy. You can’t just switch an ingredient out,” she says. So she started calling on friends with experience in different facets of the industry, and she started making new connections who could help her bring her vision to life. “I was drafting off the food movement,” she adds, noting that when she founded Beautycounter, people were already aware of the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals in the foods we eat.
After raising enough money and getting the formulas right, Beautycounter launched its initial line of products in 2013—and along with it, a list of ingredients it pledged to never include. “We always say that one of the biggest pillars upon which we built our business is on education,” Renfrew says, adding that the lack of regulations when it comes to the safety of skincare and beauty products is astounding when you really start to look into things. Clearly, she was onto something because six years later, business is booming, and consumers are more interested than ever in steering clear of harmful ingredients.