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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2004 : Cover Story

Cover Story

Sustainability from Within
For those who believe that beauty is only skin deep, meet Dominique Conseil, a native Frenchman who now heads the Minnesota-based Aveda Corp, a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of personal care and lifestyle products and services. Beauty, Conseil argues, is a good and fundamental thing. It affects people’s lives in many positive ways: it influences their self-esteem, it can heal and cure, it can make people become more confident. Beauty can make people succeed and feel good about themselves—and thus become better persons.

by Penny Bonda and Katie Sosnowchik


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“When people are not bitter and sad about their own situation in life, they are good to others, too,” he says.

This fundamental belief in the holistic power of beauty is one that Conseil shares with Horst Rechelbacher, founder of Aveda—and is one of two primary philosophies that have guided the company’s operations for nearly three decades. The other is described in Rechelbacher’s founding vision for the company: “Aveda’s products can only come from Mother Nature, but should not be manufactured at her expense.”

Or, as Conseil says, “It’s only beautiful if it’s also good.”

Lots of people talk about beauty from within, Conseil explains, or how something can move you emotionally because of its beauty. But, he says, “tell me how you did it, too. Because if you did it at the expense of people’s health, or the planet’s well-being, then it cannot be beautiful.”

And so Conseil believes that sustainability, like beauty, must come from within. This conviction, shared by many of Aveda’s nearly 2,000 employees, kept the company on course through some rather tumultuous changes: a purchase by Estee Lauder in 1997; Rechelbecher’s departure as president (he is still involved with the company as a consultant and with the Aveda Institute); a huge influx of capital from a new parent company that resulted in rapidly increasing sales and a workforce that tripled during a six-year period; and, finally, a period of remote management before Conseil took residency in 2000 as president, headquartered in the company’s Blaine, MN, facility.

It has survived these changes, Conseil notes, because its dedication to the environment is part of its culture and not a marketing position. “Aveda has more than 25 years of evolution of people working together and it’s very precious and it’s very, very powerful,” he comments. “And it can change the industry—it is changing the industry.”

“We are not huge in any way, but we can be a catalyst for change,” adds Mary Tkach, executive director, environmental responsibility for Aveda. “We can be the activist voice out there that helps move other businesses, within and outside of our industry.

“Our packaging, from an environmental perspective, far surpasses anyone in the industry,” she continues. “And I think our ingredients—the quality and functionality of our products—are exceptional. And there’s our corporate donations and our network of people who are constantly donating time and energy to all sorts of social and environmental causes—I believe that Aveda the network and Aveda the company are really out in front of a lot of issues.”

Tkach’s role in the company is multifaceted, serving simultaneously as the provider of sustainable tools and resources, the big-picture thinker charged with identifying long-term trends and issues, as well as being a kind of internal watchdog, making sure that programs and projects are on track with the corporate mission.

The oversight and safeguarding of product and package sourcing and manufacturing is fundamental to the Aveda mission and serves as the foundation upon which it strives to support values that cultivate sustainable economies and cultures. It promotes sustainable development by seeking to protect the Earth’s natural heritage from degradation and by contributing to the restoration of environments that sustain biodiversity. Among its most notable projects:

* a partnership with the Yawanawa tribe in the Brazilian Amazon to organically grow the urukum palm tree, which produces a red seed-pigment that is used in lip, cheek and eye color;

* an alliance with Conservation International to help local communities in the Madre de Dios territory of Peru to develop environmentally friendly businesses that encourage the conservation of their natural resources, including the production of a protein complex called morikue that nourishes hair;

* a growing partnership with local collectives in an eastern Amazonian region of Brazil that gather, harvest and sell nuts from babassu palm trees, from which a foaming cleansing ingredient called babassu betaine is produced. Since initiating the partnership six years ago, Aveda also has financed the construction of a babassu processing facility, a soap- making facility, a paper press for processing babassu fibers and has funded corresponding training in processing and management.

Finally, Aveda’s Earth Fundsm provides a formal means for the company to “give back to society.” The Earth Fund directs corporate financial resources to a broad range of organizations that actively engage individuals and local leaders in protecting the sacredness of a healthy environment. In the past two years, the Earth Fund has supported programs focused on reducing the threats to biodiversity; one of those is a four-year partnership with the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation and the United Nations Environment Programme to develop new approaches for protecting the 700 places on the planet that have been designated World Heritage Sites because they possess “outstanding universal value” for all humanity.

green@work recently visited Aveda’s ISO 14001-certified facility in Minnesota to talk with Conseil about the company’s strategies and vision, and about what he believes makes this company a sustainable business model.

WHAT PATHS LED YOU TO AVEDA?


CONSEIL:
I think about this often because sometimes life, if you look at it in pieces, doesn’t always make sense. But then, sometimes, later in your life, you find out how a combination of events brings your life work. When I chose how to start my business career, I chose marketing, not because I had been well prepared in it, but because in marketing I found an interesting search for answers about people, what they do, what they believe in. Marketing is a kind of anthropology. You get a tribe of consumers, try to understand their worth, their beliefs, their work‚ so, that’s one piece.

Then I spent a lot of time in Asia, and Asian thinking influenced me. The last piece is the environment. I was not extremely environmentally aware until about 12 years ago, when I was living in southeast Asia in fast-developing countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand. I started to wonder about the cost of all that fast development—what were we destroying at the same time as we were building? That impacted me. I had no clue what the concept of sustainable development was, but I was thinking along those lines, trying to understand how growth could happen in a good way.

I remember a trip on the Mekong River. On one side of the river was Laos, on the other was Thailand. The Laos side had beautiful, very lush, tropical forests—a very unspoiled type of nature. On the Thai side were semi-arid hills with very small bushes, sandy, turning into a desert. On that day I saw the effect of uncontrolled development. That picture changed something in me forever—I realized our responsibility in what we do and how it can hurt our environment.

When I lived in Japan, I got educated into sorting my household waste in seven categories. Some prefectures in Japan now sort in 17 categories. Plus, I met a person who is important to me who is an environmentalist—at the time she worked for the Japanese equivalent of the EPA. She taught me a lot of things about the technicalities of the environment. And that’s where I started to gain some knowledge on top of my interest.

All of these elements somehow came together when I had the opportunity to join Aveda, where here it’s about a connection with indigenous people. Anthropology taught me to accept and to value differences and not to judge.

DID AVEDA FIND YOU OR DID YOU FIND AVEDA?

CONSEIL:
When Estee Lauder acquired Aveda I was working with L’Oreal. I was curious why I had never heard about Aveda. So, I started doing some research and the more I looked into it, the more I thought it was very interesting. I thought that one day I would like to do something like this. Then, three years later, they came to me with an offer and they must have been surprised at the speed with which I said yes—because my decision was made mentally three years before. I came very committed to do my best for this great idea. I discovered that Aveda really has pure and good intentions—there is a little light in the darkness of the beauty world. My duty is to take care of it and make sure it doesn’t go out. So, that’s what I’m doing. The beauty business, when it’s well done, is not a superficial thing.

YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL LEADERSHIP IN THIS INDUSTRY IS WELL-KNOWN HAS IT CONTRIBUTED TO AVEDA'S SUCCESS?


CONSEIL:
It’s a case of the chicken and the egg. I have no evidence, but I really think that our consumers and the professionals who support us have the same values that this company has built itself on. Because of that, we owe our customers everything. There would be no wealth in this company without them. So, by definition, yes, success comes from who we are and who our customers are.

DO YOU THINK YOUR CUSTOMERS ALSO KNOW ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL AGENDA THAT'S BEHIND THEM?

CONSEIL:
Unfortunately, not always. There is a core inside our consumer base that knows and this core owns the brand. This is a core I don’t want to disappoint; I feel I’m accountable to these people. Other customers don’t necessarily understand the same things, but they are influential people who are active in their communities and their knowledge will diffuse to others. I think, slowly, we will get there.

HOW WOULD AVEDA BE DIFFERENT IF THIS WAS JUST GOOD MARKETING?

CONSEIL: My personal belief is that nothing that is fake is sustainable. Very simply, I don’t believe in telling lies to people; it’s not a part of who we are. I don’t have any evidence, but what I can say for sure is this: given everything we want to do outside the business to give back to the environment, our bottom line certainly doesn’t suffer. This alone is very big and is one of my agendas—every time I have a chance to talk to business people, I want to tell them that. I want to tell them that you can do plenty of good things and it will not hurt your bottom line.

CAN YOU PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE?

CONSEIL: Take energy conservation. We use a lot of heat in our manufacturing processes. Less and less, though, because we discovered that some cold processes are much better for the environment and still make good products. When you conserve energy, you help your bottom line because you cut your electricity and gas bills. It’s just common sense.

What’s wonderful is that when you do something for good reasons, the universe responds to it. Another example: we wanted to get rid of plant sanitization techniques that we felt were not organic. In America, most companies, whether it’s food or personal care, irradiate. We thought that irradiation was not in our philosophy. But we have a commitment to provide safe products to our customers. So I challenged the organization to find a modern way to sanitize plant materials that would not involve irradiation. And they came up with something simple and brilliant—an evolution of the autoclave technique. The result? We can use this technique for most of our plant materials and we got a fantastic business result that we never expected. The yield of our plant materials is six times more, so we are saving tons of money. It’s as if the plants, who were previously not well-treated, were saying, “You guys have been good to us. Now that you are treating us in a humane way, we will do something good to you, too.”

HOW ABOUT PACKAGING?


CONSEIL:
We are quite fanatic about post-consumer recycled content. Some, for instance, are made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. They are not ugly. They are not completely pure in the sense that they’re perfectly transparent, but who wouldn’t call this beautiful? It relates to what I said about beauty being good. It’s more beautiful because it’s the right thing.

We broke another paradigm with refillable lipsticks. Everybody said we were crazy—ladies have so much pride in having a beautiful lipstick in their hands—we were going against a fundamental of the industry. Well, we increased our sales of lipstick by 40 percent. And a core of people wrote us to say it was a great move and they love our refills.

BUT YOUR PACKAGING DOSEN'T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT ITS CONTENT.

CONSEIL:
We are very, very bad at talking about these things. That’s something we need to improve. But, at the same time, the Aveda culture in me says that if we make this a marketing positioning, then it’s not our culture anymore. It simply becomes a marketing positioning, which we don’t want it to be. It’s a fine line.

YET YOU MAKE MARKETING DECISIONS, ESPECIALLY AS YOUR PRODUCTS ARE SOLD ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY THROUGH YOUR OWN STORES AND NOT DEPARTMENT STORES.

CONSEIL: When you own a brand like Aveda, you could go for the big bucks and franchise the thing. Yes, there would be serious dollars made in the short-term, but Aveda is about the culture. If you franchise, what guarantee do you have that a business person who buys a franchise has the same passion? In our own stores, we are responsible. If it doesn’t happen, it’s our fault. Our salons don’t have to fear that we will suddenly distribute our products to their neighbors without telling them. And we can sleep at night because we know these people are committed to the mission of Aveda. If you franchise this, it will just be about the dollars. So it cannot work as a marketing positioning; it would be greenwash.


SO YOUR CULTURE IS ALSO IMPORTANT TO YOUR EMPLOYEES?

CONSEIL:
Our people are empowered by the mission. After the takeover by Estee Lauder, there had not been a president residing here in Blaine for a while, so I felt it was a turning point. Some people thought that I was only about the mission; others were concerned I was only about the business. It seemed to me more important to connect to the mission. It was a great renewal. In any society you always have a critical mass of undecided individuals—good people with good intentions, but who want to know where leadership is going before they take risks. So, not only did the hard line mission promoters do what they had to do, but the undecided individuals got completely aligned, too.

IS AVEDA SETTING BENCHMARKS FOR OTHERS IN THE BEAUTY PRODUCTS INDUSTRY?

CONSEIL:
This the future will tell. We certainly hope so, because our mission calls for environmental leadership, which means that you lead by example, positively and negatively. That’s why we publish an honest CERES report. Anyone can see what we do wrong. We want this to help others. We want to diffuse this knowledge. Why? One, because we don’t want to own it because then it’s greenwash and it’s not the culture. Number two: we cannot create change if we don’t start in our own industry and with our own competitors. So we have to be generous. Third, if more people buy these materials then costs will come down and that will benefit everybody. It’s like the rising tide that lifts all the boats.

HAS AVEDA HAD ANY INFLUENCE ON ESTE LAUDER?

CONSEIL:
I think it goes both ways. Estee Lauder has helped us very much in a number of ways. For example, when working with suppliers on the purity of raw materials, we very quickly realized that the quantities we buy are nothing compared to what some big companies are buying. So some suppliers would say, “Well, you’re very nice, but we’re not going to change our process just because of you.” But then Estee Lauder said that they had an interest, too, which adds bargaining power. Had we been all by ourselves, perhaps we would still not be there. So it goes both ways.

WHAT IS THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE IN THE WAY AVEDA MAKES PRODUCTS VERSUS SOME OF THE OTHER COSMETIC MAKERS?


CONSEIL: We use a process at the beginning of product development called a mission aligned ingredient review. Let me explain. Product development starts when someone has an idea. They write a paper called a preliminary idea form to explain the idea—what they would like the product to do, what it looks like, what it smells like. This form goes to R & D, who then has to respond with feasibility lead times. Two years ago we added the mission aligned ingredient review, which means that at the very early stage, R & D has to list and explain the origins of the ingredients. Is it a plant material? A mineral material? A petrol-chemical material? We have a rule to use petrol-chemicals only when nothing else is available, so we may question a product and decide not to do it. Everything is documented. Then we decide whether it aligns with our mission. It becomes our responsibility as a management team. There are two people who have veto power over product development: Mary Tkach, head of environmental sustainability, and David Hircock, my advisor for sustainability affairs. If they don’t sign, it won’t happen. I don’t know of any company who has empowered two team members to make sure that we stay aligned to our mission.

WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST ENVIRONMENTAL AND BUSINESS CHALLENGES?

CONSEIL:
We are at a stage where we have made some progress on not hurting the environment too much. Now we are at the point of dreaming—of not hurting it at all. So we are working on a zero waste project. It’s difficult because we make more than 500 SKUs, but we want to get there.

Of course the big challenge is how to have a restorative agenda, one where you are not only not hurting the environment, but contributing to it. You could argue that we do that through fundraising, but doing it through our manufacturing activity, that’s a different story. It’s very exciting and a whole new era.

In terms of business, the challenge is to control our growth at a rate that we can control quality, and we don’t change our nature.

Anyone can do what we do. It’s not complicated and it can make such a huge difference. The benefit is that if more companies start doing a few right things for the planet, they will give their employees a wider sense of purpose. They will create a group of passionate people instead of creating just a group of professionals. We have to convince them that the future of the planet is a good reason to do things differently.


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