Small batch beauty: could scaling down be the key to sustainability?

2020 has drastically changed our beauty shopping habits. Here, we put small batch beauty production under the microscope to see if it could change the beauty industry for the better. 

Sustainability has long been at the forefront of conversations about the future of the beauty industry. As consumers, we’ve become increasingly conscious of our purchasing choices. Is this product cruelty-free? Is this packaging recyclable? Does the brand meet our environmental expectations?

And now, in 2020, sustainable, ethical and conscious beauty is no longer reserved for independent beauty brands; it is the new standard. Big name brands like L’Occitane and The Body Shop have begun partnering with recycling initiatives like Terracycle, while others have made moves to cut questionable ingredients like palm oil from their products. Mass brands have begun to experiment with refillables, whilst small brands have launched campaigns like We are Paradoxx’s Plastic Free Beauty Day. However, as beneficial as these moves have been, we’re beginning to realise that this is only half of the sustainability story. 

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Just look at the stats: since 1950, only 9% of the world’s plastic waste has been recycled. Around 12% is still burned. With such an alarming majority of our waste still going to landfill or out into nature (including plastic in our oceans); the move towards cleaner, greener beauty should remain the aim, but it’s clear that cleaning up beauty is much bigger task than how we recycle our dispenser pumps. Instead, it’s time to start looking at how many products are made. And that’s exactly why small batch beauty is having a moment. 

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Small batch beauty is a beauty production method in which products are made in much smaller amounts than is conventional. In this form of production, products are typically handmade rather than made by machines, and it allows brands to minimise waste and avoid overproduction.

The number of products made can be as as low as 100 units per shade or scent and, more often than not, there’s below 5000 units in each production run. This means small batch production is also either low or zero emission. Smaller quantities can also allow for the use of natural preservatives (or no preservatives at all), which in turn means strict use by dates – there won’t ever be loads of stock stored up in warehouses.

Small batch production is not a new phenomenon. One woman leading the charge is Olivia Thorpe, founder of Vanderohe. For her, reduced production sizes are not only more ethical, but also allows her to create the best products for her customers. 

“The customer receives a product that has undergone scrupulous human quality control but also a lot of love, care and attention,” she explains. She compares small batch beauty to the restaurant world. “Michelin-starred establishments have a small number of covers specifically to ensure that the food served is nothing short of perfect.” 

It’s also an environmental game changer. Vanderohe “blend by hand with no machinery running day and night [so] there is zero carbon footprint in the production process.” But there’s also a significant reduction in waste. “Any errors during production can be mitigated on a very small scale, resulting in very little waste. An error caused by machinery could result in huge batches having to be discarded.” 

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Alexia Inge, co-founder of Cult Beauty, believes that small batch production is also better for beauty lovers because it “ensures that consumers have access to the freshest products available.” For skincare, this freshness allows for “the active ingredients to be at their most potent and therefore most effective.” 

She also highlights the direct benefit to the environment. “Small batch production tends to support a more sustainable form of farming, avoiding mass monoculture production which is terrible for biodiversity and therefore the environment,” she explains. However, she flags that ultimately the move across to small batch for big beauty brands depends on a change in profit margin strategy that may not be as attractive to customers.

That’s often why it’s only the smaller, independent beauty brands that opt for this form of production. But one big name brand that’s recently experimented with reduced product quantities is MAC. Back in June, it released its first Underground Collection, a product drop made exclusively for loyalty program members.

But unlike the brand’s launches that have come before, there were only 1,000 hand-numbered Extra Dimension Skin Finish compacts produced. This enabled them to “ensure that [M.A.C] didn’t overproduce or end up with excess inventory,” as Ukonwa Ojo, Global Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President, Global Marketing of M∙A∙C Cosmetic explains to Stylist. According to her, the precious stock of this particular highlighter “sold out in a matter of 55 minutes.” 

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It must be noted that the main selling point was exclusivity, rather than sustainability. However, because of the positive response so far, the brand plans “at least one M·A·C Underground drop per quarter, with the next launch in the early fall.” The positive response and limited nature of the collection has ultimately demonstrated something new: big beauty doesn’t always have to equal bigger quantities. 

Whether this launch provides the blueprint for other big brands looking for a more sustainable approach to manufacturing, only time will tell. But as for now, here are some of the best small batch beauty brands to consider when you’re next stocking up.

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The best small batch beauty brands

  • Vanderohe


    Created as a result of extensive research into organic plant oils in a quest to find a remedy for severe allergy dermatitis, Vanderohe is a small batch beauty brand that cares.

    Founded by Oliva Thorpe, Vanderohe is 100% organic, only uses 100% cotton and forest-friendly packaging and even donates a portion of profits to Marine Saver, a leading marine conservation team. The debut product, Vanderohe’s No1 Nourishing Face Serum is the stuff of skincare dreams. Containing rosehip oil and soothing chamomile oil, it’s the perfect addition to any skincare routine, even those with sensitive skin

    Vanderohe No1 Nourishing Face Serum, £88 

  • Maya Njie


    Maya Njie (pronounced ‘Maia En-jai’) is a London-based small batch fragrance brand. It’s artisanal scents are inspired by the founder’s Swedish grandparent’s idyllic summer home, combined with the soul of her Gambian and Senegalese heritage. Eau de Parfum in Vanilj is a nod to traditional Swedish combinations of vanilla and cardamom and comes spiced up by punchy patchouli.

    Maya Njie’s Eau de Parfum in Vanilj, £85

  • Emolyne


    The slogan of this London-based make-up brand is ‘Your Shade, Your Rules’. Emolyne was borne out of its founder Emolyne Ramlov’s frustration with the one-size-fits-all approach to make-up adopted by most of the industry. With 30 shades across their lipsticks, liners and gel polishes, spanning rich red to neutral hues, you are bound to find something to suit you. The aptly named Metamorphosis Gel Lacquer is perfect for anyone who has finally aced the at-home manicure

    Emolyne Metamorphosis Gel Lacquer, £11

  • Neighbourhood Botanicals


    Neighbourhood Botanicals has fast become slow beauty’s cover girl. All of its formulas are natural, made with ECO-CERT ingredients, are cruelty free and vegan. In early 2020 the brand opened its very own lab in Leyton, east London to scale up, without compromising on sustainability. Sunday Morning Dry Shampoo is perfect for those ‘in between hair wash days’.

    Neighbourhood Botanicals Sunday Morning Dry Shampoo, £17

  • The Glowcery

    Best lip scrubs: The Glowcery Coconut Crumble – Superfood Natural Lip Scrub

    Vegan, check. Cruelty-free, check. The Glowcery is a plant-based, planet-friendly, small batch brand. Formulating in small batches allows the brand to keep their energy emissions low and preserves the freshness and quality of the products. The Coconut Crumble Lip Scrub is proof great things come in small packages. 

    The Coconut Crumble Lip Scrub, £12

  • Skandinavisk


    Skandinavisk’s Lempi Hand Cream was designed to nourish and protect skin from cold winds, low humidity, and harsh climates, but as we continue to wash our hands more freaquently than ever, its rich formulation is a must-have for all.

    Skandinavisk’s Lempi Hand Cream, £20

  • Afrocenchix


    Black hair has long been overlooked in the beauty industry. After being disappointed by countless products that claimed to be great for afro hair on the high street, friends Joycelyn and Rachael decided to make their own, launching a clean UK beauty brand with environmentally conscious packaging: Afrocenchix. The brand’s first product, Soothe Hair Oil, is perfect for injecting moisture into summer braided styles. 

    Afrocenchix Soothe Hair Oil, £15.99

  • MDM Flow


    MDM Flow is small batch cruelty-free beauty brand that takes its inspiration from street style and youth culture. Its inclusive colour cosmetics range consists of bright, bold, high quality shades that are suitable for all skin tones. Milkshake is a bubblegum pink hue that works on deep through to light skin tones. 

    MDM Flow Lipstick in Milkshake, £15

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