Judging the Responsible Beauty Awards

By Wren Holmes, NPD Director at Cocon Company BV

As one of the Judges of the CEW UK Responsible Beauty Awards, it’s my pleasure to share a little ‘behind the scenes’ account of what it’s like to judge these prestigious awards; and to highlight some of the most memorable achievements from previous winners and finalists, to give prospective new brands and first time entrants an idea of exactly what makes a winning entry.

Each year in Spring, my fellow judges and I gather at CEW’s head office to discuss the applicants’ entries for the Responsible Beauty Awards, where we will collaboratively review both their award application forms and product samples. A few weeks beforehand, we will all have received a delivery with a selection of products and highly detailed application forms, meaning by the time we arrive each one of us comes pre-armed with our individual rankings.

Then on to the debate…

Our meeting usually lasts for around four or so hours and we spend a great deal of time reviewing each brand in full. Sometimes judges disagree but the debates are always diplomatic, warm, and respectful: we take the time to unpack dissenting viewpoints and often come to a more informed understanding as a result.

The key point to note is that these awards do differ from the wider CEW Annual Beauty Awards in that we are largely concerned by the applicant’s positive business attributes, rather than the product efficacy or brand reputation alone.

This is why the application form really is the central pillar of a brand’s entry, as we’re (just a touch!) less focused on whether your product works well, but more whether your business is doing a service to our wider industry’s progress and shared obligations in areas of ethics and environmental responsibility.

Because there is no one quick fix to the matters of responsibility in business, we attempt to take a 360° approach and take the time to consider each entrant from multiple perspectives.

Over the years, we have seen fantastic themes through the lens of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), such as:

REN Clean Skincare’s low-intensity production of plant cell cultures via biofermentation, reducing land use.
AKT London’s plant-based, plastic-free deodorant advocating for the use of ultra-recyclable aluminium (and a highly recommended product I might add).
Sana Jardin’s formation of micro-enterprises to upcycle floral harvest by-product with female farmers in rural Morocco.
Ulé, an ‘intrepreneurial’ brand launch from within Shiseido, boasting vertical farming in partnership with B-Corp certified Tower Farm.
BYBI’s bold and fun use of compostable plastic. Notably, their approach entertains – rather than lectures – consumers on sustainability resulting in meaningful behavioural change without the guilt!

Next, I’d love to highlight more deeply some of the star winning entries from previous years, as in reviewing their applications it was just so apparent how seriously many brands are tackling the economic externality problems of today.

UpCircle: Winner of the Responsible Beauty Award for Innovation 2022

This was such a fantastic entry; and their upcycling was only one facet of what made them a winning entry. With their USP of upcycling food waste, UpCircle deftly sidestep a complex issue within plant-based cosmetics: that of compromising the global food chain, particularly in less developed countries.

UpCircle has to be one of my favourite ever application forms; as everything they do screams circular. Contrary to expectations (I would presume), UpCircle didn’t win just because they upcycle ingredients, although they do, in abundance. The way they run their entire business is superb – their corporate ethical policies are decisive and progressive. What they covered in their application was vast, and of particular stand out was their refills scheme praised by Marie Claire as “hands down one of the best we’ve ever seen”. An average of 5,000 pieces of packaging are returned and refilled every three months, which is tremendous for an SME and a testament to not just having a worthy idea but making it work by realistically incentivising customers to refill. UpCircle’s refill scheme isn’t virtue signalling whatsoever, whereas I confess I’ve come across many other brands where it is.

In addition, they remove twice as much plastic from the environment as they create across their entire end-to-end operations, including both direct and indirect plastic. by paying the wages of waste-workers in Goa, India who collect multi-layered-plastic from within 10km of Goa’s coastline. This reflects their taking a macro approach to sustainability. In tandem, these two aspects (upcycling food-related ingredients and tackling packaging waste) demonstrate the combined power of both insetting and offsetting your environmental endeavours. With UpCircle, it was not one or the other, but both.

Chloé: Winner of the Responsible Beauty Award for Innovation 2023

Chloé was the first luxury fragrance brand from a major corporation to win this award. Normally skincare dominates these awards – and I suppose there has been a predilection towards skincare, as perhaps subconsciously it is simply seen as more essential – but what an application this was. The entry form was very well written and highly considered.

Judges were most impressed by all the hoops they had jumped through as a business to demonstrate their multi-faceted achievements: this included their 100% natural origin fragrance and use of natural alcohol – in itself quite rare in premium fragrance, that their packaging is refillable, that their materials are upcycled, and finally, that the scent has acquired ‘Cradle 2 Cradle’ certification; an immensely difficult to attain and noteworthy accreditation. I hope more luxury fragrance brands will take note and follow in Chloé’s outstanding footsteps.

PAI Skincare: Winner of the Responsible Beauty Award for Excellence 2022

After debuting their brand relaunch, PAI Skincare, founded by the eponymous Sarah Brown, entered their fresh-faced organic skincare collection for sensitive skin with a whole new look and compelling sustainability metrics to back up their brand entry.

Staying true to their roots as a certified organic skincare brand (in of itself no small feat), the PAI collection dramatically improved its sustainability excellence through a complex overhaul of both the products’ production and packaging.

Upgrading their manufacturing facilities to utilise patented engineering systems, PAI have dramatically decreased energy and water consumption – and while I won’t bore you with the statistics here, the values given in their entry against a number of criteria are significant permanent reductions – and they have also applied this comprehensive sustainability outlook to their consumer packaging, reducing their use of virgin plastic by almost half, and their shipping materials by more than half. Even the smallest of details stand out, such as the product cartons’ tamper-proof seals were made biodegradable, and this microscopic attention to detail is indicative of their no-stone-left-unturned approach to ESG.

As one of a few independent brands to manufacture in-house, their London-based ‘Acton Spirit’ (a reference to the 21,000 sanitisers they donated during covid lockdowns) has even seen their positive social efforts in their local community commend them with an Outstanding Contribution Award from The Sunday Times, in recognition of their unwavering attention and continuous commitment to being a truly ethical and environmentally-minded business.
And finally, a special mention, and an explanation, as to why the original Responsible Beauty Award was split into two categories.

[ comfort zone ] : Winner of the Responsible Beauty Award for Excellence 2023

Last year Comfort Zone, part of the Italian Davines group, exceeded our expectations. They entered their entire collection using the Sublime Skin Intensive Serum as a hero example. Not only are they B Corp since 2016 but they are recertified every three years and have one of the highest B Corp score ratings globally.
We as judges are always keen on certification and Comfort Zone certainly delivered on this. We love the fact that Comfort Zone went beyond sustainable by using regenerative organic agriculture. Aside from the product itself Comfort Zone is registered plastic Neutral collecting 100 tons of Plastic normally ocean bond. Additionally their partnership with EthioTrees also allows them to offset 100% of their packaging, production and office spaces through supporting soil and forest regeneration in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopia.

Comfort Zone also makes efforts in two ways to encourage others which is our aim with this award. Firstly every year in March-April they promote B Corp by launching the ‘We Stand for Regeneration’ Campaign showing their sustainable ways of working thus encouraging customers to consider their own footprint on the environment through recycling, using refillables etc. Secondly their involvement in the charity Toiletries Amnesty to raise money in support of their mission: to reduce waste within the beauty industry by donating to those who are in need and alleviate hygiene poverty in the UK.
A truly excellent entry.

JUNI & Co.

In 2021, judges were wowed by the innovative new brand JUNI & Co. We found ourselves struggling to determine if a small, pioneering brand should win out against larger, more established brands who made seemingly “smaller” steps in progress when the impact of these were ultimately far larger in overall benefits. Out of this dichotomy, a decision was made to split entrants between singular issue dramatic improvements, versus smaller – but wider areas across an entire business – steps, resulting in two awards for ‘Innovation’ and ‘Excellence’. While the founder of JUNI & Co. Madeleine White, missed out on a Responsible Beauty Award that year, we were thrilled to instead nominate her, and see her win, the CEW Young Achiever Award at the 2021 CEW Achiever Awards.