Meet the Honorees: Carley Klekas, Principal of Product Sustainability, Sephora

by | Mar 15, 2022

The Environment+Energy Leader honoree program is an annual list that recognizes the environment and energy “doers” who break trail in creating new solutions, programs, platforms, best practices and products to help their companies – or other companies – achieve greater success in commercial and industrial environment and energy management. Meet the Honorees… is an ongoing series that will feature one E+E Honoree from 2022 each week. See the complete list of 2022 Honorees here.

Meet Carley Klekas, principal of product sustainability with Sephora North America, where she is responsible for driving sustainability and impact across the company’s brand partner portfolio. This includes developing resources, policies and programs around sustainability and safer chemistries, as well as offering guidance. “Sustainability is also very wide-ranging, so my areas of responsibilities can include anything from chemical management and addressing chemicals of concern in beauty and personal care products to sustainable packaging and climate change,” she says.

What are your daily activities like?

CK: Beginning in 2017, I oversaw the development and execution of our Public Chemicals Policy. It is industry-leading and transparently outlines nine chemical categories and 49 chemicals of concern across Sephora’s assortment, with the ultimate goal of phasing out these chemicals over time based on environmental and human health concerns. Similarly, I help to drive our work on Clean at Sephora, launched in 2018 and another industry-first, which outlines the ingredient guidelines for brands on our “Formulated without” list. This includes banned or restricted substances and impurities brands must adhere to be included in the Clean program and receive the Clean seal.

Most recently this year, Sephora launched its Clean + Planet Positive program, which includes everything that is in the Clean at Sephora program — looking at ingredients — but it also adds four new elements of the way the brands are doing business and bringing their products to market, focusing on a holistic sustainability approach. In order for brands to qualify and receive this seal, brands must meet all five criteria for clean ingredients, sustainability sourcing, responsible packaging, climate, and environmental giving. As part of my role in leading this work and creating the criteria, I work closely with our brand partners to analyze their products and ensure they meet the rigorous requirements and ongoing sustainability commitments to be in the program.

Can you tell us about your biggest sustainability challenge and how you are addressing it?

CK: Sustainability is complex, with no universal guidelines for everyone to follow. While this can be seen as a negative, it also allows retailers like Sephora, and sustainability aficionados like myself, to take charge and help shape and define it.

I’ve found that the industry can be counterintuitive to sustainability (which includes environmental impact but also health and well-being). And, historically, like many other industries, the beauty industry’s focus has been singular, in this case aesthetic, with much less focus on the full life cycle of a product and its impacts on human health and the environment.

But that’s all quickly changing now. I’ve worked in beauty and/or the sustainability industry for almost 15 years and it has evolved significantly. Clients and brands alike have increased appetites for sustainability. It’s become an expectation from clients, as they seek to support brands with a purpose and living out their values. The biggest challenge is understanding the impact a product has across a very complex supply chain and melding sustainability with luxury or performance, and unfortunately this isn’t always the easiest topic to explain to the general public. Ingredients are naturally extracted or synthetically manufactured in a lab (or sometimes both) all over the globe, packaging components are made in one place, while your formulator and contract manufacturer or company lab might be in another. There are sustainability impacts along every point and sometimes it can be difficult to address them, especially when you can’t get the info you need from a deep, complex supply chain.

This is exactly one of the reasons Sephora created the Clean + Planet Positive program which we launched in July 2021. Sephora did the fundamental work to develop and implement criteria, which in turn offer guidance to brands in their sustainability efforts and address these challenges universally. Brands in the program must meet criteria in five different categories for every single one of their products to be in the program. The criteria is robust, and can be complex, and we transparently share it online. The most challenging part of this process was developing the criteria, as we wanted it to be rigorous, holistic, and intentionally work with a small number of brands at the start, as to create change and impact among brands who didn’t qualify. We also wanted to highlight brands who are truly making an impact – and the good news is it’s working.

What was a successful project or implementation you worked on at your company that you can share? Do you have any tips that would help colleagues at other companies who are contemplating similar projects? 

CK: One of the most significant and industry-changing projects I’ve worked on at Sephora was creating the Public Chemicals Policy. As I mentioned, there isn’t a universal guiding principle for sustainability, so this project was a passion project for me and developed with a lot of TLC. This took several years from drafting to analysis to garnering internal buy-in, and finally being able to publish in 2019. As mentioned, this policy has nine chemical classes (49 individual chemicals) in which we are looking to phase out of our assortment over time. At launch we had a 50% reduction target in the first three years, a goal to increase ingredient transparency, and to support brands in finding safer alternatives and avoiding regrettable substitution for the high priorities chemicals laid out in the policy. Each year, we publicly report on the progress to reach our goals. Most recently this year, we were proud to announce almost 30% reduction of these chemicals in two years, transparently listing ingredients for 99.8% of our products online, including a significant increase for fragrance products. This increase for fragrance was a win in itself — fragrance transparency is a challenge in the industry as brands normally do not need to share the constituents or ingredients in their fragrance formula, commonly stating “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label. However, currently many fragrance brands are now increasing their transparency, with large brands even announcing policies around sharing their formula up to 95% by weight.

Overall, the industry is becoming less of a black box, which is inspiring to see. A great amount of work goes into making the progress we have made on the Chemicals Policy, which would not be possible without the amazing merchant team at Sephora, which works hand in hand with our brand partners to help make them a success.

What trends do you expect to see in the market in the next few years? What challenges will the industry face and what technologies or organizational changes will overcome them?

The cosmetics and personal care industry is all about trends! Much of the purchasing power has shifted to Gen-Z and millennials, and sustainability and other brand values are driving forces in their loyalty. When I started this work 15 years ago, sustainability was a challenging sell, and now it’s tablestakes.

One of the biggest and most important trends I am seeing now in sustainability is around plastic, using less or even eliminating it from your products. There are some very exciting brands working on circularity, zero waste, and creating products that don’t need much packaging at all. While there are certainly exceptions, I think the challenge for many legacy brands is incorporating some of these principles into their products, while a new indie brand might be able to take it into account from the start.

Another trend that’s becoming more popular is around minimalism (coined “skinimalism” in skincare) and using less products overall and simplifying your routine. The pandemic has shined a light on what’s most important in life, going back to the essentials of what it means to live a good life, and focus on the simple things that bring you joy. This has impacted beauty and goes hand in hand with sustainability. Everyone is always going to have an innate desire to look and feel great – that’s one of the reasons why beauty is timeless; I once read that the beauty industry is “recession proof.” During the Great Depression, lipstick sales soared because we all know a beautiful new lipstick color makes you feel good! Similarly, now there are many products that are multi-use or two-in-one, reusable or have refillable components. A luxury glass reusable jar is becoming cool…and there is really no reason to throw it away or recycle it if you can re-use it. Over-packaged products are dying out and there is a sense of quality instead of quantity. If this trend continues to increase, brands must continue to get creative, creating products that truly add to a client’s life and that have less of an impact on the environment. The sustainability journey is peaking in beauty and there is no sign of it slowing down. Doing things more sustainably feels good, too, and there is a lot of value in this as well.

Tell us about a favorite hobby, passion or book you’ve read recently that has had an impact on you and your work.

CK: I recently started reading Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer; it was gifted to me by a dear friend. The book is beautiful and profound – it’s about “indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teaching of plants.” It tells of beautiful stories of the relationship between humans and the earth and how that relationship has been overexploited and has depleted natural resources. It’s an inspirational tale and very relevant to the times we are living in where there is a great shift happening on our planet. We all have to remember and re-learn how to live in symbiosis with the earth. There is so much to learn from these stories and teachings that inspire my work and help drive me each day to create as much positive change as I can. Some days I feel like I am doing a great job on this and other days I wish I could do so much more, but it’s in the remembering and inspiring others that really drives me to do more and keep going. Working in sustainability is not for everyone, and it’s important to remind ourselves that everything you do plays a role on how we are collectively harmonizing with the planet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CK: I am incredibly grateful and excited to be a part of the 2021 E+E 100. I’m looking forward to learning more about the work others on the Honoree list are doing in their organizations. Thank you for this lovely honor!

Editor’s note: nominations are now open for this year’s E+E Honorees. Nominate a colleague — or yourself — for the 2022 E+E Honorees today.

Stay Informed

Get E+E Leader Articles delivered via Newsletter right to your inbox!

Share This