When Tiila Abbitt learned that a third of landfill waste comes from personal care products, she knew she had to do something about it. After spending years working in product development for Sephora, Abbitt discovered the ins and outs to formulating products and packaging out of sustainable, clean ingredients and materials. The result of the fruits of her labor is Aether Beauty. Though conventional beauty brands use mirrors and magnets in their packaging, consumers don’t realize that the process to mine magnets takes a huge toll on the environment. Not to mention, many bottled products are made from a mix of plastics, metals and screws that aren’t easily recyclable. Abbitt has gone to great lengths to lower her carbon footprint. Aether Beauty delivers clean, gorgeous, high-quality mineral pigments without compromising Mother Earth. Plus, each eyeshadow palette comes with a tarot card for a fun, ethereal twist.
Tell us about your professional background and how you entered the beauty industry?
Tiila Abbitt: I came out to San Francisco about 15 years ago to get my MFA in fashion design. I worked in the fashion industry for a little over five years prior to transitioning to beauty. I took a job at Sephora as the head of their private label brand, Sephora Collection, for all of their accessories: makeup brushes, cosmetic bags, eyelashes, lash curlers, sharpeners–every tool of the trade you could think of. Then I was thrown into formulation and packaging development for makeup collaborations–brands that we partnered with outside of beauty to create limited-edition collections. It started with Pantone and their Color of the Year and grew from that into me taking on the actual role as senior product development director of makeup collaborations. I ended up being at Sephora in both of these roles for a little over seven years before I left to launch Aether Beauty.
How did working at Sephora help prepare you for your current role?
I like to say I received my second master’s degree at Sephora. After being at Sephora for only two months, I was put on the Pantone development team, learning from three of the very best senior executive people at Sephora–everything from product conception to packaging to formula testing and execution. We launched the collaboration in record time: six months. After that, I became in charge of all of our makeup collaborations and developed all different types of collaborations, which included Karen Walker, Alexis Bittar, Mara Hoffman, Moschino, Pinrose, Museum of Ice Cream and Sephora Pro.
When was Aether Beauty founded and what inspired you to start your own company?
I launched Aether Beauty on the summer solstice, June 21, 2018. I started to research the natural and clean space in the color category and noticed that there weren’t many choices as far as color range, storytelling and efficacy. I’m a Sephora girl and like color! I wanted to have the same options in the clean space. I actually never thought I would launch my own brand; I kept thinking it was so obvious, the hole in the space, that others were going to quickly swoop in and do it. But then, I was in these natural brand meetings at Sephora and brands were presenting their newness and it was just so boring to me. I was telling brands how to fix their formulas ... It then just hit me in a meeting that brands aren’t doing what I wanted to buy. That’s when the idea sparked for me to do it myself. Many of these clean and natural brands are created by founders who do not come from the beauty space. Many people tend to have a skin allergy or get pregnant, start researching about ingredients and start peeling away the onion, so to speak. They learn how dirty the industry is and set out to create their own brands, which is great, but they just don’t come with tenure of experience in actual product development. We had a very strict list at Sephora of ingredients we could not formulate with, so I became very familiar with learning how to swap out ingredients for others and truly pushing payoff and efficacy.
When did your passion for clean and organic beauty start?
I have always had a passion for the organic and natural space. I became a vegetarian at 14 and always lived an organic lifestyle. I became head of R&D on the sustainability team at Sephora because of my personal passion for sustainability. I helped not just the private label brand but many other divisions at Sephora make more sustainable choices for the entire retailer.
How long did it take to develop your first product, and what was the formulation process like?
When I started to ideate the brand, it all flowed out of me—the concept, the name, the look and feel, everything that I thought a sustainable beauty brand should be. I had not had any kind of creative flow like that in years. I kept thinking, "I must be missing something." It was too easy. But then I learned to just trust the energy and flow and let it hap- pen. Things of course evolved along the way, but it came to a place where I am happy to grow this and take it to the next level. Formulation to me is the easy part; it’s what I know. I have already developed two-plus years of product ready to go. I just need the financial means in order to launch them. Right now I’m 100-percent self-funded and the only employee, so I have to launch one product at a time.
Tell us about the Rose Quartz Crystal Gemstone Palette’s recyclable packaging.
One thing I thought the beauty space could do better is packaging. The EPA just stated that one third of the landfill waste is from personal care products. Hair care, skin care–these categories are easier to make recyclable because you can easily use glass or easier-to-recycle, thinner plastics. It’s makeup componentry that is incredibly difficult. I did a ton of research, visited local recycling plants and spoke to experts in this space to truly understand what was possible. It was mind-blowing. I knew it was bad, but I had no idea how bad it truly was.
My first product, the Rose Quartz Crystal Gemstone Palette, is made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper and printed with water-based soy ink, so the actual palette can more easily be recycled back into the system. Even the type of ink you use can render paper not recyclable. The pans are made from recycled aluminum and can easily be popped out and recycled separately. There is no mirror or magnets, which I speak to on the inside of the palette. There is instead an elastic band to keep the palette shut, which you can cut off at the end and reuse as a hair tie. I just couldn’t create another brand that ended up in an end cycle. I have two kids myself, and given the current environmental state of our planet, I really wanted to look at every aspect of the business and make sure [my products were] 100-percent recyclable. There are brands in makeup that have some recyclable aspects of their packaging. Many foundations use glass bottles, but then the pumps themselves are a mix of all different materials, so it ends up in a landfill. For many of the products that I have created, the formula and shades are done, but it’s the packaging that is holding the development up because there just isn’t a sustainable option yet. But, I’m working on it every day.
What sets Aether Beauty’s ingredients apart from conventional beauty brands?
Everything I develop is vegan, cruelty-free and clean. That means I ban over 1,300 ingredients and nothing is derived from an animal or insect. I actually have a page on my website dedicated to ingredients and why I ban the use of certain ones. On top of that, I source sustainable ingredients–organic and fair trade but also socially responsible and sustainable. For example, 25 percent of the world’s production of mica is unfortunately coming from child labor mines, which a lot of people aren’t aware of. So, if I cannot vet the origin of a particular mica, I will use synthetic mica instead. It’s actually more expensive since it’s made in a lab, but it’s cleaner than natural mica and also clear, so you get crisper shades. On top of that, the formula is either made in the U.S. or Europe. I absolutely will not ever formulate a product in China.
Where do you see your company in 10 years?
I’m currently working on making Aether Beauty a B Corp, as I truly want to be a sustainable company and brand through and through. One other aspect of the business is I donate 1 percent of sales to certain charities. Each product has a different charity linked to it. For example, for the Rose Quartz Palette, rose quartz is a water element, so I decide to partner with The Water Project, which provides clean water to communities in Africa. So, I would love to see the philanthropic piece grow and morph in some way. I see an entire range of color cosmetics and lots of innovation in both formula and packaging coming to fruition. I’d really like to see the entire industry shift to where there’s no such thing as “clean beauty,” but rather all beauty is clean and safe for all.
What products are currently in the works?
I’m about to launch my second palette in mid-December, the Crystal Grid Palette. It’s a palette of all metallic shades perfect for New Year’s Eve or night looks. For 2019, I’m working on other palette concepts as well as some innovative liquid formulas.
Tell us the meaning behind the brand’s name.
The word “aether” is a really old word. The Greeks considered it the air that the gods breathed, and Aristotle considered it the fifth element to earth, air, fire and water. It’s this medieval concept of the cosmos.
What has been your biggest career high and biggest low, and what did you learn?
The biggest career high for me was when I started at Sephora. I was only there seven months and I received their Employee of the Year Award for merchandising. It was pretty unexpected, considering there were over 1,000 employees at the corporate office, but it showed me that people were watching and supporting what I was doing for Sephora Collection and Collaborations.
The biggest low was when I worked in the fashion industry. I worked for a very small company that used to produce the clothing in a factory in San Francisco for over 18 years. One day, the owner decided to transition everything over to China and just closed her doors upon her workers. That was a hard day. The other piece of the puzzle was, I then had to travel to China once every two months for two years to work with the new factories. And we were small potatoes, so I was going to factories in the middle of China and seeing things that I wish could be unseen as far as safety, cleanliness and the overall way that people were forced to work and live. It was eye-opening and heartbreaking, but made me want to do better for the future and for whatever I would decide to do later in life.
What tips can you offer other entrepreneurs in the beauty industry?
Learn, learn, learn as much as you can before you start anything! The best thing I did was work for Sephora. I learned everything I could from some of the smartest women I have ever encountered. And, fail. You won’t ever learn anything unless you fail and try new things. You won’t innovate or create anything new unless you think out of the box. Failing forces you to think out of the box. And please do what you can in terms of sustainable packaging. The world needs you to.