Social Goodness at Scale

Adina Grigore of S.W. Basics on doing what it takes to grow an ethical business

This article also appears in the June 2017 premiere issue of Hyperlink, a new magazine focused on the intersection of media, technology, commerce, and culture. Hyperlink is published by Winning Edits. Purchase a copy.

By Jennifer E. Snyder

Growing a brand in the clean cosmetic and skincare industry is a lot of work—and there’s likely no better person to discuss the trade than Adina Grigore, co-founder and CEO of S.W. Basics.

Grigore laughs as she connects to Skype from Denver and comments on the absurdity of trying to schedule time for this interview. She jokes about not being in control of her day. But after a long chat, two things become clear: Everything on Grigore’s to-do list is there for a reason, and she has built a business designed to make more than money. It’s meant to make a difference.

It’s also clear that Grigore is staunchly committed to maintaining her ethical standards — for both the products she creates and for the people she hires. The brand’s internal operations are equally critical in her mind as its supply chain. In 2014, S.W. Basics filed for certification as a benefit corporation (“B corporation”) as a way to make official the company’s stance on giving back and being a sustainable brand. The company currently pays for 100 percent of employee healthcare benefits, team members get unlimited vacation days, and the brand often donates a portion of sales to social justice causes, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s March that took place after the 2017 presidential inauguration.

Grigore is determined to prove that when it comes to what people put on their skin, less is more.

When it comes to the physical elements of being a sustainable business, Grigore often faces the challenge of sourcing packaging that is both functional and recyclable, but there are also harder issues to tackle. She has worked with her landlords in Brooklyn over the years to try to implement property-wide waste reduction programs. But every time the company grows and moves into a new space, she has to start over, and those programs tend to fall to the bottom of her list as CEO. Her tone of voice is clearly one of frustration as she discusses the issue. It’s important to her. So important, in fact, that she’s actively pursuing the possibility of moving the company out of New York in order to find a location that values sustainability and social responsibility as much as she does.

Check out a snippet from the third episode of the Hyperlink Radio podcast, in which we talk to Adina Grigore about the challenges of growing an ethical business. Show Notes *** Subscribe on iTunes

Grigore has been in the wellness and beauty industry since 2008, long enough to know that doing what’s right isn’t always easy and that a quick search for clean cosmetics or skincare products will likely turn up some combination of truly clean skincare lines and items that, while marketed as “natural” or “organic,” are anything but. “I think the deck is extremely stacked against small brands,” she says, adding that many cosmetic and skincare companies have trouble scaling while keeping their products free of chemicals and toxins. The growth of S.W. Basics has made her more aware of what’s at stake. “We have a little bit of this internalized fear that it’s not possible for us to mess up even one time,” she says. “It’s like we’re being tested in a sense, like, ‘Can you really do this? Can a small brand really do this and not mess it up?’”

Despite her honest revelations, Grigore and her team are doing what’s right — even when it’s difficult. And it’s working. Grigore has successfully launched multiple skincare lines, brokered partnerships with retailers like Target, written two books to help consumers understand the value of clean cosmetics, and set out on a mission to change the way people interact with their personal care goods. From continually tweaking the supply chain and understanding the power of social media, to managing cash flow and creating solid collaborations, Grigore is determined to prove that when it comes to what people put on their skin, less is more. She prides herself on sustainability and transparency built into the brand at as many levels as possible.

Adina Grigore of S.W. Basics

Instead of being overwhelmed by activism and viewing social good as one more thing on the brand’s path to success, Grigore knew early on that ethics needed to be front and center. She describes her entry into the wellness world as something that bordered on a love-hate relationship. “I had studied holistic nutrition, was working as a personal trainer at Equinox in [New York City], really liked wellness in general, and felt like it was really important, but was super annoyed by the industry,” she says, adding that because the wellness world can feel overly luxurious it can also feel unattainable for most people.

Grigore started her career in wellness with an initiative called Sprout Wellness, a DIY wellness concept focused on uncovering the truth about nutrition. She taught workshops and worked one-on-one with people teaching them how to incorporate whole food into their lives in an effort to feel better from the inside out. She quickly realized that one area in particular was missing from the wellness equation: skincare. “People actually know how to eat — they’re paranoid about how to eat — but when it came to their skincare, it would just be like, ‘I feel like I’m doing everything right and everything is still going wrong,’” she says, noting that many of the popular skincare brands touting “natural” or “luxury” ingredients were not as advertised.

That realization prompted her to try her hand at creating her own skincare products. She recalls thinking, “‘I’m going to start to make this stuff on my own, and what I’ll do is I’ll go to these workshops and I’ll go back to these clients and I’ll just teach them how to make it.’ What a hilarious thing that you can just go into your kitchen and put that stuff on your skin, and instead you think that you have to buy something that says it’s natural and isn’t or costs you $300 and makes you break out.”

Between 2009 and 2011, Grigore did just that. She worked to create the early S.W. Basics formulas out of her kitchen in Brooklyn. She was working a full-time job, teaching her clients to make their own skincare, but began to realize that she wanted to turn her concoctions into a product-based business. She dreamt about having her products on the shelves of large and small retailers, but she originally dismissed the idea as impossible. She thought the only viable avenue for exposing the truth about natural skincare was to simply arm people with the know-how to do it themselves. “Then, I realized that’s one of the problems,” she says. “If you’re not going to make it yourself, your options on the shelf shouldn’t all be garbage. You should still be able to go to the store and buy something that’s as good as what you would make on your own.”

The first large order of S.W. Basics products came in 2012 from Anthropologie. That order for 3,000 units of lip balm made her realize she was onto something big. The next large order came through a substantial partnership with Target, which put her products in front of a large customer base. According to Target spokesperson Courtney Foster, the partnership was mutually beneficial. “Target has been the exclusive mass retailer for S.W. Basics of Brooklyn since October 2014,” she shared in a recent email. “As the demand for high-quality, natural products continues to increase amongst the Target guest, S.W. Basics certainly assists in maintaining Target’s credibility as the go-to retailer for better-for-you products at a great value.”

Source: S.W. Basics

While the large retail partnerships like Target have been game-changers for Grigore and S.W. Basics, mid-to-small retailers have also been critical as the brand continues to grow. From a recent launch in Ulta’s online store and presence in Pharmica shops, to maintaining strong relationships with smaller operations like Follain and Credo, the partnerships continue to roll in.

According to Credo’s VP of merchandising and planning, Annie Jackson, S.W. Basics was at the top of the list of brands they wanted to carry. “You always remember something like this so fondly, because I think it was really humbling to be like, ‘This is who we are, no we don’t have a name yet, and this is what we’re doing,’ and so many people just ignored us,” she says. Grigore was the first to respond positively and come on board with Credo.

“If you’re not going to make it yourself, your options on the shelf shouldn’t all be garbage. You should still be able to go to the store and buy something that’s as good as what you would make on your own.”

Jackson shares many difficulties that retailers like Credo have in maintaining the same strict standards Grigore aims to uphold with S.W. Basics. There have been times during the vetting process when Jackson had to let a brand know that they simply couldn’t carry a product containing an ingredient processed using a toxic chemical. “We want to evolve our ‘dirty’ ingredient lists, or basically, our standards,” she says, adding that everything — from the chemicals used to process ingredients to the employment practices of the companies supplying the ingredients — come into question. “We’ve identified Adina as being a truly sustainable, green . . . ethical wholesaler. We want to know that all of our brands are doing things like Adina does.”

These numerous large and small wholesale partnerships quickly demonstrated that Grigore needed to scale her business and start manufacturing her products. She is continually faced with the task of maintaining the ethics of the brand while increasing production to larger and larger quantities. The customer-facing branding of S.W. Basics focuses on the simplicity of the products but Grigore points out that sourcing ingredients for a growing skincare company like hers is anything but simple.

Grigore’s challenges with finding the right ingredients echo the issues Jackson has faced in merchandising at Credo in that, as S.W. Basics has grown, many of the smaller suppliers haven’t been able to keep up with manufacturing needs. “A couple of our ingredients that we worked with early on, in order to scale, have not made it,” she says with a tinge of sadness. In order to find suppliers that meet the standards and needs of the company, Grigore has to ask for proof of various certifications, material data sheets, and manufacturing processes to keep track of batches on the off-chance of a recall. “It’s so incredibly hard,” she says. “Not just quantity-wise, but you have to really be able to provide some fairly strict and thorough paperwork and evidence of how you’re doing things and I think that was probably our first conundrum. On the one hand you want to keep all of the small manufacturers and all of the small producers. On the other hand, I think it actually makes a lot of sense to us that, as you scale, it requires more proof that you’re doing things the right way.”

These days, however, rather than researching suppliers for her products, many suppliers that fit S.W. Basics’ stringent standards now come to her. According to Allie Aronstam of Oro de Sonora, a family-run farm and manufacturer of 100 percent pure jojoba oil, that is exactly how she came to work with S.W. Basics two years ago. “I read one of [Grigore’s] books — the first book she wrote — and I thought it was so cool,” she says. “I loved how it had simple, easy recipes anyone could make and I just had to contact her. She was excited that we were jojoba farmers and we just went from there.”

With everything facing Grigore as S.W. Basics continues to grow and evolve, she is seeing her larger vision come to fruition. She has remained true to her original vision of creating a simple and sustainable skincare line. Suppliers who are eager to work with her and the opportunity to move the brand to a new location indicate that things continue to head in the right direction.

When asked what a move might mean for the future of the brand, Grigore delivers the news that the reason she’s in Colorado is to scout headquarter locations. “We’re looking in Denver and in Boulder, because it’s so aligned it’s ridiculous,” she says of the overall commitment to sustainability and social activism she’s witnessed in the state.

Wherever S.W. Basics lands, Grigore has hopes that it will evolve into something more interactive for the consumer — including a place where customers can even see products being made. “We really want to, at some point, get into our own manufacturing. I would love to maybe do retail at some point on our own,” she says, her frustrated tone morphing into one of excitement.

“I really like getting to push the boundaries as much as possible.”

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