Groundbreaking Sustainable Makeup Brand Athr Beauty To Close

Athr Beauty, a clean makeup brand that accomplished many firsts for sustainable beauty, will shutter its operations in July.

Launched as Aether Beauty in 2018 by Tiila Abbitt, a former senior director of product development at Sephora, it encountered a myriad of difficulties that have hobbled indie beauty businesses, including heightened customer acquisition and ingredient expenses, but lawsuits in particular were a hurdle it couldn’t clear. The brand faced four major legal challenges during its tenure, the costliest one from apparel line Aether that resulted in it rebranding as Athr Beauty and having to quickly move through units with its original name.

“Athr Beauty has been very up and down. Every time we would reach these great highs, we were hit by some sort of lawsuit, and each time it pushed us back further and further, hitting us with incredible costs, time and stress,” says Abbitt. “Unfortunately, the only thing that really wins in this world is having deeper pockets. They were willing to fight us and go to court, and we didn’t have a million dollars to defend ourselves.”

While working at Sephora, Abbitt detected a gap in the cosmetics arena for a clean makeup brand that performed on par with its conventional makeup competitors—and formulated Athr Beauty’s products to fill that gap. But she pushed its mission far beyond clean formulas to set new standards in sustainable beauty. Athr Beauty constructed eyeshadow palettes with Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper, water-based soy ink and recycled aluminum pans to be zero waste, and its mascara featured a recycled ocean plastic tube with a biodegradable wand.

Athr Beauty brought sustainable product innovations to the beauty industry. It constructed zero-waste eyeshadow palettes from Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper, water-based soy ink and recycled aluminum pans. MICHELLE HERRICK

A benefit corporation from the beginning, the brand also partnered with the organizations 1% for the Planet and Surfrider Foundation, brought 20-plus brands together to participate in a Good Vibes Beauty Box championing environmental causes, pursued fair-trade sourcing and teamed up with green packaging resource Boox for reusable shipping containers. Athr Beauty estimates it saved 650,000 packaging components from landfills.

“Athr Beauty was more than just a beauty brand. They were a force for change in an industry often criticized for its environmental impact,” says Angela Dubia, owner of the e-tailer Safe & Chic. “Tiila, the owner of Athr, never shied away from taking bold steps to reduce waste and foster sustainability, even when doing so was neither easy nor profitable. Their devotion to creating a more sustainable future was evident in every aspect of their operations, from the products they created to the way they conducted business.”

“Athr Beauty was more than just a beauty brand. They were a force for change in an industry often criticized for its environmental impact.”

Jaleh Bisharat, co-founder and CEO of e-tailer NakedPoppy, says, “We’re saddened on so many levels to learn of Athr Beauty’s closure. They’ve moved the beauty industry to a whole new level of innovation when it comes to creating wonderful color products that are better for our health and better for the environment. We’ll sorely miss them and know our customers will, too.”

At its height, Athr Beauty was available in 1,200 doors at Sephora, Credo, The Detox Market, Free People, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, Douglas and over 200 boutiques and e-tailers. It has roughly 20 products priced from $20 to $58, and bestsellers are the Rose Quartz Crystal Gem Palette, The Big Bang Mascara and Desert Rose Lip + Cheek Oil Stain.

Athr Beauty founder Tiila Abbitt

In 2021, Athr Beauty raised $333,403 on the crowdfunding platform Republic. Still, it didn’t have sufficient resources to recurrently support distribution at big retailers. According to Abbitt, Sephora cut ties with the brand early this year. At the retailer, Athr Beauty had garnered the highest customer ratings of any clean makeup brand. Lilah B and Bite Beauty, brands that were its clean makeup contemporaries at Sephora, closed last year. 

“A lot of the brands that succeed have investors that have the money to propel them by supporting a large retailer and a large marketing budget,” says Abbitt. “There’s a huge gap between smaller brands and a brand that has received a large amount of investor funding, I’m talking about $1 million or more.”

“When you are seeing how much it costs to get your name out there, it’s a huge loss because a smaller player like myself can’t really play anymore.”

She adds, “I self-funded the brand by taking out a second loan on my house for $100,000, and I did a million out of the gate. Unfortunately, the headwinds kept coming so we weren’t able to regain traction. Before, people said it takes $1 million to launch a beauty brand. Now, people are saying it takes $5 million. When you are seeing how much it costs to get your name out there, it’s a huge loss because a smaller player like myself can’t really play anymore.”

Reflecting on Athr Beauty’s trajectory, there’s little Abbitt would’ve done differently. However, if given a redo, she would’ve focused on messaging centered on the brand’s efficacy and fundraised before its launch. Once a brand is on the market, Abbitt says, “Many investors aren’t interested unless you are at $5 million in revenue, which, when you are bootstrapped, is very hard to get to.”

Athr Beauty is among a number of beauty brands to announce closures recently. Preceding it, Bite Beauty and Lilah B, two of its clean makeup contemporaries at Sephora, shuttered operations. GEORGE KAMPER

Discussing messaging around efficacy and sustainability, Abbitt mentions sustainability ranked low in terms of makeup consumers’ priorities until recently. “It takes a lot of explanation and, if you have to explain more than three aspects of something, you are going to lose people,” she says. “I think timing has to do with it—and the time for sustainability in cosmetics is now, which is amazing. I’m excited to see that people are looking for products that are doing better for the planet.”

To thrust sustainable beauty forward, Abbitt believes brands should shift away from palm oil and petroleum-based ingredients. “A lot of brands check a box with sustainability, package something with a percentage PCR and call it a day. I really hope brands continue to push the needle even more with what they are doing sustainably,” she says. “There are brands like Axiology, Common Heir and Everist doing cool things in the space. A lot of the smaller brands aren’t getting credit for what they’re doing because they don’t have the dollars to put their names everywhere.”

Abbitt is adamant she won’t launch another brand in the future. After paying herself an annual salary of $50,000 twice throughout the history of Athr Beauty, the prospect of a regular paycheck is attractive, and she’s driven to make an impact on product development at a broader scale. She says, “There is only so much I can do as a small indie brand. I really want to work for a company where I might have more leverage because it has a bigger footprint.”

Margarita Arriagada, founder of refillable luxury lipstick brand Valdé and previously chief merchant at Sephora, has no doubt Abbitt will continue to make an impact. “For as long as I have known her, she is the real deal, someone that walks her principles,” she says. “She has always been progressive about raising awareness and conscience around sustainability. I cannot be more proud of her pioneering in beauty through the creation of her brand and being the first to market a fully sustainable assortment.”