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Procter & Gamble, Royal Botanic Gardens on Sustainable Natural Ingredient Sourcing for Beauty

P&G's Phil Marchant and the Royal Botanic Gardens' Monique Simmonds in conversation at the WWD Culture Conference: Sustainability and the Human Element.

Procter & Gamble’s partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew offers a glimpse into the future of sourcing beauty ingredients.

The Ohio-based consumer products giant has been working with the U.K. research institution for nearly a decade, primarily on identifying botanical ingredients to use in beauty and personal-care products. More recently, as consumer interest in ingredient sourcing and transparency has flared, P&G and Kew have deepened their partnership to include an authentication process. In 2018, Herbal Essences was the first brand in P&G’s portfolio to receive Kew verification, meaning a natural antioxidant used in its hair-care formulations has been verified as sustainably sourced according to Kew standards.

“The partnership has become more and more important to us,” said Phil Marchant, director of scientific communications for P&G Beauty, in a panel discussion moderated by WWD senior beauty editor Allison Collins. “We have a lot of expertise in products and understanding formulation, but Kew is one of the leading authorities in plants in the world, and they can give complementary expertise when it comes to developing beauty products with botanical ingredients in them.”

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P&G refers to its approach to sustainability as “responsible beauty.”

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“We recognize that sustainability is really one element of an entire system, and we have to take that into account. When it comes to responsible beauty, we have to think about safety, quality and performance of products and think about equality and inclusion as well,” said Marchant. “More people want to know what’s in our products, so transparency is important — all these little elements are interconnected and part of greater systems.”

Kew’s focus is on ensuring ingredients are sustainably sourced on every level of the supply chain.

“You have to make sure you have a good supply route,” said Monique Simmonds, deputy director, science, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “Where are they getting materials from? Have they got alternative sources? You really have to look at all stages, from seed to extract.”

Kew’s authentication process helps to identify where plants come from, using the information on botanical species gathered over the last 250 years, which then helps P&G source its ingredients sustainably.

“We use that information to track that it [comes from] good quality materials, it’s a right species — not a sub-species,” said Simmonds. “Where else can they go for these plants in the world should these crops fail?”

Kew also looks at properties in plants that can best translate for use in beauty products.

“We’re often coming up with suggestions — which of these plants protect themselves against UV and pollution and therefore they might have ingredients you’d be looking for in a cosmetic product?” said Simmonds.

There is a lot of untapped potential for botanical ingredients in beauty products, said Simmonds. The challenge comes in identifying which plants are best for use in beauty, and then scaling their use in a sustainable way.

“Nature has evolved the plants to protect themselves, but it’s [about] realizing how they do it,” said Simmonds. “Something we have to be careful about if we get something and it’s very popular and a lot of people want to have access to it, we might need to move to…biomimetic, something that replicates what the plants have got.”

Marchant added that taking into account how ingredient sourcing affects local communities and forests is important, too. “We’re using the voice of our brand as a force for good to raise awareness of the pattern of biodiversity being lost,” said Marchant.

“We are scratching the surface — there’s potential to find uses for plants to tap into [all kinds of] properties, but to do that we have to work with experts,” added Marchant. “There’s real potential [with plants] for the future across our industry, and in the end that needs to be done in a responsible way.”