If there’s a sliver of good news during the current COVID-19 pandemic (and, good lord, we need some) it’s the decreasing air pollution and positive environmental impact caused by human beings, well, just staying at home. As I pop to the local park for my allotted daily exercise, I’m noticing an abundance of wildlife and fauna and fewer bits of litter. I also live in a busy flight path which has been rendered silent.
For years, activists have lobbied governments to declare a climate emergency and while many people were beginning to listen, change continued to move at a disturbingly slow pace particularly when it came to consumer culture. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom as there was also a significant rise in smaller, local businesses attempting to be as ethical as possible. One such company is Pure Lakes, a Cumbria-based award-winning skincare company whose products are created with high-quality natural ingredients and are packaged minimally using environmentally friendly methods. Founded by Sandra and Iain Blackburn in 2006, Pure Lakes was bought by Gareth and Claire McKeever in 2016 and the pair continue to grow the business in line with its founding principles.
So why is sustainability important to Pure Lakes? “We see ourselves as stewards here to enjoy our planet during our lives but charged with protecting it and supporting it throughout,” says director, Gareth. “The footprint we each individually leave on the Earth should, we think, be one akin to a footprint on sand – present when we are here but disappearing over time. As parents of young children, we are especially conscious of the impact our collective consumption is having on our planet and we want our business to not only reflect this but embody the change in consumer behaviour as necessary. Our new refill service was started with this front of mind, but Pure Lakes has always offered sustainable packaging and ethically formulated and sourced ingredients and products.”
He continues: “[We’re] a business grounded in the natural environment. Our ingredients are biodegradable and come from plants, our packaging is fully recyclable and often made from recycled materials such as our bottles made from sugar. We offer a refill service for all products and we continually look for ways to reuse materials and packaging.”
Refill services are proving popular with more conscious consumers. While several ethically minded companies already offer this facility both online and in store, it’s often limited to certain items. But Pure Lakes includes all products, and each has a refill option on the website. Gareth says: “Vessels can be dropped or sent in to be refilled. We have tried to keep it as simple as possible. All refills carry a 20 per cent discount to cover the cost of sending them back. We deep clean and refill and leave for collection or post [the items] back.”
Pure Lakes, which is based in Staveley near Kendal, uses biopolymer as a sustainable alternative to more traditional (and less eco-friendly) materials. Not quite sure what that is? Me neither. So here comes the science bit.
“There is a rusk left when sugar is produced and instead of using ethylene to make the PET [Polyethylene terephthalate, which is commonly used to produce non-recyclable plastic] bottle, they use this in its place. This means the bottles are a carbon-friendly PET, and they are all made by Spectra in Suffolk.”
Sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years. From chain supermarkets to coffee shops, everyone wants to be seen as more environmentally responsible. But greenwashing (the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice) is rife within many sectors and the beauty industry is one of the biggest perpetrators. Products such as biodegradable face wipes are marketed as being in line with ‘green values’ but they’re incredibly wasteful. So, what does Gareth think people should look out for when navigating confusing jargon?
“We think the world has to move away from being perfect, uniform and standardised and embrace the imperfect in the way we consume. A good illustration of this is our ingredients. Plant oils are at the mercy of nature and crop cycles and from season to season vary in colour not to mention volume harvested. Thus, no batch of product we make is the same as the one before. If we start to cherish and champion the dirty carrot or bendy banana or different hue of soap then we will automatically be working with, not against, the natural world. We are only doing a small bit of what is necessary and have a long way to go. But small steps can ultimately lead to big impacts – change the ocean liner direction of travel by one degree and you may well end up in a different continent.”
What can people do to minimise waste and their impact on the environment when sourcing new beauty products? “They can refill and reuse – and use less. One example of the latter is shampoo. If you use shampoo containing sodium lauryl sulphate you will likely need to use a conditioner to add moisture and oils back to a dried-out scalp. Using a natural shampoo means that hair does not have to be washed daily and often regular conditioning will not be necessary because the natural oils in the hair and scalp have not been taken out by a harsh detergent.”
One way that a circular economy (an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources) could be more successful, is to shift our focus to shopping smaller and locally. What would Gareth say to help sway people from a more traditional ‘take, make and dispose’ market?
“I think this is not as straightforward as it sounds. Supply chains are complex and just because something is made locally doesn’t mean it is made ethically. I think your point regarding moving away from fast consumption is the best place to start. Taking time to learn the provenance of what we consume, for example, and how companies operate. Any company worth their salt should be transparent about how they treat their staff and suppliers.”
He continues: “The key words are ‘ethically’ and ‘slowly’ and trying to build up a consumption habit that is grounded on knowing where things such as food, clothes, skincare and the rest come from and what their true cost actually is.”
While that all sounds straightforward, the average consumer is often concerned with the price of products, and organic, sustainable goods are more expensive than their High Street equivalents. Over the last 12 months or so, I moved to plastic-free (where possible) and cruelty-free beauty products and while I initially found it difficult to justify the price, it was more economical long-term. The products are higher quality, so I don’t need to use as much, and they last longer. Does Gareth have any advice for people looking to make the switch but are concerned about the financial impact?
“Absolutely. Your point that it is not necessarily more expensive longer-term is spot on, but if it is more expensive maybe that is because it reflects the true cost, both human and environmental. I know that the margin we make on a £14 hand lotion is much less than the margin on a high street £5 lotion that contains synthetic ingredients. Our £14 reflects the cost of plant oils versus chemicals and handmade versus factory or overseas manufactured. We need to move away from focusing solely on monetary cost, important as this obviously is.”
Pure Lakes is also providing support to front line NHS workers by kindly donating 50 tins of hand balm as a gesture of gratitude for all their hard work during the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re only a small business, but we hope this brings a smile at what is clearly a very difficult time,” says co-director, Claire. “Gareth’s mother is an NHS nurse, so we know first-hand how hard everybody is working at the moment. The service holds a really special place in our hearts.”
In addition, the company is offering all NHS workers 20 per cent off all products in the online store. And for every order it receives online from customers, it will donate a further tin of balm to NHS staff.
So, what’s next for the company? Gareth replies: “We are day one in our journey to create amazing natural skincare that is ethically sourced and made, and ultimately affordable. We start with ‘how can we make the best product?’ and then find a way to make it work commercially. We don’t make much money but reap incredible rewards from making people happy and we just want to continue this one day at a time.”
Images: Pure Lakes. Credit: Tiree Dawson.