Veteran scientist Dr Mike Thair from Indochine Natural delves into what’s wrong with the USD 500 billion-dollar global beauty industry.
From lotions and soaps to oils and serums, the products we lather on every day are typically (and infamously) riddled with numerous toxic chemicals, but artisan skincare company Indochine Natural is working to shift that norm.
Co-founded by a married couple, Australian scientist Dr Mike Thair and Vietnamese fashion designer Le Thanh Thuy, Indochine Natural is a research-driven skincare company headquartered on Penang Island, Malaysia. Following a career spanning more than 40 years across numerous sectors including agriculture and environmental science, plus a resume that boasts prestigious clients including World Bank, Asian Development, UN, USAID and AusAID, Dr Mike Thair made the bold move to focus on natural skincare products back in 2006.
Here, Dr Mike Thair shares some very candid thoughts on the global beauty industry today, the changes that need to be made, and the small steps that he and Le are taking to make all the difference.
What are your thoughts on the mainstream beauty and body care industry?
I see the mainstream industry as one that is literally burning up in its own forward momentum. It’s an industry dominated by a small group of large, multinational corporations and they seem to say and do the same thing. ‘Consumer choice’ – what choice? There isn’t much. Most skincare brands are copying each other, producing the same stuff in the same way. You can choose a brand, but what is the brand? Where are their products made of? Under what conditions are the workers making products? Many brands make nothing; they grow nothing. They’re just an image – their convenience, consistency, and comparatively lower cost support the focus on the corporate bottom line. The result is retail shelves overcrowded with synthetic products and consumers overwhelmed with unnatural smells. Consumers have lost their ability to appreciate the subtlety of natural fragrances and ingredients.
What do you believe to be the determining factors of successful, sustainable business practices?
Transparency is a significant factor. I believe it to be the very basis for any eco-conscious enterprise. But, many businesses haven’t taken any action to reduce their social and environmental impact, yet they feel it’s okay to jump on the ethical and sustainable bandwagon. Then, they promote these ‘features’ over the real ones, which, in fact, may not be eco-friendly or sustainable.
Obviously, significant sustainability initiatives will have to be driven by large retailers and companies. In the marketplace, indie retailers typically stock indie brands and many of these have taken sustainable business practices on board. But, these brands are not producing enough product volume to have any significant impact. Small retailers are too small to dictate environmentally sustainable supply chain requirements to their brand partners. The fact is that we are in an environment now where transparency is demanded but rarely enforced. And it’s not an environment where transparency, quality, and ethical and sustainable business practices are as important as the aesthetics of the finished product.
How much of a role has your background in science played when it comes to choosing the natural ingredients for your products?
It’s not just about choosing our natural ingredients; I have taken the concept further than that. I’m an old scientist – I’ll be 70 on my next birthday, so my scientific background is very traditional. I’ve also always been fascinated by natural ingredients, the stories of the growers, and the historical spice trade between Indochina and Europe. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed ‘making stuff’.
The stories of our ingredient growers and the countries where our ingredients are cultivated are unchanging. I find these stories fascinating. They are timeless and intrinsically simple. At Indochine Natural, we believe that the natural body care enjoyed by earlier generations should also be available to us today, every day. Therefore, combining these elements, the ingredients we use must be of plant origin and harvested by human hands using traditional methods. We work with plant oils, either distilled or cold-pressed. Ingredient transparency is paramount. Full traceability of every plant ingredient used is a must.
Product inspiration comes from the connection with our natural ingredients. I link this to my enjoyment of solitude. On Penang Island, we live in a very peaceful environment surrounded by sea and rainforest. I experience beauty each morning with the sunrise and the sounds of animals stirring to face a new day. I can find none of this in any modern cosmetic formulation laboratory. So, with this old world background and our immediate environment, our mindset is to source the finest natural ingredients and to get the very best out of these ingredients using meticulous, time-honoured traditional processes. We do this using our somewhat unorthodox methods of small-batch production – a far cry from the giant industrial vats of modern, synthetic production practices.