New Zealand expat Anna Ross came to Australia over a decade ago as a wide-eyed graduate with a business idea that was a bit bigger than the budget.
Ross’ initial plan after crossing the Tasman was to secure a $30,000 loan and launch a fashion label, but as time passed and no investors were forthcoming, she instead made do with $50, a handful of sterling silver and a quick pivot.
“I started while I was working full time, and with $50 I made a few sterling silver wishbone necklaces which I then sold to a wholesaler in Melbourne for a few hundred dollars,” she says.
“After a while I got bored of working with sterling silver and wanted to add some colour. Nail polish was an obvious match for my rings, but when I began looking into what was available on the market, I was unimpressed with what I found.”
Ross noticed a gap in the market for an ethically responsible brand of nail polish that was high quality, long-lasting and reasonably priced.
Fast-forward a few years and the entrepreneur now runs Kester Black, one of Australia’s most socially and environmentally conscious pioneers of cruelty-free, vegan and carbon negative cosmetics and nail polish.
Kester Black bound for Europe following capital raise
In FY22, the Melbourne-based company received a $24 million valuation.
It also raised $2.17 million to break into the European market and repopulate a supply chain that was cleaned out by a 900 per cent sale surge during the early stages of the pandemic.
Netherlands is now the third largest market for Kester Black, behind Australia and New Zealand, as the company looks to corner the skincare market and grow its international presence.
However, Ross says this journey overseas wasn’t without its hurdles.
“We started our move into Europe a few years ago but the timing wasn’t right and our fulfilment partner wasn’t set up properly, so when we got big accounts like Liberty London, NK Sweden or Dover Street Market in Paris we didn’t have enough capital to support them,” Ross explains.
“The UK was also a great option before Brexit, because we could easily ship there, but now that Brexit has happened it’s made things a little bit more complex and cut off that main market.
“Once we finished our capital raise last year, we decided that we would go back to Europe, rework things and do it properly.”
Kester Black has now firmly established its footprint on the continent with a new fulfilment partner in the Netherlands and a PR team on the ground.
She remarks that Europe is a place where a business can’t hope to “do all its marketing in English”.
“We’re testing to see which markets will be best for us and we will execute on those markets,” she says.
Success in an industry that isn’t geared for green
Nail polish and makeup are Kester Black’s bread and butter, despite the difficulties that come with bringing those products to market in a greenwashed industry that often buries the lede regarding true sustainability.
Ross says that the concept of carbon neutrality is particularly ironic, in that paying off one’s environmental impact is helpful, but it does nothing encourage the initial mitigation of impact.
“It’s so easy to pay money to offset credit, but it’s much harder to make changes in your business to not create that impact in the first place,” she says.
“We are working in an industry that is entirely about consumerism, and as a smaller business owner I’ve woken myself up to ask, how can we possibly be sustainable when we work in this consumer space?”
Ross refers to a lipstick bullet as a prime example of the beauty industry’s great green dilemma.
Every tube of lipstick on the market is made from a few different plastics and is too small for recycling streams, meaning that even when made with sustainable materials, the tube itself is no longer recyclable after use.
So even if a company were to make a lipstick tube out of 100 per cent recycled plastic, the product would end up in landfill regardless.
“So there’s our predicament,” says Ross.
“Do we make the lipstick knowing that the packaging will end up in landfill, even if it’s sustainably made?”
Kester Black has made its choice.
It’s determined to remain a company that leads the way in sustainability, promoting a clean model and implementing a buy-back scheme that aims to eliminate this recycling problem.
“The work around for us is a buy-back for our packaging so we can ensure that our products are recycled properly,” says Ross.
“Sustainability in the cosmetics industry is incredibly broad… it’s up to the recycling companies to do better.”
Skincare becomes Kester Black’s next frontier
Almost $1 million of Kester Black’s recent capital raise went into developing 16 new skincare products that are slated for launch in mid-2023.
Ross seized the opportunity to break into skincare after data proved its status as an in-demand market both during and after the height of the pandemic.
Kester Black has spent the past four years in research and development for its skincare line which aims to bridge the gap between clinical products and those that are more friendly to mass marketing.
“We’re focused on cosmeceutical skincare that is market ready,” says Ross.
“Clinical skincare tends to go down the no-fragrance path and it can sometimes feel like putting it on is a bit of a chore, which we don’t want people to think.
“We want our skincare to be ready for clinics but still have nice fragrances, nice colours and generally a nice experience.”
Kester Black remains one of the only Australian brands that has achieved sustainability B Corp Certified status and operates in both the colour cosmetics and skincare spaces.
According to Ross, Australia and New Zealand are both internationally known for producing great skincare, makeup and beauty products and Kester Black looks forward to upholding that reputation internationally.
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