It can be difficult to measure the sincerity of those who work in sales. Do they really believe in the thing they're selling, or are they just trying to make enough bucks to win a bonus, a trip to the Caribbean, perhaps a shiny baby-pink SUV? Of course, the answer can be both, but it's a hell of a lot easier to decipher someone's intentions when the reward for their hard work is... more work. That's the case with Beautycounter, a clean-beauty company with a network of 30,000 consultants. They're not just acting as direct sellers of the brand's skin, makeup, and hair products, all of which are formulated without 1,500 chemicals believed to be questionable or harmful, they're also fighting to change the laws around those chemicals.
If it sounds obvious that potentially unsafe ingredients shouldn't be in the products you're putting on your face every day, then you're more logical than the U.S. government, which has only banned or partially restricted 30 of them (compared to the European Union's ban on approximately 1,400). But don't be so quick to blame the FDA. In order to regulate formulations of personal care products, Congress first needs to pass a law that would give the FDA the power to — and they haven't done that since 1938, back when beauty companies were still peddling mercury as a miracle acne treatment.
Beautycounter has made it its mission to change this and the company is throwing its full support behind the Personal Care Products Safety Act (PCPSA), a bipartisan bill cowritten by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) that aims to promote transparency in the industry and give the FDA more authority over cosmetics safety regulations. The bill may be up for a vote later this year, and Beautycounter is making every effort to ensure it passes, largely through lobbying elected officials.
That's where the big prize for the consultants comes in: Last week on March 5, 100 Beautycounter sellers found themselves lobbying on Capitol Hill, having won the opportunity as a result of being the two highest sellers in their respective state. Sure, they got a nice hotel stay, a gift bag, and a couple Champagne-fueled dinners, but they were really there to shuffle from meeting to meeting for eight hours straight, sharing their personal stories — of cancer, chemical reactions, concern for their children and the environment — in hopes of convincing senators of the importance of the bill. For many, it was the first time they'd ever lobbied, and a number of the women said upfront that they didn't consider themselves political. And yet here they are.
Even in the age of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and national school walkouts, very few brands are building a business model around social activism. Beautycounter is certainly an outlier, especially among the direct-selling set. Mary Kay has teamed up with Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) to draft legislation opposing the PCPSA; The CEO of SeneGence International, distributor of the popular LipSense product, was a top donor to the anti-regulatory Trump administration. (Among the LipSense sellers we talked to, most preferred to keep business and politics "separate.")
But Beautycounter founder and CEO Gregg Renfrew never considered creating a company without a social mission when she started out just five years ago. "Advocacy is a core part of our brand, and our work is making a significant impact on peoples’ lives. We have created a unique opportunity for women and men to earn an income while simultaneously having significant social impact," she says. "It's empowering to realize that your voice can be heard in the halls of Congress, and to know that together our voices will change an industry."
The brand's representatives are proof that political action can work as an incentive to move product, even more than flashy jewelry and trips. Stephanie Cahill, a consultant in New Hampshire, is an oncology nurse and mother of a son with special needs who is passionate about regulating carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals in everyday products. "I'm not one to be motivated by material things such as earning a car, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience to participate in the democratic process on Capitol Hill was incredibly motivating and taught me how easy it is to set up an appointment with your elected officials, and how much they value hearing from their constituents," she says. (While there, Cahill asked staffers what convinced New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan to co-sponsor the bill and was told that the 30+ calls, emails, and letters to the office over a year helped her realize that the issue mattered.)
When I returned home from D.C., the first thing out of my daughter's mouth was, 'Mommy, did you change the world?'"
Alabama Beauty Consultant Lynn Cooper
Alabama consultant Lynn Cooper created a business plan specifically to win the trip, because she wanted to leave "an impactful and long-lasting legacy" for her children and generations to come. "You cannot put a price tag on those things," she says. "The example I am setting for my children is immeasurable. When I returned home from D.C., the first thing out of my daughter's mouth was, 'Mommy, did you change the world?'"
Needless to say, these aren't the Avon ladies as imagined in Edward Scissorhands. There's a drank-the-Kool-Aid vibe to any organized group, though, and Beautycounter isn't completely immune — 100 smiling, conventionally attractive, mostly white women with the same red lipstick and matching totes still looks like a sorority. But this club's different. "Activism is one of the main reasons I joined," Rhode Island consultant Meredith McBride says. "We're not just selling lipstick, we are making history."
Travel and accommodations were provided to the author by Beautycounter for the purpose of writing this story.