‘We rescue waste and turn it into beauty products’ – meet the brand reusing leftovers
Great inspiration really can come from a morning coffee. For proof, look no further than Will and Anna Brightman, whose idea was sparked by a humble cafetière and has gone on to create the biggest buzz in affordable green beauty.
The siblings are the co-founders of UpCircle, a British brand that’s only seven years old but has already set new standards for eco-friendly beauty. Not content with merely being natural (“That’s boring,” as Anna puts it), UpCircle gives a beautiful new life to what would normally be destined for landfill. And who can resist a good rescue story?
Not Will, for one, who found his conscience being pricked by the cafetière he was given for Christmas in 2015. “I was throwing all these coffee grounds in the bin every day,” he explains. “Then, on my walk to work, I noticed that everyone had a coffee in their hands.
“Having thrown away all those grounds just for me, it made me think about how much must get thrown away every day across London. I started researching it and I was shocked – even my small local coffee shop had so much they had to pay the council to dispose of it.”
Although coffee is a natural product, it’s not quite the benign substance you might imagine.
“It’s a massive hidden waste problem,” says Will. “About 500,000 tonnes are sent into landfill in the UK every year, and around 10 million tonnes globally. It then sits there and releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas.”
Fortunately, Will’s research raised an intriguing possibility along with the alarming stats.
“This was at the time when microbeads were being banned, and coffee was being touted as an amazing natural alternative exfoliator. I thought, ‘Well, we’ve got this waste product damaging the environment, but at the same time it’s got these brilliant benefits for skin.’ So I spoke to some cafés and asked if they minded me collecting it.”
Nobody objected, but the next step was heavily improvised. “I had just quit a job in finance and I had no idea about how to formulate skincare products,” he recalls. “So I rented a tiny room and began manufacturing it myself, sterilising the coffee grounds and using recipes off the internet. It was very DIY.”
Scrubbing skin with something saved from the bin is a rather quirky concept, so did Anna think her brother had lost the plot when he pitched his idea?
“No!” she laughs. “I was coming home miserable from my old job. So when he said, ‘I think I’ve got this great idea,’ and it was in skincare, I was like, ‘OK, I’m joining you!’ I could see there was a gap in the market.”
Shop it: Cinnamon + Ginger Chai Cleansing Bar, £6.99 here
By Will’s own admission, their initial effort looked “terrible – I had no idea how to design stuff, so the packaging was like a GCSE art project”. But the product inside the cheap-looking tins was enough. After just three months of frantic DIY formulating, the duo hired a tiny stand at the London Coffee Show and showcased their scrub with impromptu hand massages. Two days later, their entire stock was sold out.
“People loved how it made their skin feel,” says Anna. “It proved to us that we really had something here.”
Recycled coffee wasn’t mainstream beauty’s cup of tea, though. “We got advice from people who had been in the industry for a long time and all of them said, ‘It’s a cool idea, but beauty is a really shallow industry.’
“At the time we were called Optiat – one person’s trash is another’s treasure – and everyone told us to downplay that angle. One guy from Boots said he didn’t think it was viable, ultimately because of what the brand stands for in terms of being made from waste.”
Will and Anna stuck to their path regardless. The operation became slicker, with a proper manufacturer brought on board and refined formulas, but the basic concept remained the same. “We decided quickly that using by-products was going to be our USP,” says Anna. “There was no one trying to promote the circular economy in beauty, so we chose to be bold and own it. We were told ‘beauty is fickle, don’t try to be too out there’ but in the end, they were wrong.”
Shop them: Organic Facial Serum with Coffee Oil, £14.99 here, Eye Cream with Cucumber, Hyaluronic Acid & Coffee, £17.99 here.
Validation came when the Brightmans went on Dragons’ Den and got three offers of investment. “That was great,” says Will. “And Boots got in touch after it and said they wanted to list us. It’s been vindication, and it’s also testament to never giving up.”
The time was ripe for expansion, with Brits finding an appetite for “wonky fruit” and being open to similar ideas in beauty.
“We rebranded as UpCircle to make our whole message about using ingredients that would otherwise go to waste,” says Will. “Our next three products were face masks made with olive stone powder from the olive oil industry, a cleansing balm with apricot stone powder from apricot jam and a face moisturiser with argan shell powder upcycled from a woman’s co-operative in Morocco.”
Water, which is the biggest ingredient in pretty much any skin cream, has been another target. “It has to be heavily purified for skincare, which is environmentally costly. That’s why we started looking at water left over from the juicing industry, which we now use in a whole host of products as it’s so rich in antioxidants,” says Will.
UpCircle now uses more than 20 upcycled ingredients, and is always looking for more – with one caveat. “They need to have proven benefits,” says Anna. “We decide first what product we want to develop, then we matchmake with a list of upcycled ingredients. We’re about to launch a shampoo creme made with upcycled pink berry extract, which has been through clinical trials and is proven to reduce scalp irritation, redness and flakes.”
The brand is also launching a fragrance for 2023, with an adorable backstory of saving unloved blooms from florists’ bins. Make-up is another area being considered.
Anna says, “We already have people coming to us saying, ‘I’ve got a plum stone extract which is a deep purple that would work really well in eyeshadows.’ I’m like, ‘When the time is right…’”
While UpCircle has a serious message, it’s delivered in a light way.
“So many eco brands are just terrifying headlines,” says Anna. “When somebody picks up a moisturiser, I don’t think they want to be told everything’s a disaster. So we focus on the difference you can make by choosing our product. Instead of ‘500,000 tonnes of coffee go to landfill every year’, we say each of our face scrubs rescues the equivalent of four espresso shots from landfill.”
The Brightmans are adamant being green shouldn’t cost the earth. Nothing costs over £28, and empty products can be sent via freepost to be refilled at a 20% discount. And the fact it’s sold in places as diverse as Superdrug, Sainsbury’s and Space NK proves the power of its message.
“If you’ve got an incredible product with all these eco-credentials but no one can afford it, what’s the point?” says Will. The company recently added “plastic negative” to its impressive list of certifications. But the biggest source of pride comes from making a difference to the environment and people’s skin.
“It’s not just that it’s got a cool story. It’s also the fact that it works. That’s what’s going to make someone come back,” says Anna.
“We get daily before and after pictures, and people saying things like, ‘I used to feel like I couldn’t go out the front door without a full face of make-up. And now I feel so different because your products have made me feel better.’ It feels fantastic to go to work every day knowing we create products that make people feel more confident.”
Easy ways to go green
The UpCircle message is refreshingly non-preachy, with Anna admitting that even her own beauty regime isn’t perfect. For those wanting to go greener, her advice is to take it step by step and resist the temptation to bin anything non-eco. “You just create waste to save waste. Use up the products that you have. Then when a product finishes, look at what could be better about the next one.”
But just be aware that greenwashing is rife, too, with everyone after a slice of the eco-economy. “You see a lot of meaningless terminology like ‘natural’ and ‘clean’. Be wary if there’s a lack of specifics like ingredient percentages or accreditations. If a brand has something to be proud of, they’re going to shout about it with clarity.”
Finally, forget the “all or nothing” approach. “Even the smallest changes add up. We’d rather have 100% of people doing one positive thing than 1% of people doing everything,” adds Will.
To shop UpCircle's full product range from £5.49, head here.
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