Founded in 2016 by siblings Anna and William Brightman, UpCircle rescues by-products and incorporates them as the main ingredients in a range of beauty products.
Over the last five years, they have gone from strength to strength. They shook hands on air with three of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den investors in 2018, but felt the need to walk away from the deal once filming was over. The validation helped, but they chose to pursue their goals without that financial support.
They went on to win a public pitch to supply Sainsbury’s, launch a groundbreaking Refill and Reuse programme tackling single-use plastics, and now they’re planning an expansion into the United States later this year.
And so, Anna Brightman tells us…
“At UpCircle, we make sustainable skincare products from ingredients which would otherwise be discarded. We’re doing things differently. We are known as the pioneers of “by-product beauty” or “circular skincare”. Nature gives us lots of wonderful ingredients that make our skin healthier and more radiant – like used coffee grounds, fruit stones and brewed chai spices. But they often end up going to landfill.
The idea began five years ago. I asked a local coffee shop what they did with their waste coffee and was shocked to hear that they were producing so much that they had to pay the council to have it removed and disposed of on landfill sites.
Throughout my teenage years I wanted to be a makeup artist so I always had a keen interest in beauty and skincare. I knew that coffee had loads of great skincare benefits, so that was my lightbulb moment. Why not repurpose the coffee into sustainable circular skincare products?
Why should all that good stuff go to waste? It shouldn’t. Now we repurpose more than ten by-product ingredients from the argan, tea, juice, date, olive and wood industries.
When we discovered that more than 500,000 tonnes of coffee grounds are sent to landfill each year in the UK alone, we decided to start collecting coffee from cafes across London and transforming them into skincare products.
Since launching UpCircle has saved over 350 tonnes of used coffee, which helps to reduce this problem. Based on our current rates of growth it is estimated that this will rise to 1000 tonnes in the next 5 years.
“There’s a lot of consumer interest in brands impatient to enact change”
Our brand name encapsulates our core purpose: sustainability and promoting the power of the circular economy. UpCircle hints at upcycling, the process of making something better from things that already exist.
Circularity and sustainability isn’t a part of our business, it IS our business.
Every ingredient we upcycle has to benefit everyone involved and it’s also important for us to make use of every part of any plant that we choose to grow. Take argan for example – there are many positives of the argan oil industry.
The tree itself helps to prevent desertification and soil erosion. It provides food and shelter to local communities and the leaves and fruit are used as animal feed.
It also supports around 2.2 million people in the major production area, predominantly through women’s cooperatives. We believe that the shells of each nut can be used more effectively – hence we use discarded argan shells in our moisturiser. It’s a way of promoting whole system benefits.
Ethics are built into our brand DNA – integrity and transparency is important in building the foundation of a good company. At present there is a lot of consumer interest in brands who are not impatient to make money, but impatient to enact change.
“Consumers want to know: are these brands authentic or greenwashing?”
Consumers want to support authentic brands that are committed to the environment, whether that’s through sustainable ingredient sourcing, innovative packaging solutions, or natural and organic products.
They want to know: are these brands authentic or simply paying lip service, greenwashing? The idea of voting with your money is important, people want to buy from brands whose values are their own.
We ask the same questions of our beauty products that we do our food products – what is inside, how is it made, who is making it and why are they making it?
This consumer demand for transparency is ever-growing and we think it is a really positive shift. As a brand it keeps us on the top of our game if our customers hold us accountable.
The pioneering nature of what we do is illustrated by the extent of the opposition our idea received when we started out.
Mentors and investors alike told us that the industry was not ready, that tackling issues of waste in the “shallow” beauty industry would not work. Our rapid growth has proven that not only is it possible, it’s in fact extremely popular.
The performance of the ingredients within our skincare formulations is essential. No amount of pretty packaging or clever marketing can make up for a product that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
“A big challenge for us is in developing our products for certification”
This is always our main priority. If we can provide competitively priced, high performing products from upcycled ingredients then we are demonstrating that the beauty industry can become a lot less wasteful – it is an innovative approach and a fresh perspective.
We’ve faced a lot of hurdles and had to start over on numerous occasions. We’ve worked with the same manufacturers from day one, they’ve been on the same rollercoaster with us, which has helped. We are the only brand to scale up repurposing ingredients into skincare formulations.
Being a disruptor brand comes with many hurdles. Trying to tackle issues of waste in the beauty industry is no easy task, but the rapid growth of UpCircle is a great example of the opportunities that a closed loop economy can afford us – if we are imaginative enough!
We have been certified by Soil Association and COSMOS from the start, however some of our individual products currently cannot be certified, as the percentage of repurposed ingredients is well above 50 per cent.
This means that despite being unparalleled in terms of our sustainability credentials, we are not eligible for certification.
The Soil Association acknowledges that they may need to rethink their approach to reflect this shift towards a more circular approach. This is a good example of the open-mindedness of the industry to accommodate the use of upcycled ingredients.
“The appetite for a circular packaging scheme like ours is huge”
For us, when it comes to refilling and re-using containers, the main challenge was researching what equipment we would need, purchasing that and setting it all up. There are several sterilisation options available each with their own pros and cons. We’ve had to become experts fast.
Through our research we came across a lot of brands that had set up refill schemes that were extremely complicated and expensive for customers to make the most of.
We got the impression that they’d set up a scheme in order to say that they had one, but in most cases the schemes were hard to find, and hard to make sense of, perhaps intentionally so.
We put great thought into creating a scheme that was as easy as possible for our customers to use. We’ve carefully married up our written copy with videos and imagery to help take our customers through each step of our refill scheme, which walks you through the process from start to finish.
By combining text, video and imagery we’ve found that there’s no room for confusion, although we still have a separate FAQ section for refills just in case.
“As a brand founder no work is beneath me”
From what we’ve seen so far the appetite for a circular packaging scheme like ours is huge. We had people asking us to set this up for a long time and those requests were coming in every single day.
Despite this, we still could not have anticipated the scale of the reaction when we announced the launch of our scheme – everyone was extremely excited. Of course, we’ve chosen to offer our refills at 20 per cent cheaper than brand new products and we send a freepost label for the return, so incentives like that always help.
With initiatives like ours it’s not difficult for me to see why UpCircle was chosen to be a part of the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Our brand is sustainable and scalable but we maintain ethical, positive impact best practice.
In 2020 we launched our range through more than 2000 retail doors across the UK and USA, tripled the size of our team and launched seven new products. All during the height of a global pandemic. We’re also on track to at least double turnover this year.
In terms of me specifically, who knows? What I can say is that as a brand founder I have no sense of entitlement. No work is below me, and no work is above me.
“UpCircle is used as an example for how big brands can be better”
It’s this sort of attitude that keeps us surging ahead – no matter how big the obstacles, or how much we have to fight to change the status quo.
UpCircle is being used as an example for how big brands can be better. For example, when Prince William and David Attenborough announced the Earthshot Prize, the BBC chose to interview us as an example of a successful planet-friendly business.
Our product launches for this year include an ocean-friendly SPF, a Hand Wash, Hand Lotion and Hand Sanitiser Trio which we plan to launch widely into restaurants and hotels, as they reopen. We’re also developing a Night Cream and Lip Balm – all set to launch in 2021.
The repurposed ingredients for those include seaweed extract and kiwi water. It’s still early days and we’re eager to be able to offer a full skincare offering, to cater to whatever skincare concern you may have, so new product development is a big focus for us. We’re highly motivated to continue sourcing varied ingredients that are thrown away prematurely.
“Don’t underestimate how long it may be until you can start paying yourself”
Our products are sold globally. We are growing so rapidly at the moment that recruitment is a huge focus. Later this year we intend to set up an entire new team based in the US. It’s a challenge to grow the team so quickly while not dropping the ball on my own role and responsibilities.
In terms of advice for young founders, I would say, stay in your existing job for as long as possible and save, save, save. Do as much of your research and resourcing whilst still employed, you need your ducks in a row as much as you feasibly can before taking the big leap!
Don’t underestimate how long it may be until you can start paying yourself. You’ll also need to figure out what your non-negotiables are at the start and be willing to compromise on what isn’t on that list.
Making some sacrifices is okay because your product or service can be constantly refined and improved upon as you grow. Don’t expect everything to be perfect from day one, your resources and expertise will be limited, so be realistic.
I’d also say there’s never a right time to start a business, so just go for it!”