London-based ethical cosmetics brand The Soap Co has two aims. One of these is to create effective luxury cosmetics – from richly moisturising lotions to relaxing bath oils – using natural ingredients and eco-friendly methods. The other – by no means secondary – concern is to provide jobs and training to people who are blind, disabled or who are otherwise disadvantaged. All of its products are handcrafted in the UK by employees who might struggle to get work elsewhere.
We spoke to The Soap Co’s inspirational founder, Camilla Marcus-Dew, about how she managed to create a successful and – crucially – profitable luxury beauty business without ever compromising on ethics.
What inspired you to launch The Soap Co?
I have always had a keen interest in ingredients, mostly from an environmental perspective, but also based on what is function and what is fashion. More and more consumers are questioning what exactly goes into the cosmetics products that they use and this is a great trend to be part of. I think transparency is a great thing of course and, indeed, I think we all agree it’s a consumer right.
Creating a luxury bath and beauty brand that was free from many of the potentially problematic chemicals often used, that was a truly planet-friendly product and that offered consumers an informed choice based on truly strong ethics: these were all major drivers.
Perhaps above all, I wanted to change the status quo for business and, at the same time, change the way people perceive giving. It’s not about asking for donations, but more about making great products that people want to buy to create more jobs for people who really need them. The reason we exist is to be able to employ blind, visually impaired and otherwise disabled people in a supportive environment.
How did you go about starting the brand?
I wanted to prove that it is possible to create a luxury brand with a heart – where there really is no compromise. People are fascinated to know how products are made today. So prioritising transparency and honesty in all that we do was important. I also wanted our customers to have a sense of engagement with our employees and each person’s unique story. I felt it so important to talk about who is crafting the products.
I was inspired to tell the story of a luxury bath and beauty range made by people with varying degrees of disability, that operates as a competitive business, with all the protocols, acumen and attention to detail you would expect from the current industry leaders and giants.
Being a high-end product, we had much more space to ask, ‘how exactly do we make this soap the very best it can be?’. If you’re selling soap for 99p, it’s totally impossible to create a really high-quality, sustainably sourced and green product. For those making mass-produced soaps at low cost, it becomes much more about creating a functional formulation and trying to sell tens of millions of units in every country in order to recoup the cost of production.
It’s a very different philosophy for us. We wanted to show that, as a social enterprise, we can compete with the big hitters in the luxury beauty sector without compromising our social, eco and business ethics.
How has it developed since first launching?
We started out with our Original collection of luxury hand washes and hand lotions in three fragrances – Black Poppy & Wild Fig, Citrus and White Tea. More recently we launched our Eco & Bee Friendly collection in our fabulous Wild Nettle & Sage and Geranium & Rhubarb scents – not forgetting our Fragrance Free product too. Every bottle sold in this range helps 10 to 20 bees.
In response to rising demand for vegan and natural products, we launched our 100% natural bath oils and body oils earlier this year – the perfect antidote to the rigours of modern life. Luxurious, elegant and enriched with antioxidants and vitamins, they embrace the power of aromatherapy and botanical oils. Every 300 bottles sold creates one transitional job with us. And they really do help help you unwind, detox, renew, uplift or simply indulge.
Can you tell us more about The Soap Co’s parent company Clarity and how this social enterprise works?
Clarity Employment For Blind People is a registered charity and one of the UK's foremost social enterprises, employing, training and supporting people with disabilities to create high-quality toiletries, soap and cleaning products. Established in 1854, the social enterprise was created with a mission to create employment, to provide training and to help visually impaired people to build skills, confidence and independence. Over our history we have extended that mission to include people with other disabilities as well as those disadvantaged in other ways. We have helped many thousands in this way, and at any one time we support more than 100 people. We also strive to minimise our environmental impact by sourcing ingredients in the UK, manufacturing locally, using recyclable materials, and avoiding any nasty chemicals.
All your products are made in the UK. Why is this so important?
There are a few answers to this important question. I think above all we want to support UK manufacturing and influence its processes and ethical standards where we can. The UK manufacturing sector has a great reputation for its skills around the world. I think to be able to say that our products are made in the UK is a big selling point.
We also encourage our staff to go into UK manufacturing after they leave us with a renewed sense of confidence and much to contribute.
Naturally there are also other benefits – smaller distances for delivery and sourcing of ingredients means less carbon emissions, for example.
Overall, I think we can be very proud that our products are made in the UK.
You’re known for chic and minimal packaging. What’s the story behind the The Soap Co aesthetic?
I wanted the brand look to reflect the naturalness, beauty and simplicity of the product and ingredients. We worked closely with the brilliant Paul Belford design agency to hone and realise my vision. I felt that the ultra-clean and streamlined bottle shape would work well with simple bold branding and with raised braille as the outstanding feature. We won a prestigious D&AD Pencil for Design award in 2016, which we are all very proud of.
What is your favourite product from the collection?
I would pick out our signature Geranium & Rhubarb Eco Hand Lotion from the new Eco & Bee Friendly collection. It is enriched with vitamins, geranium oil and natural bee-friendly borage and calendula botanicals, and is complemented by our matching hand wash that contains softening sugar esters from coconut. They are readily biodegradable and aren’t harmful to aquatic life.
The products are carefully crafted from natural, vegan and eco-certified ingredients, and free from SLS, SLES, PEGs, triclosan, synthetic colour, DEA, petrochemicals, silicones, EDTA, parabens, artificial colours, mineral oils and TEA. Enriched with organic cocoa butter, vitamins and antioxidants, our lotions are brilliant at nourishing and hydrating the skin – we are really proud of the range and reviews have been great.
We use borage and calendula oils in our Eco & Bee Friendly collection because these plants have long flowering seasons compared to lavender and heather, reducing the risk of bee colonies starving over the June nectar gap and providing a regular source of nectar after August for last-minute pre-winter nectar collection.
I also love our soap pebbles! The wool for the soap pebbles is sustainably sourced from local Herdwick sheep in the Lake District and has amazing anti-bacterial properties while also being mildly exfoliating. The wool casing enables the soap inside to last longer, helping with our sustainability ethos and also supporting local farmers.
Which products should be on our shopping list this summer?
Our bath and body oils really are an indulgence! Laced with jojoba and packed full of antioxidants, they are fabulous pick-me-ups. And The Soap Co is all set to bring a new fragrance out to add to our Eco & Bee Friendly Collection. Our gorgeous Mulberry & Amber scent will be available towards the end of July.
We are also going to make The Soap Co’s beautiful, rich shampoo available very soon and everyone should look out for the big launch of our great new Beco brand – a playful and adventurous sister brand – in major high-street and online retailers at the start of July. There is a lot going on.
Is there any one achievement at The Soap Co you’re particularly proud of?
I believe that we hold a unique position in the cosmetics industry – one I am very proud of indeed. Out of our 114 staff, 80% have a disability or a long-term health condition. The majority of our staff are registered disabled and everyone has their own story. Some of my team have learning difficulties, epilepsy or long-term health conditions. Others have had accidents later in life which have caused a major shift in what they are able to do. One team member had reconstructive back surgery after a car accident, and after about three years of lying down, was ready to come back into the workplace. With us, they can thrive, getting the support they need to re-build their confidence and learn new skills to help them move onwards and upwards in their career. The braille on the front of our packaging sometimes leads people to believe that we’re all about visual impairment, which isn’t entirely correct.
I feel very proud of our staff and think that we stand alone in this sector with our dedicated social action credentials. We greatly admire other social enterprise brands such as Change Please and Thankyou which both do much to give back to society in various ways – but in the luxury bath and beauty sector, I think we stand alone and we are also pretty unique as we manufacture ourselves.
What does the future hold for The Soap Co?
Well we certainly are never content to rest on our laurels! We have recently taken on two brilliant business development managers to help us bring our products both to consumers and businesses. As mentioned, we are also about to launch a new eco-brand in both a bar soap and foam that will be available in the summer of 2018, both online and in store at major retailers – which we are naturally thrilled about. It’s a great water-saving product and lessens plastic usage too. In addition, our sophisticated new bath and body oils are now available and proving popular. Looking to the future, we remain dedicated to supporting and helping more and more people into work who truly need it and that means building brand awareness and increasing sales – so spread the word!