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The Interview: Anna Brightman, co-founder UpCircle beauty

Gaelle Walker
16 December 2020

Founded in September 2016 by siblings Anna and William Brightman, the UpCircle beauty and skincare brand, famed for its use of waste by-products, is going from strength to strength.

In just four years, the brand has evolved from a single face-scrub made from repurposed coffee grounds to a business at the forefront of the by-product beauty movement with a wide range of highly effective products all centred around different repurposed ingredients and all for a distinctly affordable price point.

A number of key milestones and achievements have been hit along the way, from the 2018 investment won from Dragons Den stars Touker Soleyman and Tej Lalvani, to the winning of a public pitch to supply Sainsbury’s in 2019 and later getting the range into Holland and Barrett.

Tell us about your background.

My brother Will and I co-founded the brand just under four years ago. We both came from fairly corporate backgrounds and had travelled down pretty traditional routes in terms of career paths and it was going well. However, we were both coming home at the end of the day feeling a little deflated and yearning to do something different. We were both keen to go it alone but we were in that no-man’s land where you know you want out of your current job but you’re waiting for some sort of inspiration to hit.

Thankfully for us, that happened when one evening Will walked into a local independent café and out of curiosity asked them what they did with their used coffee grounds at the end of the day.

He was utterly shocked to learn that even though this was just a small independent coffee shop and not part of a big chain, it still produced such a large amount of coffee each day that it had to pay the local council to have it disposed of at landfill.

His initial surprise and natural curiosity led him to investigate the issue further and the more he looked into it the more he realised that there were numerous reasons to try and stop that waste from happening. Obviously, coffee is a degradable natural ingredient but when you put it in a giant 10kg bin bag on a landfill site it rots and when it does that it produces methane which is a greenhouse gas.

So, we had our problem but not necessarily our solution and that was where I came in. As a teenager I wanted to be a makeup artist and I’ve always been fascinated by skincare so I knew that coffee was brilliant for your skin but no one on the market was repurposing coffee that had already been used - so I knew there was a real gap there.

I can’t claim that we were the first company to make coffee scrubs, that’s definitely not the case but we are the first people who scaled up making scrubs from repurposed coffee, so that was where it all began really and we’ve just expanded from there, working with varied by-products from varied industries and incorporating them into every single skincare product that we create.


Describe the initial response to the brand? 

That’s an interesting question as I would say it’s been incredibly varied. From a mentoring and investment perspective, lots of people actually tried to dissuade us from the idea initially.

That’s because we really were the first people to do this and the advice that we received from the top was that the industry wasn’t ready and also that consumers weren’t ready for by-product ingredients in their skincare.

We’ve seen food-waste become an increasingly big topic in recent years. This began with the birth of the ‘wonky fruit and veg’ movement which is popular in the drinks and condiments industries. However, we were advised that the beauty industry (with its shallow reputation and focus on aesthetics), might not be ready to welcome the use of by-products.

So, to be honest, there was some opposition from above at the start of our brand journey. As a result, we chose not to lead with the by-product story when we initially launched. We thought it might be best to gain confidence as brand founders first and also to test the market and our products on consumers before we really had the confidence to say: “Actually, this is what makes us special and what makes people proud to use our products.”

The results upon launch were incredible, while mentors and investors had said they weren’t sure the industry was ready for the concept, consumers showed us that they absolutely were, and the key to that was making sure that the products performed as well, if not better, than competitors who were using non by-product ingredients and charging four times the price.

Once we were able to back up what we were doing with extremely impressive performance in terms of the actual product, that’s when we really had the confidence to centre everything we were doing on the circular economy story.

How has the brand evolved over time?

We now see ourselves as pioneers of by-product beauty in general, it’s not just coffee anymore, we now work with 10 different by-products from a variety of industries, from powdered fruit stones to argan shells, apricot and olive stones that go in our face care products, by-product fruit waters from the juicing industry and bark extracts - by-products from the wood industry.

We constantly have our eyes open for new ideas but also as we’ve built a name for ourselves, we now get approached by businesses all the time who say, “I do X and it produces Y as a by-product. Can you do something with it?”

What has been your most rewarding moment to date?  

It would be so easy to go with the big thing, the fact that we appeared on Dragons’ Den and how rewarding it was to walk away from that with three offers of investment, but actually for me personally my proudest moment came a little later, when I won a live pitching event to Sainsbury’s which resulted in our products launching in their stores. It was an event in-front of hundreds of people and we had to beat lots of other brands to even get to the pitching stage. Getting our products into such a big retailer only two and a half years after launching the business was a huge win. Also, I used to be terrified of public speaking, so achieving that was hugely rewarding on a personal level.

And what about your most challenging moment?  

It’s very specific to us, but it’s a big one. I would say that a lot of consumers purchasing beauty and skincare products look for certification, and with an ethos like ours its actually very difficult to get any kind of certification because of the traceability of our ingredients.

Take organic certification for example, our products are more organic than most brands out there but we can’t get organic certification for quite a few of them. If we were going to get our coffee scrubs certified, all of the cafes that we collect from would have to get certification too. Certifications usually come with hefty annual fees and audits, so persuading hundreds of cafes to get the certification for our benefit is almost certainly never going to happen! So, it can be difficult in terms of the communication to consumers. If all they are doing is looking on a shelf for products with certification, then naturally they are going to assume that we aren’t those things, when in fact we are.

The existence and popularity of our brand has brought this issue to the attention of several certification bodies. As more brands introduce a more circular approach, they acknowledge that they need to amend their criteria.

What are your top sellers?  

Our Organic Face Serum has been a best-seller from the beginning, it is certified organic, 100% natural and made from the oil that we extract from the coffee grounds. But one of the main reasons for its popularity is its price point. For a serum it’s extremely affordable and this is another area that I am passionate about. In the industry you see this all the time, serums which are essentially just oils, commanding £60 or £70+ price points whereas ours is £14.99 which definitely makes it a real wonder-product in consumers’ eyes.

Our Face Moisturiser also always does well, as does our Cleansing Face Balm. The moisturiser is made with the fine powder of discarded argan shells and is priced at £18.99 and our cleanser features the powder of discarded apricot stones. Those three are our hero products. Our newly launched eye-cream made from repurposed maple bark extract and oil from repurposed coffee grounds is also rising swiftly up the rankings. I think that maybe with everything that’s going on in the world we’re all feeling quite stressed and lethargic, so the demand for an eye cream is high.

What role does affordability play in your brand’s ethos?  

It’s so important when thinking about a sustainable future that sustainability isn’t something that’s only possible for the elite. It needs to be accessible to everyone. I was only 23 when I founded the brand and it remains really important to me that we never release products that I wouldn’t have happily paid for myself at that age.

Our most expensive product at the moment is £24.99 and I’m not keen to go much higher than that. Our products tick all of the same boxes that so many products that charge five or six times the price do; they are handmade, UK made and available in 100% recyclable packaging. In my mind there is no excuse for the astronomical price points commanded by many brands out there, and with the knowledge that I now have, it would be really against my morals to just stick a premium price tag on products.

How do you see the brand evolving next year?  

This year has been a bit crazy for us, and we’ve had numerous challenges to overcome. Because we repurpose our ingredients, our supply chain relies on the functioning of other industries. That said, we are looking forward to diversifying our list of repurposed ingredients even further in the coming year.

Just yesterday I had a great call with a company who could provide us with unused flower petals which could potentially lead to some exciting developments for Mothers’ day and Valentine’s day.

Our key launches for 2021 are already prepared. We’ve got a hand wash coming out next and we’re working on an SPF and a night cream, a lip balm, all sorts. It’s certainly very exciting.

Where are UpCircle products available?  

Products are available on our own website and online via retailers such as Beauty Bay, FeelUnique and Ocado, as well as in traditional retail including Sainsbury’s and Holland & Barrett.


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