clean + conscious awards founder emily fletcher with family

Emily Fletcher, the founder of the Clean + Conscious Awards, started her career far removed from the beauty industry. She was a practising optometrist and mother of two when she became interested in the ingredients in personal care products – specifically baby wipes. “I was looking at baby products,” she tells Professional Beauty, “about half the nappy wipes I looked at didn’t have what would be considered a non-toxic ingredients list.”

She started documenting her journey in 2015 on her blog My Non-Toxic Tribe. With a background in research, Emily explained her findings clearly and provided an independent voice on the tricky to navigate green beauty market.  She quickly established herself as a well-respected authority, and her following exploded. She tells PB that her background in science aided her as she started exploring the beauty industry: “I’ve been a practising Optometrist for the past 13 years. Optometry degrees involve years of advanced scientific study, including chemistry and biology.” She also completed further pharmacological studies, a skill that has come in handy when assessing product formulations.

Emily realised that many smaller brands were doing great work and going unrecognised. She wanted to give them a platform. “I found that many of the brands I was featuring were paving the way in creating clean and conscious products. Yet they were all lesser-known brands, with smaller marketing budgets and small-batch products.”

In 2019 Emily established the Clean + Conscious Awards. She wanted to provide consumers like herself with a directory where they could navigate brands that had been independently vetted and give smaller brands doing good work. She says: “I wanted to find a way to celebrate and empower these businesses, and also provide brands with the opportunity to read about other brands’ work in the space and get inspired.”

The science and research behind Clean + Conscious Awards:

Emiliy Fletcher vetting Clean + Conscious Award winners
Emily Fletcher personally vets candidates for the Clean + Conscious Awards – and then they go to her panel.

Emily takes the endorsements made by Clean + Conscious Awards seriously, “With a science background myself, it’s crucial to me that the information I provide be factually correct and educational for all involved. From consumers reading the Directory for information to brands gaining feedback from judging.”

Emily works on product submissions personally, breaking down ingredients lists to ensure they don’t contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. She hand tests products to judge functionality and implements stringent criteria for ethical, sustainable and socially responsible practices at local and global levels. She also collaborates with a large panel of industry experts.

She tells PB, “We have an incredible expert panel made up of journalists, eco leaders, change-makers, ethical fashion advocates, mothers, food experts and much more. We seek to make our panels as diverse and inclusive as possible with representatives from both First Nations and disability.” For instance, native Australian ingredients have become extremely popular in skincare products. The majority of those ingredients have long history of use by First Nations people for purposes like traditional medicines or bush foods. Collaborating with First Nations communities has been essential in ensuring the ingredients are sustainably and ethically, particularly as many, like native Kakadu Plum, are now experiencing very high demand.

Kakadu plum has experienced a surge in popularity as a beauty ingredient.
Kakadu Plum has experienced a surge in popularity, both as a superfood and a beauty ingredient. This leaves the fruit vulnerable to over-harvesting.

Emily says it’s also crucial that while harvesting these ingredients, companies give back to traditional owners. “When selecting finalists products containing native ingredients, we verify that the brand sources from an ethical supply chain in which First Nationals farmers participate and are treated fairly and ethically”, she explains.

She says including a range of opinions, from beauty journalists to mums in charge of the home shop and people with a range of lived experiences is key to providing truly comprehensive product feedback: “The panellists’ written product reviews are published in the Directory, and each panellist brings to the Awards their individual expertise as well as a shared vision for a healthier, better world.” 

Countering the “green-hush” effect:

When Emily started the Awards, she released brands that were coming up against an additional problem. They didn’t realise that their products weren’t sustainable. “When I started the Clean + Conscious Awards in 2019 we found a lot of entrants didn’t meet the criteria we had to become a Finalist. I found brands themselves didn’t realise their products didn’t have a non-toxic ingredient list, or they thought because they’d been issued a certificate for the palm oil they purchased, that that meant to palm oil was sustainable. Whereas all the certificate was saying was that it was from mixed sources!”

Emily saw the opportunity for a “safe space” for brand feedback. By consulting with Emma, brands benefit from the advice of a qualified expert, ensuring the strategies and practices they’re implementing are in line with their goals. Many skincare brands try to get a footing in the clean community, only to be accused of greenwashing. Indeed, it has become such a common phenomenon that environmental academics Chad Carlos and Ben Lewis have coined the term “green hush” to describe it.

Green hush effect impacting corporate sustainability efforts.
The green hush effect is a recently observed phenomenon impacting corporate sustainability efforts.

“Green hush” has seen large firms hide their sustainability efforts for fear of negative online coverage, boycotts or sanctions. As Emma Lewisham, sustainability champion and founder of Emma Lewisham skincare, commented to PB, implementing sustainable practices is fraught for many major brands involves a revision of all their systems that can take years. She said that while greenwashing caused her concern, she doesn’t believe the movement benefits from “pointing fingers.” She explained, “Sustainability is not an overnight transformation. It’s a journey. JWT Lisbon’s DEO Susana de Carvalho, a veteran of many sustainability projects, explains brands can start small: we should aim high but take the small steps. It’s about thinking differently, testing small things, and moving from there.” [Read our explainer of circular sustainability with Emma Lewisham here].

Lewis and Carrol have echoed Lewisham’s sentiments. They told Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability (ARCS): “Green hush could be detrimental to the adoption of sustainability practices. When prominent companies like Walmart adopt such practices, that’s when they’re likely to take off.” If companies are hiding the practices, they’re unlikely to inspire their competitor brands.

Emily says that with support and feedback many of the brands seeking inclusion have markedly improved their business practices. “Over the last three years, encouraged by consumer support, brands have become more educated, and their ingredients lists and accountability have continued to improve,” she says. “It’s truly incredible to hear stories of how much care and effort brands go to in sourcing the purest and ethical ingredients and packaging in an environmentally respectful way.”

Close to seven years since its inception, Emily feels she’s seen enormous change in consumer behaviour and brand practices. She says the original article on nappy wipes that started it all. The ten baby wipe formulations Emily flagged as concerning have all been reformulated. She was pleased to update the list in 2019. She believes that while consumer advocacy is important, systems need to be in place to make navigation easy. “Unfortunately, any brand can pop up with any statement on their marketing unchecked. It does then mean that consumers have to research every product in their shopping cart if they want to shop consciously. We don’t have time to research and email brands about certifications, manufacturing location, supply chain, and material sourcing! Having one trusted resource to find products that align with your values is so important. It saves time and money, as it prevents you from making purchases you regret! It puts the knowledge and power right back into the consumers’ hands.”

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