How the Beauty Brand Fresh Carved a Sustainability


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Jun 15, 2023

How the Beauty Brand Fresh Carved a Sustainability

By Laura Regensdorf All products featured on Vanity Fair are independently

By Laura Regensdorf

All products featured on Vanity Fair are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

It's a bright February morning at Bois Cheri, a 250-acre tea farm near the southern rim of Mauritius, when Alina Roytberg and Lev Glazman, founders of the beauty brand Fresh, arrive for a long-awaited site visit. The day before, it was pouring rain, as is often the case in this balmy, low-altitude stretch of the island, situated some 700 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. But today, the weather is a picture-perfect 82 degrees and sunny, as if minding its manners for jet-lagged guests. Cotton-ball clouds dot a serene blue sky, and underneath, rows of plush Camellia sinensis plants stretch nearly to the horizon. Tea has flourished—rather against the odds—on this plot of volcanic terrain since 1892, making loose-leaf tins of Bois Cheri a familiar sight in household pantries across the region. Now, in collaboration with Fresh, the property's single-estate black tea is pressed into a different kind of service: as a patented extract that powers the skin-reviving Tea Elixir Serum.

Mauritian tea, particularly rich in phytocompounds, powers an exclusive ingredient in Fresh's Tea Elixir Serum.

This kind of farm-to-bottle skin care has made occasional inroads in recent years, mirroring movements in food and fashion to elevate transparency within sourcing. Lately, as conversations around sustainability in the beauty industry advance beyond packaging concerns to encompass the full scope of production, the prospect of forging a direct partnership with a supplier means that a company like Fresh—well resourced, as part of the LVMH stable of brands—can help shape that arc from the ground up. "It's more than just an ingredient," explains Roytberg, with short-cropped hair and a pashmina guarding her arms against the sun. Quietly perceptive with an acerbic wit, she strikes a complementary foil to Glazman's bubbling enthusiasm. "It's not only about where the plant comes from—it's about the place where it grows and the people that harvest it," she says. "It's truly about the nature of the planet."

That message is front of mind for an island republic existentially primed to take climate change seriously. Solar panels and wind turbines dot the vistas on Mauritius, where the government has announced plans to phase out coal-based energy production by 2030. A roadside mural on the way to Bois Cheri shows a cartoon Earth pedaling a bicycle, with a reminder to "Please Recycle." In teaming with the tea farm, Fresh set out to become a member of the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT)—the first among the LVMH maisons to sign on with the nonprofit. "It's a global body, and we started with them during the pandemic, so it was really kind of a crazy time to [undertake] this," Roytberg says, reflecting on the maze of logistics. The organization verifies that companies uphold a suite of fundamental principles, which include conserving biodiversity and respecting labor rights—down to such specifics as accessible washrooms. "When you use ingredients not to feed yourself, but for cosmetics and other things, you want to find a way to do it sustainably," says Glazman, his eyes lighting up in the waist-high tea fields as a worker plucks a flush of young leaves. Nearby bushes reveal traces of previous machine-assisted harvesting, but Bois Cheri is further retooling its practices with the beauty brand's encouragement, leaning into hand-picking for the sake of the highest quality yields.

Newly picked tea leaves at Bois Cheri, which has been in operation since 1892.

For Glazman and Roytberg, who launched their business in 1991 and built an early fan base with Fresh's handsomely wrapped bar soaps, the appeal of tea has always been second-nature. The two hail from samovar culture: Roytberg is originally from Ukraine, while Glazman grew up in Russia and Israel. "When Black Tea launched in 2008," Roytberg says, referring to the initial face cream and mask that sparked an eventual collection around the antioxidant-rich ingredient, "it was the black tea of our youth." As much as there was an undercurrent of nostalgia for the founders, tea also acted like a skeleton key, slotting into similar rituals the world over. The first-hand glimpse into the Mauritian tea process cements what Roytberg—with more reverence than marketingspeak—calls a "journey in a jar." On the third floor of the Bois Cheri factory, just-picked leaves emptied from field sacks blanket one side of the room, as box fans help facilitate a 24-hour drying period. In another zone, the leaves are finely chopped, and the resulting powder migrates along a ground-level conveyor belt, shifting to a nutty oxidized brown during a brief fermentation period. The heady perfume in the air is uncannily familiar—akin to falling inside Alice in Wonderland's tea caddy.

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On the road to Bel Ombre, a biosphere reserve on Mauritius.

The other part of Fresh's involvement on the island is just as verdant, albeit in the primordial sense. The Bel Ombre Nature Reserve, a lush biosphere designated in 1977, encompasses a tropical evergreen forest that amounts to about 4% of the country's footprint. "It's the only pristine place left," says Vinesh Gopal, acting deputy director of the National Parks and Conservation Service, who spearheaded the recent effort to secure Bel Ombre's place in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme. "If Mauritius were flat, we would not have any native forest left." In other words, the industries that have transformed the island—notably sugar cane, introduced in the 17th century during the Dutch colonial period and cultivated throughout the subsequent French and British rule—would have spared no patch of earth, but for the fact of inhospitable terrain. It's worth remembering, Gopal points out, that Mauritius was once home to the poster animal of extinction. "The dodo was in fact the first species to be recorded as extinct," he says of the flightless bird devastated by early settlers and immortalized on the Mauritian rupee. An illustrated dodo also decorates the bright orange boxes of coconut-flavored Bois Cheri tea.

Left: A sapling ready to be planted in Bel Ombre. An estimated 100 species of native plants on the island are endangered.

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A similar fate looms for the island's biodiversity as a whole, between the destruction of virgin habitats and the encroaching reach of invasive animals and plants. Fresh aims to support such conservation efforts through a five-year commitment with UNESCO's MAB. As Agathe Bernadot, senior manager of sustainable development at Fresh, tells it, Gopal was the one who suggested focusing on a threatened plant from the IUCN Red List. "He said, ‘What if you were to adopt one species? That would be amazing.’ Then we took it up to our CEO, and she said, ‘Why not three?’" One is the crimson-petaled national flower, Trochetia boutoniana, also known as boucle d’oreille in Mauritian Creole—thought to be extinct for nearly a century, with some 500 plants currently in the wild. A palm tree (Hyophorbe vaughanii) and flowering shrub (Erythroxylum laurifolium) complete the trio. Rallying around native species might have another benefit. Because endemic forests are better adapted to the local environment, they might capture more carbon than planted vegetation, adds Gopal, who also serves as the park system's chief scientific officer.

Still, it's a tall order to bottle up this sweeping mission in the form of a serum. "Sustainability is not black and white. Clearly the most sustainable thing to do is not to consume," Bernadot acknowledges by way of a conscientious caveat. The goal, then, for the beauty brand was twofold. In the macro sense of the island, it was "to understand how we can really have an impact," she says. And on the microscopic level, the focus was on skin biology. The Mauritian tea—reportedly more than twice as rich in phytocompounds as other teas—fuels an exclusive ingredient called APT Technology. (Short for Adaptive Phytocompound Tea, the name also alludes to the chemical energy generated in mitochondria—a key process in healthy cellular function.) The Tea Elixir Serum is shown to boost skin metabolism, with reverberating effects that include a strengthened barrier and improved elasticity. A support network emerges, at once internal and spanning thousands of miles. "We have a friendship with this country right now," Glazman says, as enormous fruit bats circle at dusk, far in the distance. "That's pretty incredible."

Courtesy of Fresh

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