The Circular Economy Is Coming Into Focus At Ulta Beauty With The Launch Of Rising British Brand UpCircle

One business’s trash can be another business’s treasure.

That’s the basis for UpCircle, the budding British brand that incorporates coffee grounds collected from cafes and coffee shops around London in scrubs; powder from apricot seeds discarded by the agriculture industry in face balm; chai spices that remain after brand Henny & Joe’s brews chai tea syrups in soap; and olive pits dispensed of during olive oil production in a face mask. The brand’s repurposing of regularly cast-off compounds is pushing the boundaries of sustainability in the beauty industry, where packaging has been the emphasis of late. (UpCircle pays attention to packaging as well. Its glass bottles, aluminum tubes and cardboard cartons are recyclable.)

“We were born out of the belief that there are things we historically considered valueless that have a huge amount to offer. There are many byproducts or leftover ingredients that would be typically thrown away, but actually have amazing skin benefits,” says William Brightman, a former trader and investment associate at Citibank and MSK Capital who founded UpCircle with his sister Anna, previously an area manager at Aldi. “Our mission is to transform these ingredients in the context of natural skincare formulation into products that deliver not only for the plant, but also for your skin. They will give you incredible results and delight you in a way that you will want to come back for more.”

Closing in on 2,000 retail doors, UpCircle is stocked by Ulta Beauty, Credo, Sainsbury’s, Holland & Barrett and Boots.

UpCircle’s circular approach to beauty merchandise has received a big endorsement from Ulta Beauty. Last month, the beauty chain put the brand in 768 doors and on its website. The Ulta Beauty rollout follows UpCircle’s American retail debut at Credo, and entrances into Boots, Sainsbury’s and Holland & Barrett in the United Kingdom last year. The expansion bringing the brand’s total retail door count to close to 2,000 is expected to help at least double its annual turnover, which will run north of $1 million for the fiscal year ending in March. UpCircle expects the United States to account for roughly a third of its revenues this year, and its direct-to-consumer channel outside of retail to account for about a quarter of them.

“Credo was able to support us with a bit of handholding to get everything set up for distribution and marketing, and they got their staff on board with our brand. They were great for our introduction to the U.S. market,” says Brightman. “The ability to now be offered in 768 Ulta stores across the U.S. is huge. It’s up to us to execute on the opportunity, and our focus is to make sure this is a long-lasting and mutually-successful partnership. We need to tell our story. We need to educate the consumer about who UpCircle is, what we stand for, and why should you try our products out of thousands of products.”

“We were born out of the belief that there are things we historically considered valueless that have a huge amount to offer.”

While beauty brands’ environmental footprints are becoming increasingly vital to consumers, they’re not the No. 1 deciding factor for purchases yet. To win them over, Brightman suggests UpCircle has to be on point with its formulas and prices. The brand prizes function and affordability with its 14 products in the masstige lane ranging from $9 to $24. Bestsellers include Organic Face Serum With Coffee Oil and Coffee Face Scrub Citrus Blend, and Brightman mentions UpCircle’s new products Cleansing Face Balm and Face Moisturizer are selling briskly out of the gate.

“The Cleansing Face Balm retails for $24, and you can see it compared to Eve Lom and Clarins in reviews that say it outperforms the higher-end brands. We are trying to create natural and sustainable formulations and packaging, but also the performance has to stack up,” stresses Brightman. “In fact, in many cases, our performance outperforms others, and that’s important for us in a very competitive industry.”

UpCircle co-founders and siblings Anna and William Brightman
UpCircle co-founders and siblings Anna and William Brightman

UpCircle’s mid-tier pricing broadens its demographic and retail reach. Early on, Brightman figured the brand’s audience would be largely female millennial and gen z consumers, particularly those concerned with sustainability and drawn to Instagram-friendly design. However, he reports UpCircle is attracting consumers from older generations, too, that are intrigued by its vegan, cruelty-free and natural attributes along with its performance, eco-consciousness and accessibility. The brand’s price positioning allows it to be relevant to a wide array of retailers from grocery concepts such as Sainsbury’s to specialty retailers like Ulta Beauty.

“Our ultimate ambition is to have an UpCircle product in every home, and we are not going to necessarily achieve that mission if our products are priced so highly that it’s an aspirational brand that can be only bought by a few,” says Brightman, adding, “What we are trying to do is to prevent as much as that waste or byproducts from going to disuse, and how we can do that is by using as much as possible and how we can do that is by stimulating as much demand as possible.”

“Our ultimate ambition is to have an UpCircle product in every home.”

UpCircle began life under the name Optiat with body scrubs in 2016. Last year, it underwent a major rebrand that changed it to UpCircle. The prior year, it completed a crowdfunding round amassing 217,500 pounds or about $282,000 from 377 investors to underwrite the overhaul. The brand, currently at a seven-person workforce encompassing full-and part-timers, has warehousing and fulfillment in the U.S., and anticipates planting an office in the country. Brightman acknowledges that cash flow is a constant challenge that could be alleviated with an influx of external funding, not that UpCircle is seeking it at the moment.

“When we think about funding, it’s always an interesting conversation. On the one hand, you want to grow and grow quickly. At the same time, you want to grow in a responsible way and not necessarily use investor cash. But it’s a highly competitive industry and, if you don’t raise, someone else is going to do it and might eat your lunch. It’s tricky,” says Brightman. “In due course, we will raise again because with factoring and other ways to finance your cash flow, you get to a natural limit. We want to make sure we can capitalize on the opportunities that Ulta and others offer us.”

Sustainable beauty brand UpCircle puts the byproducts of other industries in its formulas. For example, its body scrubs contain coffee grounds collected from cafes and coffee shops around London.

UpCircle isn’t out to pile up distribution immediately by pitching retailer after retailer. It’s driven to maximize the distribution it’s already accumulated. “Ulta is taking a leap of faith with us and, now, we have to prove ourselves to them,” says Brightman. “Sometimes, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Let’s get to 10,000 doors and job well-done,’ but the challenge for us is, once you get distribution, making sure it’s strong and performing well before expanding further.”