A sneak peek into The Body Shop's new green beauty lab

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Get under the skin of The Body Shop's new $1 million green innovation lab.

Tucked underground just off the gray, distinctly urban streets of East Croydon, United Kingdom lies a tiny oasis for environmental enthusiasts. 

No, it's not a secret Zen garden for stressed office workers, or a habitat reserve for a rare species of south London bat. No, this small patch of urban real estate is home to The Body Shop's new innovation laboratory, a stone's throw from its headquarters and the new home for the beauty giant's nine development chemists in charge of creating the brand's next hit cosmetics range.

The over $1 million facility, which opened in November, is designed to bring the chemists and the marketers closer together during the product development process, as the brand gets to work on delivering key sustainability commitments as part of its green strategy, "Enrich Not Exploit," which launched in February last year.

But how can a new lab help? Drafted in to show us around the new facility — and explain why all the shiny new equipment spells good news for green beauty — is Neil Watson, head of internal development labs at The Body Shop.

This is the first time in more than five years The Body Shop has had its own labs, Watson explained. Before November, the development team were based in Littlehampton in West Sussex — while the head office was in London Bridge — and product briefs were outsourced to external development companies.

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The Body Shop's new laboratory in East Croydon will develop around 100 new products a year for the brand.

"They effectively developed all of our products," Watson explained. "We would give them a brief, they would respond to that brief, and then they would also manufacture the products for us."

Now, almost all of The Body Shop's products — barring most of its makeup ranges — will be created and tested by its in-house team of experts. The new lab's proximity to head office has made the product development process swifter and more collaborative: the marketing teams can pop over and spend the day in the lab with the development team, while the time frame for product development has been cut from two weeks to a matter of days, thanks to the amount of time saved by avoiding the need to have product samples crisscrossing the country.

It also means the development team can lend more of a hand in the creative process, Watson explained. "Because we are right next door to the marketing team, it's very easy for us to have a play around with something in the lab, then go and present it to the marketing team as an opportunity," he said. "Whereas for the last 10 or 15 years it's been the other way round — everything has come from marketing."

On the surface the lab itself appears unassuming — a space about the size of a standard classroom with rows of gleaming machines lined up ready for use. It is also eerily quiet — at the time of the visit, in the dark days of early January, a couple of Watson's team of nine are off sick, and half are still on their Christmas break. 

Nevertheless, Watson promises the lab will, in a few days, be a hive of activity once again, with the team expecting to create about 100 new products for The Body Shop's bath and body ranges this year.

One key tool the developers use when creating a new product formulation is a unique database of beauty ingredients, painstakingly compiled over a number of years by The Body Shop's parent company, L'Oreal.

This database, which records not only each ingredient's cost but also its water footprint, biodegradability, carbon impact and green chemistry rating, allows the development team to instantly create a picture of how "green" and sustainable a formula is.

Under Enrich Not Exploit, The Body Shop has committed to delivering year-on-year reductions in the environmental footprint of its products, as well as publishing the biodegradability and water footprint of every product in its range.

"As part of Enrich not Exploit we have set ourselves targets that year on year we will improve the category average of our products," Watson explained. "So for example, if we are talking about shampoo we have a baseline, from 2015, of the performance of our shampoo, measured on the biodegradability, the water footprint, the number of chemicals we use derived from green chemistry and the number of community materials we use. So we have this scoring system we use. And the next time we develop another shampoo, it has to be better in all of those categories."

Although this is a stretching target — most companies try to improve one of these measures at a time, Watson said — he believes it is an important step towards driving innovation both within The Body Shop and further down the supply chain. "You see the brands that succeed are the ones that invest in their research and development," he said. "It can only be a good thing that we are always pushing the boundary to make our products as sustainable as we can."

Over the next three years the firm will focus mainly on redeveloping the formulas for its bath and body ranges: the shower gels, scrubs and body butters popular with The Body Shop customers the world over. "They are really the high volume products that we sell, so this is where we can have the biggest environmental impact," Watson explained.

But if the database helps the development team quickly and accurately map the environmental footprint of a formula, how then does the team go about pushing down its environmental impact?

You can start by unearthing some new natural ingredients to replace synthetic ones, Watson explained. The company is planning to double its Community Trade pipeline, which sources ingredients from remote biodiverse areas and helps local residents build a sustainable supply chain for them — a move it hopes will unleash an influx of new ingredients from biodiversity hotspots around the world.

Already the sustainable sourcing team has sent back some new ingredients for Watson's team to work on, about which he will say only that they are "very exciting" discoveries. However, with an average product taking between 14 months and two years to travel from laboratory to store shelf, it will be a while before we see the fruits of this labor.

Achieving the aims of Enrich Not Exploit means not only introducing new ingredients, but reshaping staple formulas the beauty industry has relied on for decades. Green chemistry is emerging as the answer — an area of chemistry focused on the designing of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances.

For example, the process of ethoxylation, a chemical reaction used to create a surfactant (widely used in foaming or cleansing products), is environmentally intensive and can produce toxic waste. Similar products made using a greener chemical process are available, but are often more expensive, Watson said.

However, the tide is beginning to turn towards greener chemistry techniques, he said, in part due to industry pressure on suppliers from the likes of The Body Shop. He said he often will challenge suppliers to deliver greener raw materials or lose their contract.

"Nine times out of 10 they change the way they work, because obviously we are not the only ones pushing this agenda," he said. "We want to produce products using sustainable materials, and lots of other companies want to do the same, so actually it's changing the way the chemical industry is working."

Some areas are harder to change than others. In particular, the use of silicones in makeup products presents a challenge because of their low biodegradability score and high water footprint — but they remain very difficult to replace. "Silicones are synthetic materials but they provide quite unique properties," Watson said. "So some of them have a really nice slip on the skin; others have some quite functional properties as well which we use for a specific purposes in products. And they are really difficult to replace because they have a unique sensorial profile.

"So we try to limit the amount we use — our goal is not to use them at all, it's as a last resort that we use them, and when we use them you have to show that you have got them in at as low a level that you could possibly get them in at to get the performance we need."

Consumers are beginning to cotton on to these changes. The microbeads issue — which exploded into public consciousness earlier this year after a Parliamentary investigation into their use in beauty products — is perhaps the most dramatic example of this new awareness, but according to Watson shoppers are also starting to see ingredients such as silicone as "nasties."

In response, a number of start-up beauty companies are racing to market touting ranges with 100 percent organic or biodegradable ingredients. In a couple of years, this will start feeding through onto mainstream packaging, Watson predicted. "I think you will see, certainly over the next couple of years, that a lot of people will start talking about the naturality of their products, and putting numbers on packs to represent that," he said. 

Consumers are also behind a drive to strip out unnecessary ingredients in product formulas. "Consumers are starting to read the ingredients list on packs and starting to take notice of what's in there," Watson said. "Often what they don't like is things that sound very chemical-based, but they often don't like a really long list as well."

The Body Shop's formulas generally contain around 17 or 18 ingredients — and the development team is under instructions to bring this down as far as possible. This is possible but time-consuming, Watson said: "You can't recycle an old formula; you have to start from scratch."

Nevertheless, the brand is preparing to launch a product with just nine ingredients in the coming months, and Watson said he is even working on a brief to deliver a product with just six ingredients.

Now the development team has settled into the new space — and the new ways of working it affords — Watson promises customers will start to see a sea-change in the environmental profile of products hitting the shelves. "You'll see that over the coming years, more and more of the new Body Shop products coming out will have really high levels of natural ingredients and high levels of biodegradability," he said — adding that in the last couple of weeks he has just finished work on a new face wash that is made of 99.8 percent natural ingredients and is 100 percent biodegradable. 

"It can be done," he insisted. "We can push the boundaries on these products a long way."

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