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GB: Nina (NZ), thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today! Can you start by sharing what inspired you to start Alder New York (as a clean, vegan skincare brand no less!) and how (if at all) your mission has evolved since the brand’s inception?
NZ: Absolutely. It all started with a book. David and I had a sustainable clothing line at the time, and I read this book called No More Dirty Looks – this is around 2011. And it blew my mind– it was all about the lack of FDA regulation in the cosmetic industry, and how many dangerous chemicals were in our products that we were using daily. It immediately made me want to do something. From there I started playing around with ingredients in my kitchen, with the idea of making some skincare products for myself and my friends. David suggested we put them in some cute packaging for the holidays, and all of a sudden this fun little hobby we were doing started getting a lot of interest. By 2015, we were both ready to do this for real– to launch a clean beauty line with intention behind it, and we closed our clothing line to launch Alder New York in 2016.
Our mission from the outset has been to create an accessible, truly clean product line of formulas that really work, designed for people that aren’t necessarily super knowledgeable about skincare, and can count on us for products that will make them look and feel their best. That is definitely still our mission.
GB: That’s an incredible story, thanks for sharing it with us. We know “clean beauty” has become something of a buzzword in the beauty industry, and that a shared definition can be hard to find. How do you define clean beauty, and how do you ensure that Alder New York’s products meet these standards?
NZ: Unfortunately the term “clean” has no legal definition, so it’s really hard as a consumer to know what is safe to use. Alder New York uses the Environmental Working Group (EWG)– a nonprofit organization focused on safe products– as our guide, and all of our products are either in the process of, or currently verified by them. That means that in addition to sulfates, parabens, and sodium laureth sulfates (SLS) that companies like Sephroa avoid, we also steer clear of any synthetic fragrance and polyethylene glycol (PEGS), which to me is a huge delineation between other brands and Alder New York. We perform rigorous testing even on the safe ingredients we use, to ensure they meet EWG standards. All of our products are also Vegan Action certified, which means we have to prove that every ingredient we use is both vegan and has never been tested on animals.
At the end of the day, this can all feel like super “in-the-weeds” information that I don't expect our customer to want to get that deep into, and that’s why they can rest easy knowing we did all that work for them. They can use our product and enjoy the beautiful, glowing skin they see as a result, without worrying about “clean” anything.
GB: Love all of that, especially since we know that the beauty industry unfortunately has a long history of “greenwashing,” often using misleading terms to market their products as more ‘clean’ or ‘green’ than they truly are. Emerging now is also this idea of ‘clean-washing.’ Can you share with us how you define green or clean-washing?
NZ: Of course. To me, “clean-washing” means using buzzwords that consumers associate with safety and sustainability without backing that up with actual meaningful action. Words like “green,” “clean,” and “eco” really don’t mean anything from a legal standpoint, sadly.
GB: Got it. So with this definition in mind, how might a consumer learn to identify when a brand may be green or clean washing?
NZ: Great question! I think that the easiest way to check a brand’s actual clean standards is to use the EWG’s Skin Deep database. It has been– and continues to be– our favorite way to check a product’s safety. You can type in the brand name, the product, or even a specific ingredient, and they give it a rating between 1-10: 1 being the safest, and they highlight any ingredients that may be problematic.
GB: Such a fantastic resource, thank you. We’d love to know: what advice would you give to consumers trying to navigate the (often confusing) world of clean beauty and choose products that are truly good for their skin and for their health?
NZ: This is a tough one because it’s such a bummer. Beauty products are supposed to be fun, and worrying about whether they’re safe feels like the opposite of that. I don’t think it’s reasonable for a person to have to scour the ingredients list of every product they use to ensure it’s safe, which is why we recommend the EWG database as a guide– they do much of that work for you.
The last thing I’d say here is that I do think the cosmetic industry has made great strides in the past few years, less because of any legal regulations, and more because consumers just expect better, safer ingredients these days. While there’s still plenty of green and clean-washing out there, even your average drugstore product is going to be safer to use than it was a decade ago.
GB: On that note, could you share how Alder New York is prioritizing sustainability, and what steps you all have taken to minimize your environmental impact?
NZ: The fact is that the very nature of creating products is unsustainable, which is something I will forever struggle with as a designer and a creator. With that being said, we put a lot of time and thought into the types of products we create. Are these ingredients safe for the body and for the planet? Are these products something someone will use? Are they serving a true purpose? By using animal-free ingredients that don’t cause harm to people or the earth, and that really work (which means they won’t just get thrown away), I know we’re creating products with intention.
In addition to our ingredients, we spend a lot of time thinking about our packaging. We’re very flexible to changing our packaging when there’s new, greener technology available. After conducting a life cycle analysis two years ago which was focused on the best materials for our products and the environment, we’ve updated our packaging to use 30% post consumer plastic bottles and 100% recycled Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper. We’re always revisiting our choices for future production runs and asking ourselves: does this material still meet our sustainability goals and standardS?
GB: Thanks so much for sharing your ongoing journey to prioritize sustainability. We’re so curious: as the co-founder of a clean beauty brand, how do you anticipate the beauty industry will evolve in the future, and what role do you hope Alder New York will play in this evolution?
NZ: Alder New York was an early pioneer in the clean beauty space, and I think we’re already seeing that impact. In general, beauty products are a lot cleaner than they used to be, and I think that has a lot to do with brands like ours paving the way and changing consumer expectations.
As we get further along, I’d love to start focusing specifically on fragrance. That’s still a gap in the clean beauty space since there’s a lot of murkiness surrounding what ingredients brands are using when they list “fragrance.” (Legally, brands don’t have to list the individual fragrances they use as it’s considered a trade secret, so there can definitely be some bad stuff hidden in that word.)
GB: Alder New York fragrance, please! Okay, last question since you knew we had to ask: What is your personal favorite Alder New York product and what are a few of the other clean products from small businesses that you’re currently crushing on?
NZ: Glad you asked! Our Nourishing Cream has become my desert island product. It’s an anti-aging cream formulated with Bakuchiol, this incredible plant extract that has the same clinical effects of retinol without the finicky / harmful side effects that come with retinol. My skin is noticeably plumper and dewier since I started using it and I will never not use it.
For all things hair care, my go-to brand is Act+Acre. Their hair mask is my new best friend since I highlighted my hair this winter and the texture turned to straw. This saved it!
For nail polish, I love Olive + June. Nail Polish is one of the trickiest products when it comes to clean beauty, with probably the farthest distance to travel in terms of safety. Olive + June has amazing colors and they really meet my clean standards.
Nina Zilka is the Co-Founder of Alder New York, a queer, vegan, cruelty-free, and woman-owned, independent skincare line that combines science-backed ingredients with time-tested plant extracts that leaves skin clear, healthy and balanced. First time shoppers can use code GOODBUY15 for 15% off their purchase with Alder New York.