The Credo of Clean Beauty

Annie Jackson, cofounder and COO of Credo Beauty, discusses the growing demand for clean products–and leading the charge to move the entire industry towards healthier and better ingredients.

Annie Jackson, cofounder and chief operating officer of San Francisco-based Credo Beauty, slipped into the world of beauty quite by accident: As a 19-year-old seeking a job to save for college tuition, she landed a position at Estée Lauder. From there, she moved on to a then-unknown concept called Sephora and eventually launched Credo in 2015, now a clean beauty powerhouse that has surged to eight coast-to-coast locations in just three years.

Despite all her time working in beauty, it was running a retail operation that made a lasting mark on this eternal entrepreneurial thinker. “Strangely, what most prepared me for Credo was when I took a short departure from beauty for a few years and owned my own retail store,” Jackson recalls. “I thought I had worked hard in the past–how wrong I was!”

Building on her myriad experiences in and out of the beauty industry, today Jackson contemplates what’s next for her burgeoning company and asserts that clean beauty is a true movement–not a fad.

BEGINNINGS IN BEAUTY
At 19, Jackson wasn’t seeking much in the way of employment, just a gig to pay rent and save for college. In fact, she was headed to an interview to be the receptionist at a portable toilet company when she landed an administrative job at Estée Lauder–a stroke of luck that would change her life’s direction.

“Needless to say, the admin job at Estée Lauder sounded a lot better,” Jackson says. “I started working for Estée Lauder at a regional office in San Francisco, ultimately staying about seven years, ending up in New York City in marketing. The company is incredibly supportive of their employees and the experience gave me an incredible opportunity. In turn, I wanted nothing more than to make my time there as meaningful as I could, and contribute and learn as much as I could. When I left, I felt like I was leaving family.”

Like many forward-thinkers, Jackson never quite made it to college full-time. Instead, she attended a program through a private university close to her office, attending class after work at night for a couple of years thanks to Estée Lauder’s tuition reimbursement program. But Jackson found her job more meaningful and eventually dedicated all of her time to that–until a recruiter called one day to discuss a new concept called Sephora. All it took was for her to hear the concept and meet the pioneering team–including the late Shashi Batra, who was ultimately her boss at Sephora and later cofounded Credo with her. Jackson jumped at the chance. “It seemed too intriguing to pass up; even better, it was based back home in San Francisco,” she remembers. “I was 26 and there were only a few of us on the Sephora team in 1997. The years that I was with Sephora back then (I actually returned 10 years later to join the Sephora-inside-JC Penney team) ... were some of the best of my career: fun, exhausting and super challenging because we were able to wear so many different hats at that time. Even Sephora was a small team and super scrappy at one point!”

“Engaging with our customers on social media and doing events with the makers from the brands in makeup application or skincare consultations are a really rewarding part of what we do.”

It wasn’t clear to Jackson herself back then, but her driving motivation was a love of entrepreneurship, or as she puts it, “the challenge of knowing you can do something a better way, and though you may not see it clearly, you’re determined to work until you figure it out.” She left Sephora in 2003, shortly after having a daughter, and moved on to different roles in beauty–working on the floor in retail and owning a retail store, which she describes as humbling, physically exhausting and financially terrifying. Jackson says, “To make those four walls profitable, every product needs to pay its rent and every penny you spend needs to be highly scrutinized. So, for me, Credo is this very fortuitous coming together of all of these experiences.”

THE COMING OF CREDO
Despite a wealth of experience, Jackson’s early days at Credo were challenging, to say the least. With only three people on staff, the team squatted at an investor’s office for the first 18 months. Packing web orders and receiving brand shipments caused a stir–not so conducive to a quiet office setting. They eventually moved into a shared townhouse in Pacific Heights, California, close to the current Fillmore location in San Francisco. “Shashi was good friends with the founders of La Boulangerie, a chainlet of artisanal bakeries and cafes, and their team worked in the living room, while we were literally in a bedroom,” Jackson says. “We slowly added to our team, until there were seven of us in a bedroom, before we moved to our current headquarters.”

Jackson laughs now at the humble townhouse beginnings: Only one employee could talk on the phone at a time, during which everyone else had to remain completely silent. Toting Trader Joe’s shopping bags, they’d head over to their San Francisco store every day and pick up products to fulfill web orders, then walk them back to the townhouse to pack and ship. “The UPS guy would text one of us to say he was downstairs and we would all stop what we were doing and bring the web orders down the stairs to him,” Jackson recalls.

Credo opened its flagship store in June 2015; a second location would follow, in New York’s SoHo, in May 2016. Following bicoastal success, another six locations opened rapidly in less than one year, between February 2017 and January 2018. But as the company grew, tragedy reared its head. Batra was diagnosed with an aggressive illness just after the second location opened. “What made me so excited about Credo was of course Shashi’s innovative concept and the fact we could do this together. But before his passing, I did not understand how personal this journey would become,” Jackson says. “We had a lot of challenges: We were a small team and had a lot of stores in play at the same time. Between the lease negotiations, the buildouts and just the demands on our team to travel and physically open the stores, it was a tremendous amount of work. We obviously wanted Shashi to focus on treatment, but we also could feel his pain at not being there with us as we opened stores.”

“Credo continues to push the industry in a better direction by working with our brand partners to create a roadmap for the future around sustainability and manufacturing–and we’ve only just begun!”

Unfortunately, Batra passed away after the opening of Credo’s fourth location in Brooklyn, New York. Stores inspired by his vision followed in Chicago; Boston; La Jolla, California; and Plano, Texas. “I miss his humor, guidance and friendship very much,” Jackson says. “Our name is reflective of the belief that there is a better way to look beautiful, with both style and substance, a belief in a holistic vision for what beauty is: looking good and feeling good.”

Jackson notes that Credo’s mission is to change the way people think about what they put on their bodies–without forcing the customer to sacrifice style or product performance. And its founders knew that providing a destination with a comprehensive collection of clean beauty choices was an important step to drive this movement. “Credo offers the widest assortment of clean beauty brands in skin care and makeup, and we also have a variety of services in the stores that you can book online,” Jackson explains. “Our staff knowledge in the space is deep, so if customers are seeking information, they’re a resource. Above and beyond that, though, we are a beauty store. Engaging with our customers on social media and doing events with the makers from the brands in makeup application or skincare consultations are a really rewarding part of what we do.”

CLEAN CRITERIA
Credo’s criteria for selecting brands, Jackson notes, begins with two fundamentals: authenticity and transparency. Credo’s team looks for creators who maintain a holistic vision for their products with a focus both on the inside (formulation, ingredients and efficacy) and the outside (the experience, including packaging, texture and scent). Meanwhile, the staff consists of licensed estheticians and makeup artists who offer on-floor services like mini facials, waxing and makeup application in every Credo store (plus Tata Harper Spas at the San Francisco, La Jolla, Chicago and Plano locations). “We really wanted a place where people are excited about skin and skin physiology and we are able to counsel people on their skin concerns from a place of confidence and trust,” Jackson says.

One of Credo’s most unique features, both in-store and online, are “clean swaps.” A customer can tell staff which products she’s using or even bring in her entire makeup bag, and the store’s experts recommend healthy alternatives–making education a cornerstone of Credo’s credo. “Whether you’re visiting Credo with your friends looking for a lip gloss or you have skin concerns you want to address one-on-one, our staff is ready and waiting to talk to you,” Jackson says. “And, from day one, Credo created the ‘Dirty List,’ a robust list of ingredients that, due to safety and/or sustainability concerns, cannot be used in any of the products we carry. As the leader in clean beauty retail, Credo continues to push the industry in a better direction by working with our brand partners to create a roadmap for the future around sustainability and manufacturing– and we’ve only just begun!”

Indeed, Jackson believes that clean beauty has grown from a niche to a movement in just the few years since Credo’s beginning. “The first wave of natural beauty brands, about 15 to 20 years ago, worked hard to create products with healthy ingredients but tended to sacrifice beautiful packaging, texture, scent or even efficacy due to the higher costs,” Jackson notes. “They were visionary brands, but they forced women into making an intellectual choice of style over substance–or substance over style in this case–and, essentially, that meant health before beauty. At Credo, all of that has changed. Among our vast assortment of brands, there is an entire new generation of creators that are offering both: efficacy, high color payoff and modern packaging, all with nontoxic formulations–and product development is moving fast to keep up with customer expectation and demand.”

With eight stores now in full swing, Jackson continues to carry on Batra’s legacy. After a plethora of challenges and learning experiences, Credo now knows its customer inside out and the team is excited to enter its next phase of evolution–continuing to flourish over the next decades to meet ever-growing customer demand. “I am very clear on Shashi’s vision for Credo,” Jackson says. “I miss him tremendously and there about 100 times a day I wish I could talk to him, but I never question whether we are growing according to what he envisioned. And that feels really good.”

MAKING CHANGE
Meanwhile, Credo continues to make progress in the greater landscape of clean beauty. In June 2017, the company joined Beautycounter’s Counteract Coalition, made up of like-minded businesses in the safe skincare and beauty industries collaborating to advocate for federal laws to protect consumer health. With no new rules or regulations on the $400 billion U.S. beauty industry in the past 80 years, Jackson explains, companies like Credo and Beautycounter are working to create better standards. “This coalition will activate at key moments, with actions to include joint sign-on letters to key Con- gressional committees; coordinated phone calls to Hill offices; and trips to Washington, D.C.,” she says. “Credo is promoting the text for change–people can just text ‘Better Beauty’ to 52886 and, in response, a form with a letter that is directly sent to your state senator will appear.”

Because there are no legal definitions of terms such as “clean,” “green” and “natural,” Credo works to define them and asks its brand partners to align with these definitions, hopefully easing confusion in the beauty space. The company, of course, very clearly defines clean beauty on its website, including what ingredients they don’t allow.

“The biggest risk is for those who assume clean beauty is only a niche–and it’s more a risk for the conventional brands and retailers who don’t adapt.”

Then there is the formation of the Clean Beauty Council–a dream since Credo’s founding. “The Clean Beauty Council is a group of beauty industry experts who have been propelling the industry forward. It's made up of seasoned veterans of the clean beauty movement with decades of experience between them,” Jackson explains. “A Ph.D. skin pharmacologist; a makeup artist focused on natural, holistic beauty; a founder of the organic certification movement; an aromatherapist and teacher; a public health advocate and market-mover–these are the current council members we’re fortunate to work with. A couple of our council members are longtime advisers and friends of Credo, but we knew it was time to formalize the relationship. Credo is growing, and our industry is changing, too. As a retailer working with hundreds of brands and dozens of product types, we want to ensure that we’re staying on top of the trends, the science and the supply chain. Industry expertise and constructive dialogue shouldn’t be seen as a trend.”

Moreover, Jackson believes that consumers today expect and deserve better. She points to Whole Foods creating its own discerning standard for both personal care and food so that consumers needn’t question their choices while shopping. “If you look at retailers like Target–visited by millions weekly–which is constantly evolving their chemical policy, and CVS, which will scrutinize ‘chemicals of concern’ in the future, it signals this is a movement, not a trend,” Jackson notes.

It’s good news for Credo–a store that Jackson foresees establishing a presence in any community that has a critical mass of consumers with conscientious demands. However, she also knows that, as a leader in the movement, Credo has the responsibility to educate and be an integral part of building that demand. “Looking ahead, we believe the wealth of information out there today will empower people to know what they are consuming, and that will cast more suspicion on conventional beauty and the use of questionable ingredients,” Jackson says. “There are similar parallels in other consumer categories, where sustainability, ethical sourcing, environmental impact and health are already key factors in consumer decision-making; food is one obvious example. The overall shift to conscientious consumption and healthy lifestyle is becoming innate to people.

“If we work together to demand cleaner ingredients, it helps all of us,” she concludes. “The biggest risk is for those who assume clean beauty is only a niche– and it’s more a risk for the conventional brands and retailers who don’t adapt. They have more to lose than the disrupters and startups, given the conscientious demands of today’s consumer.”

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DEFINING CLEAN BEAUTY
Clean beauty “begins with the ingredients not found in our products,” states Credo’s website. Though the retailer admits that not all synthetic ingredients are harmful, it does keep a close eye on those that have been linked to health or environmental issues—and asks its brand partners to evaluate everything from sustainability to marketing claims. However, Credo also knows that the definition of clean beauty is constantly evolving and isn’t always a black-and-white issue, so several ingredients are noted on its website as ones to watch.

For example, palm oil and palm-derived ingredients are described as safe and potentially sustainable, but currently “most palm oil is grown and harvested in an unsustainable and destructive manner.” So, the company attempts to fuel demand for eco-friendly production methods. The red pigment carmine, meanwhile, is allowed but must be clearly indicated on labeling due to concern over allergic reactions and its derivation from insect sources. Part of Credo’s promise to customers is to keep up-to-date on the latest science and developments, working toward a clearer definition of clean beauty—and holding its brands to those ever-evolving standards.

[Photos courtesy of Credo Beauty]