For actress, mother and skincare magnate Jessica Alba, luxury is about peace of mind— knowing that the things you buy won’t hurt you or the earth,
Jessica Alba never envisioned herself as a business mogul. She has always been conscious of the environment (“I think it’s a generational thing, this type of awareness,” she says), but she was never particularly entrepreneurial. The Dark Angel actress, who became a fixture on Hollywood sexiest people lists after lead roles in hit movies such as Honey (2003) and Sin City (2005), was content with her acting career until she gave birth to her first child. Honour, born in 2008, changed everything.
Having suffered from acute allergies and asthma as a child, Alba was determined to raise her daughter in an environment free from the irritants and chemicals common in baby, household and personal care products. She searched for goods derived from natural ingredients but found her options shockingly limited. She wondered: how, when her contemporaries were so concerned about the health of the planet and of themselves, there were no ethically produced, safe alternatives to the synthetic, cheaply formulated goods on the market?
Alba founded the Honest Company four years later. In the six years since 2012, her startup has become a household name, with a staff of over 300 and a recent valuation of more than US$1 billion. Her brainchild produces baby products, personal care products, vitamins and household cleaning products that are vegan and organic where possible, and free of substances like BPA, silicones and polyethylene glycol. Honest only caters to the US market at present, but Alba says she “would love to expand into Asia.”
“Every step of the way it has been a daunting endeavour,” says the mother of three on the phone from New York, where she is on a business trip. The 37-year-old Californian speaks calmly and deliberately. Her manner is more serious, more professional than her on-screen personas might have one believe (Alba is often cast as a sexy femme fatale or a sweet girl next door). She’s the first to admit her journey into consumer goods has been challenging. “When it comes to starting something you’ve never done before, you kind of have to fake it until you make it because you don’t know if it’s going to work and you don’t know if anyone is going to be interested in your business. You have to learn as you go.”
As founder, she guides strategy, marketing and product innovation, and always personally tests the products before they hit the shelves. “We have skincare chemists on staff in my office so that when they make products, I can go down the hall and poke around and change things. I can say, this is too creamy or not creamy enough, I want the serum to look like this or feel like this or smell like that, so I help develop stuff with the chemists right there. That’s what’s really special about what we do.”
Honest is one of many natural skincare brands, such as Drunk Elephant, Amala and Susanne Kaufmann, that have shot to prominence in the past few years. But toptier mainstream brands—ones you might see in the duty-free section at international airports—haven’t yet shifted their focus to the natural. How long, I ask, until these brands are forced to rethink their formulations and marketing strategies?
“Things will start to change as people have more information about the potential harm that these [chemicals] can do to our bodies over time, and the optionality around ‘better for you.’ I formulate with a really, really strict ingredient list and it’s hard to create stable formulas that are actually effective and are on par with traditional brands. I think there is a misconception that [natural products] won’t really work, but we’ve proven that they really do work.
“When will the tide change? It’s really about consumer behaviour. Those big brands will follow consumers but they won’t lead the charge because it’s cheaper doing it the way they’re doing it; it’s expensive to invest in alternative ways of formulating and if you’re a publicly traded company, it’s hard to justify making less money.”
When she’s not tinkering with potions and lotions, acting or supporting one of the many causes she’s passionate about, Alba relishes doing “normal stuff ” with her children. “[Since becoming a mother] I feel like my priorities in life have 100 per cent switched to the health and well-being of my kids. That is the number one thing, and work and my career and everything else is a distant second to them,” she says.
Alba and her husband, Cash Warren, an actor and producer, love to hike, go to the park and play board games with their brood, although son Hayes, born in December last year, is a little young to get involved in games of Monopoly. Alba is also a seasoned scuba diver. “That is not that relaxing though,” she laughs. “It’s so fun to do but I don’t live in a scuba dive-friendly place. There’s lots of kelp in the ocean around California. It’s not clear and there’s not like a bunch of coral or anything.”
Women’s magazines often laud Alba for her relaxed but polished style. Her modus operandi when it comes to fashion, she says, is to shop “with intention,” a strategy that serves to safeguard the environment as well as her sartorial reputation. “You don’t need to be on trend all the time. A more classic aesthetic is more important than just following a trend that may or may not be what’s right for you. There are brands that are more conscious about how they are resourcing and it’s great that those types of brands can also be luxury and that people have options.”
Her mission, as she sees it, is to promote a more ethical consumer mindset, no matter what people are buying. “I think that in general, we all should be responsible and take care of our planet. We need to be more mindful of the fact that there is only a finite amount of resources on our planet. We should be more mindful of how we utilise them.”
If the impossibly busy Alba—a film star, mother of three and boss of 300—can do it, surely we can too.
WORKING MUM Jessica with her two daughters, Haven and Honor, at an event for the Honest Company in New York