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Tanya Droege has six employees who mill the seaweed by hand.

Cristina Gareau/Handout

Five years ago, Tanya Droege was happily paddling her kayak around British Columbia’s coast, steadfastly combing its shores for seaweed. The ingredient is the cornerstone of her skin- and body-care line, Sealuxe. A typical day during springtime harvest began at low tide, when large brown Nereocystis luetkeana forests floated to the surface. Droege would hand-harvest the fronds, rinse them in fresh water and lay them out to dry across her boat.

Fast-forward to today and Sealuxe is going gangbusters. But success based on a single, naturally harvested ingredient poses a unique challenge. “Our seaweed grows in the pristine waters of the B.C. coast, away from heavy commercial boat traffic and industry,” she says. “Seaweed harvesting is still a seasonal business, so with any smaller supplier, planning is required.”

Today, Droege needs 70 laundry basket-sized containers of seaweed a month to meet demand in Canada and, as of this past January, the U.S. market. She has six employees who mill the product by hand, but the key to building her business was forming a stable and transparent partnership with a steady supplier. Droege tracked down a family-run B.C. kelp company that harvests along the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest to continue the work she and her small kayak could no longer handle.

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It’s this sort of direct relationship with farmers and suppliers – let’s call it “agri-beauty” – that’s traditionally given independents such as Sealuxe a leg up over the cosmetic industry’s big players. Brands such as Tata Harper, with its 1,200-acre Vermont farm, and Caudalie, which operates the organic Château Smith Haut Lafitte winery in Bordeaux, France, both have a long-standing connection to the land baked into their brands. Now, established cosmetics and skin-care lines are taking a cue from the upstarts and early adopters, changing how they source ingredients and allowing consumers to keep better track of what goes on their skin.

“Beauty is an extension of the overall wellness [people] care about so it makes sense that they expect transparency of ingredients in their products in the same way they expect this from the food they eat,” says Jane Nugent, vice-president of merchandising at Sephora Canada.

This year, French perfume, cosmetics and skin-care brand Guerlain started to publicly wave the sourcing flag to allow consumers the ability to trace their products’ ingredients back to their source. A scan code on each box lets the buyer know why a particular ingredient was chosen, where it’s from and even the factory where the packaging is made.

Guerlain was founded in 1828 by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, who insisted from the get-go on growing his own flowers for his fragrances. That practice continues today. In the Tianzi nature preserve in China, Guerlain protects and replants wild orchids in their natural habitat. Having reintroduced 25 different species of orchids and more than 12,000 specimens there, Guerlain ensures a sustainable supply of this precious raw material. And on the tiny, wind-swept island of Ushant off the coast of Brittany, Guerlain has partnered with UNESCO to protect the island’s black bee population. The bees’ sustainable habitat, free of pesticides and over-farming, ensures a steady supply of honey for Guerlain’s Abeille Royale skin-care line.

Transparency around this type of stewardship is important to building trust with shoppers. “Understanding that a brand uses their research and technology resources to find sustainable ways to cultivate and harvest ingredients gives consumers more confidence in their choices,” says Christopher Novak, vice-president of beauty at Holt Renfrew. “They can share in the responsibility the brand is taking to develop ingredients that are not only effective, but are mindful of the ecosystems that produce them.”

If there is a capital for agri-beauty, it’s Grasse in the South of France. It’s here that Chanel first partnered with the flower growing Mul family five generations ago, an operation that now spans almost 50,000 acres of flower-growing for Chanel fragrances including jasmine, may rose, tuberose, geranium rosat, and iris pallida.

Grasse is also a key source for Christian Dior, whose founder bought his Château de La Colle Noire near Grasse in 1951. It has long-term relationships with local growers such as Domaine de Manon and Emilie Carlo. Within the next three years, all of Dior’s raw materials from Grasse will come solely from these exclusive suppliers and satisfy all of its perfume needs.

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Across the Mediterranean, Morocco has long been connected to YSL Beauty’s eponymous couturier. Yves Saint Laurent was so inspired by the North African country and its natural splendour that he bought a villa there. Channeling that connection, the company took the step of opening the Yves Saint Laurent Ourika Gardens at the foot of the Atlas Mountains last year. It’s home to more than 40 botanical species, from lemon and olive trees to marigold, roses, irises and saffron, which are the backbone of the brand’s fragrance and beauty lines.

“The idea is to increase the capacity of the gardens by diversifying the production, to be able to create new ranges of products so that every new product will include an ingredient from the garden by 2023.” says Caroline Negre, YSL Beauty’s scientific communications director.

Divided into three sections, the garden’s first 64 plots are for growing plants that will be incorporated into those products. The second space is an experimental botanical area designed for testing new ingredients. And the third is a legacy garden that pays tribute to Saint Laurent and his passion for the country via a dozen plants and flowers such as hibiscus, zinnia and wheat. “The gardens are an incredible tool for the brand to manage the whole creation process from land to final product,” Negre says.

YSL’s elaborate operation is worlds away from the solo kayak used by Tanya Droege. But it’s clear that big beauty wants to convince you that their products are rooted in a similar farm-to-face approach, just grown on a completely different scale.

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