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This winter, while a political chorus raged on my social-media feeds, by turns cheering a governing frontier and bemoaning the end of the world, I noticed another narrative from women who were fed up. Around the country, Facebook friends who ran the gamut of geography, marital status, and political preference were railing about toxins in their beauty products. With the fervor of picketers, they wrote to tell you that the cosmetics and personal-care industry was vastly unregulated. Anything could be in the products they smeared on themselves and their children. They were appalled.
Each woman had made her way to Beautycounter — a four-year-old skincare, makeup, and bath-and-body line that bans 1,500 toxic chemicals from its products and sells through retail, e-commerce, and direct-sales channels. An education-first company, Beautycounter’s goal is to “Get safer products into the hands of everyone.” They believe their mission is “best told person to person,” hence the now 25,000-strong network of consultants who you might hear from in the feed alongside engagement photos and unsolicited political analysis from your uncle. The individuals that came through my algorithm surprised me — many were women from whom I’d never heard a peep about any political or regulatory issue. All of them appeared impassioned and armed with statistics. Why raise their voices now?
Beautycounter is different things to different people: a significant source of additional or primary household income (unlike many direct-sales companies, there is a relatively low $85 startup fee and no purchasing minimums); a way to keep friends and families safe from carcinogens, allergens, and hormone disruptors; an excuse to make friends and drink wine. Since retail alum Gregg Renfrew started it, however, she’s made clear her goals for the company are not just to fill a market void. While products are generally effective (though a recent recall indicates formulating without preservatives is no easy task), attractively packaged — French instructions included — and priced in the middle of the spectrum, the real goal of Beautycounter is to effect legislative change. Authored in 1938, the governing Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act bans only 30 substances from personal-care products — something large beauty conglomerates like Mary Kay and the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors are in no rush to rectify. By comparison, the EU bans 1,400 chemicals.
A common story about how a consultant finds her way to Beautycounter sounds like: I was pregnant. I researched the ingredients in my products; I was horrified. But yogis, business-savvy side hustlers, and women who just want dewy moisturizer become converts too.
“We have a training curriculum for consultants,” explains Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s director of policy and partnerships. “Everything from how we screen our ingredients to how to handle an effective business to how to speak with your friends and family. And part of it is advocacy training at every level, including federal.” Consultants and sometimes clients are provided with email and text templates to contact their representatives in Congress, often during a product “social” at someone’s home (whether they choose to is entirely up to them).. Beautycounter believes these efforts have made significant headway in spreading awareness. For the past three years, Renfrew has led large groups of consultants to Washington, DC — some of whom are there as a reward for hitting a sales target — for meetings with their senators to discuss the Personal Care Products and Safety Act. Introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) in 2015, the bill, if passed, would test five new chemicals a year. This number isn’t enough for Beautycounter, so they’ve kept at it. Last year, they made it to Joe Biden’s office to discuss the measure with him.
What is remarkable about this activism, during a time when the tweeting of the Declaration of Independence or an L.L. Bean boot instigates a partisan coup, is not only that it stems from a business, but that it encompasses women (and a few men) from both sides of the aisle. What’s more, all who choose to get involved in Beautycounter’s activism are pushing for more regulation — a stance typically rebuffed by conservatives, favored by liberals, and certainly counter to a rare core issue of the current administration. How, in 2017, does this work?
“What I say to that is that cancer doesn’t discriminate,” says Christi Hucks. “It’s leveling. Health and safety is a bipartisan issue.” A South Carolina director who oversees 600 consultants, Hucks is a former lawyer, stay-at-home mom, and self-described conservative. Though she’d never before gotten involved in politics, she is now one of the company’s most compelling leaders. “When we were in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office talking to his chief of staff last year, he said, ‘Let me get this straight. You’re a self-regulating company, but you’re here asking for something that’s going to give you more competition if passed?’ And without hesitation I said, ‘Yes, sir, because it’s the right thing to do’ and — this is something Gregg always says — ‘when the tide rises, all ships sail.’”
I ask her why other issues that pertain to health and safety are harder for reaching consensus — healthcare, school-lunch standards, climate change. “I think for a lot of us it gives us that security of having the one thing in our lives we can control,” she says. “When you’re voting and you’re putting in someone else, you don’t have complete control. But if you can control what you put on your body, maybe in the back of your mind it may not matter so much what happens with healthcare if you don’t get sick.” Hucks cares deeply about this issue (“If I can help one more family, it’s worth it to me”) and it’s affected her views on other ones, like the environment. “I rarely vote straight ticket,” she says. “I think because people are learning more, it’s getting harder to put everyone into a nice little neat box.”
A well-referenced “entrepreneurial spirit” also threads through consultants’ narratives, supporting the company’s pro-commerce and pro-regulation stance. “Don’t forget that every consultant is ultimately a small-business owner,” noted one named Kristen, a registered Independent who tends to vote Libertarian.
“If you’re questioning what you’re putting on your skin, it’s kind of a reminder several times a day of how our federal system is actually failing us,” says Dahl. A DC veteran and expert in toxin reform, she’s optimistic about Beautycounter’s goals in spite of the current administration’s deregulation agenda. “Things have been moving relatively fast, in terms of how much people are talking about this. Historically, some of the best, most well-known consumer safety laws — banning lead in gasoline and pesticide reforms more than 15 years ago — happened under Republican or bipartisan congresses.
“There’s a lot of really big stuff being talked about in Washington right now, and this is not a top-tier issue, and that’s okay,” she says. “These are the kinds of issues that pass when things are this nasty. If you’re a senator, you’re actually going to have to be doing something good to tell your voters. There was a lack of progress on healthcare, there’s a lack of progress on tax and immigration reform. The stuff that’s moving through is topics like ours.”
“Beautycounter has given me renewed faith that we can get things done,” says Laura Stenovac, a managing director from Denver who quit her nonprofit job when Beautycounter outpaced it. Now she oversees 6,500 consultants from all 50 states and Canada that cumulatively bring in millions each month. She’s heavily involved in the Democratic Party, and proud of the work that she did to “deliver her purple state” during the presidential election, but she knows firsthand how divided things are.
“I’m passionate about the fact that this is uniting people who typically don’t get along when it comes to politics,” Stenovac says. “I don’t mention guns. I don’t mention healthcare. But we agree on this. Think about what we could do if more companies took the Beautycounter model, saying: We might not agree on everything, but we agree on this one issue — so let’s work together to make our country better.” She credits the company’s thorough educational efforts for why people are so impassioned and informed in a way that they may not be about other topics. For many, she observes, it’s their first meaningful brush with politics. “Civics 101.”
“What was eye-opening to me is that it only takes 10 to 15 calls about a certain matter for a congressman to start noticing that it’s important,” says Hucks.
Nearly 10 consultants were interviewed for this piece, and all observed that their work with Beautycounter had made them act on other issues, from human trafficking to chemicals in mattresses. “I think a byproduct of our work at Beautycounter has really been that women — men too, but mostly women — are becoming really empowered in what it means to be a part of our democracy,” notes Dahl. “We get emails all the time that say, ‘I wouldn’t have thought to do this before, but they’re using pesticides at my kids’ school and I want to do something about it.’ Or ‘I don’t like the school lunches that they’re serving.’ They’re showing up for marches they never would have marched in before.”
Advocacy groups will tell you that getting people to show up is hard. A 2013 Pew Study on Civic Engagement found that just 39 percent of American adults had contacted a government official or spoken out in a public forum about an issue that’s important to them. What does it mean when a business succeeds in getting people to do it? “There are always questions when a for-profit company is engaging in policy advocacy, about how self-interested that advocacy work is. So there’s always a reason for consumers to look critically,” says Erin Martin, general counsel and VP for Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “But on the other hand, it’s sort of refreshing to see a company weigh in on the side of greater regulation. You don’t see that often, even though in many instances, greater regulation does have real economic benefits.”
Beautycounter doesn’t want you to separate its activism from its profits. “We don't find any conflict in managing the bottom line of the company with our advocacy work,” says Renfrew, who made Beautycounter a business and not a nonprofit because she wanted to “Give people options for safer products to use today.” In that way, the model fuels two fires, offering quicker, more immediate solutions for consumers while chipping away at slower legislative hurdles. Consultants solve an everyday safety issue, see themselves as part of something larger and legacy-making — and they make money.
“Trying to help people and make money at the same time — I personally think that’s the way to change things in America,” notes one named Karen.
Will we have makeup to thank for a generation of women engaging in politics? “We’re just getting our feet wet, but I think that’s a great question for two years from now,” says Stenovac, who has personally been motivated by the grassroots campaign. “This has made me hopeful. Between Beautycounter and my work in the 2016 election, it’s made me think that at some point, there’s going to be politics in my future.”