Americans didn’t have a solution to sweaty, foul body odors until Edna Murphey, the antiperspirant pioneer, convinced attendees of the 1912 Atlantic City exposition to smell their armpits on a hot, sunny day.
Since the entrepreneur created her Odorono empire more than a century ago, the deodorant and antiperspirant market has ballooned to nearly $18 billion. And 4 billion plastic tubes that hold these products make their final resting places in oceans, rivers and landfills every year.
While some deodorants and beauty products boast natural ingredients with sustainability in mind, few are displayed in biodegradable packaging or are fully compostable.
Wellow, a new eco-friendly innovator in the deodorant game, is aiming to change the personal hygiene industry from the shelf to the ground.
The deodorant’s push-up tube is made of 95% recycled paper, allowing the consumer to compost or to recycle it once it's gone. The formula, which promises to be just as effective as traditional deodorants, is cruelty-free, derived from natural ingredients, and does not contain aluminum, parabens or toxins.
Waste360 and Wellow Co-Founder Dan Hernden discussed the beauty product industry, the lack of sustainable, plastic-free packaging, and the process of launching a zero-waste product and getting it to market.
Waste360: What was the inspiration behind Wellow?
Dan Hernden: My co-founder and I had both quit our jobs in 2017. We had been working remote jobs. So in traveling around the world, we passed through security a lot, and we ended up losing a lot of our personal care items in the security scanner. We lost a lot of facewash and, and toothpaste and liquid-based products. That was the frustration of traveling. But we also just started to notice all of the waste that's produced in that process. I don't know if you've ever seen in like one of these collection bins at an airport. At security, sometimes you'll see hundreds of thousands of perfectly fine objects, like bottles of face wash, or deodorant sticks, just confiscated and about to be thrown in the garbage. Super wasteful. That opened our eyes to this problem around waste in general.
And then as I traveled, I think as well as each of us traveled, we realized that when you go traveling, you have to strip your belongings down to the bare essentials or whatever you can carry with you. Or whatever you can carry in the suitcase. I found that as I was traveling all I had was a duffel bag for clothes, a backpack or a messenger bag for my laptop. And then you know, toiletries kit, essentially for my hygiene products. And those were the bare essentials that I found I had to travel with, certainly for a weekend trip. And then we realized maybe there's an opportunity here to focus on these hygiene products - on everyday products that are getting confiscated at airports or aren't travel friendly that are causing all of this plastic waste.
From there, that's kind of how we got onto this onto the idea. We researched a little bit more and found out that not only are those problems but we also rarely look at what the ingredients are inside of these products. Oftentimes, we were surprised to find out how many toxins there were, or how many lower-quality chemicals and ingredients. we're putting on our bodies through deodorant and other everyday products. So it really did motivate us to try and solve a couple of problems in one and make,a travel-friendly line of products that we would be proud of. And we've started with deodorant. And we have a few other really exciting innovations to roll out too.
Waste360: What was the process to create a completely fully biodegradable product? How did you go about doing it? What were the challenges?
Hernden: What we first saw was that there is a big desire for sustainable products in the world, but we were not seeing many options on the shelf,. What we saw was products were either too expensive, like they weren't affordable, or they were hard to use or they didn't work. We really started by trying to find which brands, which companies made the best products. This was two years ago. And what we found was we were actually really disappointed with a lot of the options on the shelf. We felt that there wasn't anything really available for the wider world and very discerning customers usually would have to sacrifice something in order to make a purchase like that.
So we did not understand the world of manufacturing. It was new to us. So we rolled up our sleeves and really started educating ourselves on the process of making a deodorant stick. How would we turn that into a zero-waste product? How do we take shampoo and turn it into a no-waste product? How would we get rid of the plastic packaging? How would we turn it into an elevated product experience? How would we list check off all of those criteria that we talked about?
We started by finding recipes and making deodorant formulas ourselves in our kitchen. We reached out to some contacts that we had. My co-founder, one of his relatives worked in that industry years ago, so we just started asking them for advice. We started finding consultants online that could work with us with different formulators. We eventually started getting into working with professional manufacturers and their [research and development] teams internally. We looked far and wide, and ended up settling on working with North American manufacturers and keeping the work local, focusing on really high quality and a reliable supply chain here.
There were a lot of testing rounds, tons of different formulas. We had formed this test panel of customers essentially made of friends and family. And we just kept giving them different samples of deodorant formulas, different deodorant sticks, shampoo – all sorts of different hygiene products. And we received the feedback loud and clear when something wouldn't work. But through that process took about, we feel like we've made a really good deodorant. Possibly like in our minds, it is the best natural deodorant that we've tried, and certainly a zero-waste deodorant. – something that actually can be recycled or composted after use.
Waste360: What opportunities do you see going down the line for products that are sustainability-focused and 100% biodegradable?
Hernden: I will say there are some products that are easier to reinvent than others. Some products may not need a big reinvention; others need to be completely rethought. And it depends on a few factors. The biggest issue that we've run into is liquids. Our goal has been to try and get rid of liquids in our products as much as possible. When you don't need liquids, you don't need plastic packaging. So it's hard because some products really are better in liquid form. Deodorant is not one of those products, luckily. Body wash and soap are not necessarily one of those products. We lean into products that are a little more straightforward to turn into liquid or turn from liquid into a solid. But I would say some products are really good in liquid form.
We are now investing a lot more time and effort into R&D on some of these more difficult products to switch over. Even getting deodorant right was really difficult. A lot of deodorants are water-based formulas. And trying to replicate that experience without using water, it's really tough. I would say the other challenge we were excited about was some of these new materials that we're hearing I will say there are some products that are easier to reinvent than others. Some products may not need a big reinvention; others need to be completely rethought.
I would say the other challenge was we were excited about some of these new materials that we're hearing a lot of buzz about in the sustainability world. I'll refer to products like bioplastics or some products or some packaging options that we've been seeing come up to market. The issue that we quickly ran into was although they advertise as compostable, or recyclable, that's just a manufacturing claim. So the manufacturer is allowed to make that claim. But often, it's actually not accepted at a local level. If you get too much of these bioplastics in the recycling stream, it actually degrades the quality of plastic.
And the same with composting. We were very surprised to hear how few Americans have access to composting. Less than 5 percent of Americans have no active composting programs locally – versus if you look at countries like countries in Europe or if you look at Canada – it's a much more advanced industry, or there are many more options for people. On that point, a lot of these bioplastics that will advertise as being compostable. They are compostable under very certain conditions, very certain circumstances.
And it just caused a big challenge for us because it meant, okay, well, we don't want to be part of fake news. We don't want to participate in greenwashing; we want to create something that actually meets all the criteria that we set out. We want this to be the real deal. And we want to create these sustainable products that people love, and that are super convenient and you know, really helping relieve people of any guilt. And it's been, I would say, that's the hardest thing so far for us. It has been how do we recreate some of these everyday products that we're so we used to, we're so accustomed to, but doing it without plastic packaging? And without, something new and exciting that we might get in trouble for down the road, – for instance, bioplastics or another mixed-use material packaging.
Waste360: According to Dun and Bradstreet, the global personal care products industry will have a market value of you know, $500 billion. Where does this industry need to go to become more sustainable and reduce waste and reduce the toxins in its products?
Hernden: I think a lot of this starts with this question. We have thought about this a lot, and we've been looking at this question every day for the last two years. There is a surprising amount of change in that can come at the political level, really at the level of citizens. So collective action can lead to change. Look at the personal care industry. I think a lot of the behavior that's being exhibited – this reliance on plastics and waste and toxins – are a lot of people just acting out of habit and doing what they have to do to keep their job and to try and to make the boss happy and just to continue making customers happy. And it can be a very risk-averse industry. And I don't know that there are a lot of visionaries in those companies that are visionaries in that industry really trying to be disruptive and leading the change.
I think that I think change comes from consumers – everyday people like you and myself deciding to be more intentional with what we purchase and with the way we spend our money – the $5 or $10 or $15 for personal care items. It's not a lot of money to spend a tiny bit extra for a better product that also happens to be sustainable. It's something that we can all do.
I think part of it comes with us as individuals changing our habits and changing our values, and I think there was a lot of opportunity for innovative disruptors coming into this industry, – lots of little players, lots of startups like ourselves. And every day, we are learning new things coming out of the world of science, coming out of the world of R&D teams, in materials labs around the world, and from manufacturers.
We are living in possibly the most interesting times and most innovative times ever in human history. And we have access to so much that previous generations did not when it comes to knowledge and understanding and science and technology, and it's changing all the time. There are opportunities to lean into and try new things out. Who only knows what will come out of the next 10 to 20 years of innovation. So I would say it's a collective problem. It requires us to care – first of all as individuals. It's not going to be solved overnight, but we can start. And our goal with Wellow is to provide some optimism and some hope and a path forward. And that's kind of where we're at.