It used to be, that for beauty brands, getting involved with politics was a no-no zone. Even having an opinion on some social matter was frowned upon, or needed a million meetings to get authorization before the brand could comment on current affairs.

But then the election of 2016 happened, Brexit happened, and society in general woke up with a question “what is going on here”? We were exposed to some blistering rhetoric on the campaign trail that devalued the contributions women, immigrants and people of color. We consumed scandal with a side of fake news like the new meat and potatoes staple at the supper table. As a result, consumers started to look elsewhere for answers and beauty brands, it seems, started to not only find their voice but actually use it.


Beauty Brands and Social Impact

In 2015 the beauty retailer Sephora was already in search of someone to head a newly paved “social impact” division, an effort that would advance the company’s existing value-driven efforts by combining them under one umbrella. Then, they tapped Corrie Conrad, who had been working at Google as a senior project manager for eight years, for the job.

Prior to then, Sephora hadn’t had an intentional focus on using its strengths for the greater good. Conrad, who has been Sephora’s head of social impact for the past two years, basically served as an anthropologist consultant internally, at first — figuring out who they are, what they are good at and what our community needs.

Sephora Stands Logo

Conrad was at the helm of the Sephora Stands launch just a year after she started at the company. The initiative consists primarily of three programs: Sephora Accelerate, an accelerator program for female entrepreneurs in the beauty industry, Sephora Stands Together, an internal program for employee support, and Classes for Confidence, a series of makeup tutorial classes that partner with nonprofits working with women facing major life changes, including reentering the workforce as veterans, dealing with domestic abuse or battling cancer.

Sephora isn’t the trailblazer to recognize the value in finding its larger purpose and become more involved in the community it caters to as a force for good. Activism has infiltrated brand campaigns: Dove, Cheerios, Pantene and Patagonia have been spreading messages of body positivity, LGBT acceptance, female empowerment in the workplace and sustainability, respectively.

“There’s empirical evidence that suggests there’s an increasing apathy for brands. It’s too much white noise, not enough authenticity,” said Max Lenderman, CEO of the cause-marketing specialized agency School. He cited the statistic from a Havas Media survey that found most people reportedly wouldn’t care if 70 percent of the world’s brands disappeared.


Women’ Rights are Human Rights

This year, Sephora will grow its accelerator program to include open applications from entrepreneurs in two new categories: sustainability and technology. In addition to the mentorship from Sephora executives, demo days and grants, some of the accelerator’s entrepreneurs receive a low-interest loan from Sephora to jumpstart their businesses.

“There’s a big opportunity to support female founders,” said Conrad. “The majority of our clients are women, and the research shows female founders are underrepresented and overlooked when it comes to receiving venture funding.”

Birchbox, subscription beauty service, which was founded in 2010 by Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, finds it purpose to support women’s careers in the industry. The retailer announced its partnership with New York’s Flatiron School, an in-person and online program that teaches students to code. With Birchbox’s help, Flatiron’s Women Take Tech scholarship will be awarded to 25 female students, who will receive grants worth 50 percent of tuition. Birchbox is putting a total of $100,000 toward the scholarships.

Flatiron school and Birchbox

Small indie beauty brands have found their voice and purpose too. Beautiful Rights, which combines makeup and activism by donating 20 percent of all sales to groups supporting women’s and/or minority rights. When you check out you get to choose which charity you donate to. Originally, when Kristen Leonard started she was focused on Planned Parenthood—but the she realized that there’s so much more to women’s rights than just reproductive health. Now Beautiful Rights have six different organizations they donate to: Planned ParenthoodACLULambda LegalLegal MomentumEmily’s List, and MomsRising. So these organizations all touch on different aspects of women’s rights and she added MomsRising because, for her, it’s really important that women get paid maternity leave. The beauty brand is still small, but has a purpose at its core. “That’s why there were lots and lots of women marching after the inauguration. The election spurred this—but it’s making a lot of people wake up and realize they need to get involved.”  says Leonard, who expects more brands to come up and support important issues like women’s rights.

Greek brand Radiant Cosmetics is also a great example. It’s a social business with the goal of ending human trafficking. You might be thinking, “What does makeup have to do with the illegal trade of human beings?” Well, certainly not much at the outset, but it’s through selling cosmetics that Radiant raises money to tackle the international human trafficking industry.

According to Radiant Cosmetics, the beauty industry is highly lucrative, generating approximately $170 billion annually. As we all know, it’s women who are currently the core consumers of the cosmetics industry. Women are also the majority of individuals being trafficked worldwide. As such, Radiant Cosmetics state that they “believe in educating women and empowering them to do something about this injustice.”
Radiant Cosmetics currently donates at least 20% of all profits to anti-trafficking organizations, but they also vow that they will increase this percentage as the company itself grows. Radiant is currently partnered with Free the Captives, a Christian anti-human trafficking organization based in Houston, Texas.

During Radiant Cosmetics Founder Nicole Marett’s childhood, she wanted to work for a fashion magazine as a beauty editor, but a year-long mission trip with The World Race opened her eyes. While lipstick may not conjure up human trafficking activism, Radiant Cosmetics is bucking the trend by harnessing the buying power of North American women in order to deliver beauty products with purpose.


Diversity and Inclusivity

Mac Cosmetics, which is owned by Estée Lauder, uses its platform as a beauty company to educate and inform customers on LGBTQ culture. Last year, the brand worked with “Transparent” director Silas Howard on a video series that showed glimpses inside the life of people who identify as transgender.

“We’ve always been a purpose-driven brand for all ages and races, and had a great relationship with the trans community,” said Nancy Mahon, svp of Mac Cosmetics and executive director of the Mac AIDS Fund, in a Digiday interview.

Caitlyn Jenner Mac lipstick

Mac also diverts the sales from certain makeup lines instead to the causes its supports. All sales of the Caitlyn Jenner Finally Free lipstick, a total of $1.3 million, went to the Mac Cosmetics Transgender Initiative, which benefits trans organizations like GLAAD. Sales from Mac’s Viva Glam line, which had endorsements from celebrities like RuPaul, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, go to those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Mac has reportedly raised a total of $454 million for the cause so far. Mac is forging a new way to market itself that doesn’t involve a million-dollar contract with a celebrity face. Instead, Mac is using its position as a cultural force to spark conversation. Mac’s approach is more interesting for modern brands because brands like Mac already have the cultural credibility to create conversation. The films they’ve done are totally aligned with that, and celebrities are becoming more aware of their power to do good at the same time.

There’s an inherent contradiction between retailers selling product for profit and being social do-gooders: Every action can reasonably be traced back to how it benefits the bottom line, and when social activism is involved, that can raise questions of exploitation.

The beauty industry compared to other industries is at a distinct advantage. It’s close proximity to customers: cosmetics are an everyday product for most who use them, and customers are typically loyal to the brands they love. There’s also halo of inspiration and empowerment around the beauty industry, particularly for women. This provides beauty brands with a foundation to create a conversation with their customers around a cause that resonates with them. Other business verticals should look up to the beauty industry in doing cause and philanthropy really well. Beauty brands have done a good job at finding insights and stay active and relevant around some of the core issues that their target customers face.

Companies today have to dig deeper and consider their social purpose as necessary to the business as something like innovation, or research and development.

“You can’t simply slap your name on a cause, and you have to fund your purpose in order to stay relevant,” said Max Lenderman, CEO of the cause-marketing specialized agency School. “If it’s a drain on the bottom line, you’ll find the money cuts elsewhere. To activate on purpose, it comes with a budget, the same way that R&D does. But it’s indispensable for the future.”

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