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As consumers search for more sustainable products, cosmetics companies are having to ask themselves how they can further incorporate sustainability into their businesses in new ways. Using recycled plastics and sustainable materials in packaging is a great first step for many beauty companies, but there are many innovative ways to create a sustainable supply chain from ingredient harvesting practices to the ingredients themselves. Today, as zero waste becomes a popular approach to sustainability, beauty companies are looking toward ‘upcycled’ ingredients to improve their own practices. 

Ingredient upcycling

Ingredient upcycling refers to a method of using ingredients in products that would otherwise become food waste in the process of harvesting foods and produce for other industries. Things like seed centers and parts of produce that don’t end up being used in production for other goods would otherwise go to waste. The beauty industry has found a way to use those discarded materials to make new products, allowing for sources in the supply chain to come from new places. This helps cut back on global food waste, which is an aspect of sustainability that is often overlooked.

This method and approach encourages companies in other industries to invest in innovations that research new ways to use plant products that would otherwise be discarded. Le Pruneir, a skin care company that upcycles plum kernels that have been taken from a farm in California and uses them to create beauty products. The company, which sells only one product, found a way to use the entirety of the plum rather than discarding the parts that weren’t necessary for production. It’s plum beauty oil uses cold pressed plum kernels that come from a farm that would otherwise upcycle them to create a beauty product

What led to ingredient upcycling in the first place?

One of the biggest contributing factors to an uptick in trends like ingredient upcycling was the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on supply chains around the world. For many skin care, beauty, and fragrance manufacturers, ingredients that were otherwise readily available suddenly were not because of economic shutdowns in different areas around the globe. Rather than halt production on these products, companies were forced to find new ways to supply ingredients than they did before. 

Ingredient upcycling was a natural pathway to fulfilling those needs that came from changes in supply chains. All over the world, innovations in ingredient usage has allowed for beauty companies to create new products that utilize natural ingredients in new ways. A Danish biotech startup called Kaffe Bueno earned a massive grant this fall to research ways that coffee waste could be repurposed or ‘upcycled’ into beauty products. The company, which has already launched three beauty products that use coffee waste in its production of active ingredients, anticipates that it will have even more products to introduce by Q2 and Q3 of 2021, signaling a dramatic shift in the beauty industry’s ingredient pipeline.

Where do upcycled ingredients come from?

The ingredients that are used in upcycled beauty products often come from major commodity crop farms around the world. Le Prunier, the brand that we mentioned before, harvests its plum kernels from a family-owned plum farm local to California. The farm previously discarded the plum kernels until it found a new use for them, cutting back on its own food waste while finding a new way to stay in business during such an uncertain period of time. 

Other beauty companies that utilize upcycled ingredients work with commodity farms to coordinate the supply. A company that wants to make oil harvested from avocado seeds, for example, could work with a California avocado farm that mass-produces avocado food products like ready-made guacamole to use its discarded food waste to make beauty products. Meanwhile farms that turn tomato pulp into food items often throw away the skins, which happen to be a highly sought after part of the tomato when used in skin care because of its high levels of the antioxidant lycopene. 

Another company called Expanscience uses discarded avocado parts to create an active ingredient in an eye-care product. The avocado product, which comes from Peru, works with local farmers to utilize every part of the avocado. The French company helps cut back on food waste around the world, while advancing innovations in new products.

The cannabis industry is another industry that has a lot of room for growth in upcycled beauty. Hemp seeds, which are a part of the cannabis plant that are not used in recreational or medicinal cannabis products in the legal market, are often used in beauty products. As CBD becomes a massive trend among millennial and generation z consumers, there is major marketing value in utilizing upcycled cannabis ingredients in beauty products, especially since hemp seed oil is an effective active ingredient. 

Is all of this sanitary? How does this affect product safety?

This process is no different from using ingredients that have been harvested specifically for that product. The concept behind upcycling ingredients is that instead of using things like hemp seed oil, avocado seeds or plum kernels that have been harvested from farms that grow the products specifically for that purpose, they’re sourced from commodity crop farms that farm the same product for different reasons. For example, a farm that grows oranges to be used to make orange juice might throw away several tons of orange peels each week. Rather than letting those orange peels go to waste, upcycled beauty companies would buy those orange peels to be used in their product, rather than grow those same oranges for a different purpose and throw the fruit away. 

An estimated twenty billion pounds of food waste is discarded during each year from commodity farms in the United States, and that number only accounts for food waste that comes from commodity farming. Ingredient upcycling can not only cut back on that food waste, but encourage other consumer industries to find new ways to utilize the things that we already have at our disposal rather than produce new goods—especially as the climate crisis only becomes more of an urgent problem. 

To get more insights about this topic and understand better the key suppliers, read our interviews with Turner Wyatt, CEO at the Upcycled Food Association and the two thought leading suppliers Full Circle and Renmatix.