To show how sustainability is at the heart of a company, beauty brands are using food waste to market their ingredient stories.

In April, sustainable skin-care brand Circumference launched a cleanser featuring olive leaf extract, sourced directly from excess and unusable leftover leaves in the olive oil-making process. For the $48 product, the 3-year-old brand partnered with olive oil company Brightland to use leftovers from its California farms. The cleanser is the second product to launch under Circumference’s “Waste-Not Sourcing Initiative.” It first launched a moisturizer using leftover grape leaves from the wine industry in 2020 — it is currently the brand’s No.1 best-seller and sells for $120. Farmacy has also picked up on the trend, launching in April its own limited-edition cleansing balm that incorporates leftover apples, for $34. Farmacy has referred to the apples as an “upcycled” ingredient. It receives leftover apple extract from its ingredient supplier, which processes the waste material and prepares it for cosmetic use before sending it to Farmacy.

Leftover ingredients are often discussed under the umbrella of sustainability, in that food waste can create a circular system. As sustainability has become popular over the last several years, brands are trying to show their customers concrete examples of how it infiltrates all parts of the company. Though Farmacy does not reference the leftover usage of apples on its product description pages, it did mention it in social posts on Instagram when the cleansing balm launched.

“The industry was doing this already, but nobody talked about it,” said Kseniya Popova, Farmacy’s director of research and development. “But now we’re becoming more aware [of sustainability], and we want to put more into it. Instead of one [leftover] ingredient per formula, we want to [potentially] make a whole formula from waste.”

While leveraging leftover food waste as a sustainability tactic has begun to emerge, its usage is still nascent. Beauty brand Klur utilizes food waste within its limited-edition Surrounding Surfaces Cuticle Oil, for $44. It uses avocado and tomato seed oils that are typically discarded in the commercial food industry. But Klur does not reference the food waste sourcing, except in the ingredients list on its product description pages. And skin-care brand Superzero uses blueberries leftover from the juicing industry to create its cold-pressed blueberry seed oil for its Heavenly Hydration & Blue Light Defense Hand Balm Bar, which sells for $22. This is explained on the brand’s product description page. Meanwhile, zero-waste face mask brand Loli Beauty bases its entire ingredient portfolio on leftover organic foods like plums and sea buckthorn, and prominently displays this information throughout its e-commerce website.

“Customers I have spoken with are surprised and excited about the Waste Not Sourcing Initiative. When the public thinks about sustainability and conscious consumerism, they think about recycling or reducing waste. They think about the end product, but not about how something was created to start with,” said Jina Kim, founder and CEO.

While using leftover foods as ingredients may make sense for purportedly zero-waste brands like Circumference and Loli Beauty, there is little information to suggest that small brands doing this would have a discernible impact on sustainability. Food waste is a significant issue in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that it makes up 30-40% of the entire food supply, making up approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food, based on 2010 data. Consumer-facing food brands have tried to step in and monetize it, such as Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce, which offer subscription boxes of leftover or “ugly” fruits and vegetables. But these efforts have been criticized, in part, for not alleviating an issue but rather exacerbating it.

But another key benefit for brands is that using foods is inexpensive. In terms of costs, a Farmacy spokesperson said that, typically, the supplier provides the waste material either free of charge or for a nominal fee, while the brand pays for the costs of processing and shipping. The remaining biomass is then sold to other companies to be used to make animal feed, enzymes, pectins or organic acids. It’s a similar situation for Circumference, which once a year picks up an indeterminate amount of leftover olive leaves for free, but pays for the transportation to its lab facilities, said Chris Kim, Circumference COO and head of sustainability. After it has further extracted oil from the leaves, Circumference sends the rest back to California or to farms in New York, where it is used as mulch.

“Retailers, publications and influencers are all looking for ways to unpack the term ‘sustainability,’ and they’re all looking to talk about sustainability within beauty,” said Chris Kim. “[Sustainability] is not just about recycling packaging, but it’s also about understanding the idea of zero waste; it’s a straightforward story for everyone to understand and tell and translate.”