What goes into creating a vegan beauty brand?

It starts with finding the right manufacturer and sourcing raw ingredients, companies told Retail Brew.
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· 6 min read

It feels like we can’t go a week without a new celebrity beauty brand hitting our Instagram feed (and inbox). Lately, the trend on top of the trend is to make said lines vegan.

But, what goes into creating a vegan beauty brand? Star-backed or not, it starts with finding the right manufacturer and sourcing raw ingredients, companies told Retail Brew.

“Anytime that you are putting ‘vegan’ on the packaging, not only are you avoiding animal-derived ingredients, but you should also not be processed or manufactured with non-vegan ingredients,” said Emily Bowman, the founder of vegan hair-care line Lovesong Beauty. Not that it’s easy. Bowman said Lovesong interviewed some 30 different cosmetics manufacturers before landing on the right partner.

It took Davroe, an Australia–based vegan and cruelty-free hair-care brand, nearly 20 years to develop its current formulas, founder Mary Centofanti said. (Though founded in 1987, Davroe became fully vegan in 2007.)

  • The company said it only works with “accredited” manufacturers that can provide a material breakdown of ingredients before they can be sold and exported.

Choices for vegan brands have at least expanded over time, Centofanti noted. “Initially, it was a lack of choices in availability of raw materials, but more recently there are more options for manufacturers.”

Paint the picture: Obstacles remain, of course. “Being vegan was a challenge and still is, when it comes to creating colors—especially for everything that deals with the color red,” CEO Violette Serrat of Violette FR, a vegan and cruelty-free beauty brand, told us in an email. “For this, you usually use carmine (a little insect), and vegan red pigments are a new thing and are hard to find.”

Another example: Serrat said that Boum-Boum Milk, Violette FR’s three-in-one moisturizer, toner, and serum spray, contains fermented birch sap—it makes up more than a third of the product. But it is harvested once a year. “There are only 50 vendors in the world that produce this, and we had to hunt all 50 to build our supply chain,” she explained.

These complexities have made Serrat build in a longer buffer to actually create her products.

“The way to do it is to work much earlier than your launch date so that you have enough time to push vendors to find more diversity in their vegan raw material offering,” she noted.

  • To develop a skincare product, the brand—which was founded in April 2021—said it needs to plan three years in advance; it’s at least one and a half years for makeup.

Study hard: Sabrina Sadeghian, cofounder of 4AM Skin, added that it’s important to do your homework to ensure the ingredients are not only vegan, but also high quality. “We made sure to really study and emphasize the research coming out of each raw-material supplier for each ingredient chosen,” she said.

Seal the deal

Still, even after a brand does all that work on the backend, how can customers recognize that a company is truly vegan?

“When it comes to what the term means, we don’t always know,” Gabriella Baki, director of cosmetic science and associate professor of pharmaceutics at University of Toledo, told us. “‘Vegan’ is not a regulated term by the FDA.”

  • The FDA doesn’t have a formal definition for the term, just that a product doesn’t contain ingredients of animal origin. (All the brands we spoke to meet those standards.)
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The only way to ensure a product is vegan, Baki said, is to get a third-party certification, counting PETA’s Global Beauty Without Bunnies, Vegan Action, and the Vegetarian Society as some examples.

But, but, but: “Even these organizations themselves have different definitions of what it means to be ‘vegan,’” said 4AM Skin’s Sadeghian. “For us, we know that vegan means we don’t have any animal products or byproducts in our ingredients and that that’s a standard we’ve abided by.”

(For what it’s worth, when we surveyed consumers about sustainability in July with Harris Poll, we asked if certain labels held more sway than others: “all natural” and “eco-friendly” made the most impact.)

“Many products have ‘vegan’ label claims, but not all vegan claims are created equally,” said Carissa Kranz, the CEO of BeVeg, a worldwide vegan certification standard accredited by the International Organization for Standardization. “There are several levels of vegan compliance.”

BeVeg, for instance, requires no trace animal contamination and no animal testing or exploitation at all levels of the manufacturing and production process. It also conducts audits to make sure standards are met.

PETA’s Global Beauty Without Bunnies program—which can certify that a company doesn’t test on animals, along with being vegan—requires brands “submit detailed paperwork that describes how the companies test their products, where they are sold, what kinds of products they offer, what kinds of ingredients they use, and their supplier agreements,” Amanda Nordstrom, PETA’s company liaison for the program, told us in an email.

  • There are 5,700+ animal-testing-free companies on PETA’s Global Beauty Without Bunnies list, and more than half (3,203) are also certified vegan, Nordstrom noted. (Davroe is among them.)

Tag, you’re it: A certification from PETA is free, but there is a one-time $350 licensing fee if a company wants to use the global “animal test-free” or “animal test-free and vegan” logos. At BeVeg, meanwhile, the cost depends on a few factors, including the number of products applied for and how many manufacturing plants need to be audited, Kranz said.

Lovesong told us it’s currently in the process of obtaining additional certification beyond the FDA. But it didn’t feel feasible starting out, Bowman explained, citing costs, which she claimed could be as high as $3,000, depending on annual revenue.

  • “We definitely weren’t at a point when we were initially launching, being family-owned, to sign up for one of those seals,” she said.

Show up: Price tag aside, Baki at the University of Toledo noted these programs are still a solid starting point for a new brand, using their criteria as a product guideline of sorts. “Those certification descriptions basically give you good ideas on how to approach those requirements and what sorts of things to look out for,” she said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.