Interview – Jan Kusmirek


Medical herbalist and clinical aromatherapist Jan Kusmirek has long worked with natural cosmetics. Now semi-retired he is still involved with the industry and is still passionate about naturals, but is not always impressed with what he sees, he tells SPC

Medical herbalist and clinical aromatherapist Jan Kusmirek has long worked with natural cosmetics. Now semi-retired he is still involved with the industry and is still passionate about naturals, but is not always impressed with what he sees, he tells SPC

The global market for natural and organic cosmetics reached $7.9bn worldwide in 2008, representing 15-17% growth on the previous year, according to Organic Monitor, and despite the fact that growth is thought to have dropped to a more modest 3-5% it is one healthy market and a great many people want a slice of it.

“My purpose in life is to get people to use [natural materials] but to know their limitations,” says Jan Kusmirek. As far as he’s concerned it’s all about farming. “I don’t think the consumer realises this and marketing has done a disservice by selling things cheaply. We’ll pay through the nose for something like a microchip but not for a potato which is costing the earth.” Not that he claims to be a purist. “The issue should be the environment first and that is the soil.” He cites palm oil as an example of where we could have got a lot out of something if it had been grown organically rather than as a commodity. “Not that organic is the be all and end all, and the certification has not been advantageous to farmers as they need the money in the first place.”

Kusmirek actually began his working career in the plastics sector, writing technical material for an engineering company. However, describing himself as a child of the 60s, he says he got to thinking there was more to life than chemistry and turned to areas including naturopathy and medical herbalism. He also became marketing manager of the Soil Association before setting up Fragrant Earth as a specialist supplier of essential oils and perfumery components, leaning heavily on contacts he had made within the organic movement.

At the same time came a move into product development, the first project being skin care brand Origins, an idea, developed with Alban Muller and Jim Bullen, of creating a natural range that was actually active. Estée Lauder bought the brand and ultimately developed as its own Origins, now a huge global brand.

The Elemis brand followed, with Kusmirek working with Linda Steiner in 1989 to develop this originally as a retail range intended to be as near to nature as possible. In fact he still consults for the company as he considers it a very ethical business. While Elemis no longer positions itself as a ‘natural’ brand “it still uses genuine materials in terms of raw material supply and aromatics and the team has always given creativity to the plant,” says Kusmirek.

In terms of the materials he’s impressed with the likes of Gattefossé, Seppic and Solabia, “as they’re still using good materials”.

While Fragrant Earth focuses on the supply of essential oils, Kusmirek also established Gerera as an independent consultancy, designing and formulating cosmetics, toiletres and fragrances. Clients have included Avon, Boots, Body Shop, Elizabeth Arden, Neutrogena, Liz Earle, E’spa, Nude and Nelsons.

Kusmirek is not a huge fan of the plethora of labels that have sprung up in the natural and organic sector. “It’s a group of people deciding what’s good and what’s bad,” and saying something has a toxic effect or that something is refined can itself be crazy. “The more we grow organically the less we are inclined to ‘over-process’, but the processing itself is not necessarily wrong. We’ve got to get across the message to consumers that chemistry isn’t bad; an egg is natural but an omelette is pure chemistry. What I don’t like in the organic movement is that to some extent it is selling a fear.” Kusmirek also says it can be frustrating working with the Soil Association “as people are very brand conscious and are sometimes overly influenced by journalism and PR when they should tough it out more”.

Fairtrade he considers laudable, “but we have to be very careful about getting involved in other people’s lives, and we in the west have a nasty way of telling people how to live. Also, sometimes someone ends up wealthy but it doesn’t necessarily benefit the whole community”.

But Kusmirek is definitely in favour of the move away from negative advertising in France. “It will help the organic movement as it will make people think,” he says. At a recent organic show he attended he says everyone was making free-from claims, “and some of the explanations were very extreme – for example, ‘doesn’t promote cancer’”.

And of course the term organic is often subject to misuse. Kusmirek says: “I’ve just come back from Japan and all they talk about is organic, but there it has come to mean some nebulous natural – and there’s no worse offender than the cosmetics industry. We’re all in business in the industry but we rely on something that is growing in the ground and we’ve become completely disconnected with that.” He believes many see naturals as easy money and doesn’t know whether there’s any chance of redemption.

It can also be tough to maintain a truly natural/organic position, particularly if you’re mass market. “If you’re starting from your kitchen table with a great supply and you get a huge order, what are you going to do? Turn it down?” Kusmirek believes the best thing to do is buy forward to keep ahead of what you’re doing, as Elemis does. However: “Elemis has no organically certified products and never will as it’s too big to sustain that. You have to decide what your point of compromise is, because you will have to compromise somewhere.”

He applies the same rationale to acquisitions. One company he very much admires is Liz Earle. So will its acquisition by Avon change things there? “I’m a realist – how can you maintain it?” says Kusmirek. He also bemoans changes at the one-time co-operative Sanoflore, bought a few years ago by L’Oréal. “You can’t go worldwide with a brand and maintain that unless the world changes. At the moment we’re putting more and more pressure on limited resources and we’re bound to cut corners at some point.

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“It’s not just a question of yield or sustainability but how much we’re prepared to pay and at the moment we’re just not.”