In 2015, Jenn Harper had a dream that proved to be life changing — not only for her, but also for a $500 billion beauty industry struggling with sustainability and diversity challenges.
“This was a real dream, not a metaphorical dream, of little Native girls dancing, giggling and exuding such genuine joy — and they were covered in lip gloss,” Harper told TriplePundit. “I woke up and instantly wrote down what became my business plan. I always say this, but the world didn’t need another lipstick brand. What the world did need, however, was more representation.”
Harper is now the CEO of Cheekbone Beauty, which she founded from her basement in Ontario, Canada, back in 2016. The company is built on the principles of high-quality, cruelty-free beauty products with low environmental impact.
Harper’s Anishinaabe roots became a part of the creative process — inspiring the product names. A portion of the sales are donated to help address the educational funding gap for Indigenous youth. To date Cheekbone Beauty has donated over $150,000 to various causes.
“I really wanted to create a brand that highlighted Indigenous faces and gave back to the community,” Harper told 3p. “On a personal level, I felt a lack of belonging in the space, and I never wanted another Indigenous youth to feel that way again.”
Harper uses her platform to shed light on the impacts of intergenerational trauma within Indigenous communities as a result of Canada’s history of forcing Indigenous children to attend boarding schools from the 19th century until the 1970s.
“In Canada, the government tried to assimilate Indigenous people by forbidding our ways of life — our food, our dress, our language,” she said. “Our children were taken from their families and put into residential schools where they were forced to adapt to a European way of being. These traumas continue to be passed on. Our community needs to know they’re not alone. We need to recognize the pain and trauma that Indigenous families have experienced in order to start healing.”
From that painful history, Harper found healing and a concept for products that do not add to the beauty industry’s huge environmental challenges, such as excessive packaging, plastic pollution and unsustainable resource consumption. The global cosmetics sector creates 120 billion pieces of packaging every year, the recycling company TerraCycle told the Guardian.
Harper is on a mission to address these challenges with sustainable products rooted in Indigenous teachings and ways of being. Cheekbone Beauty’s brand statement — Indigenous Roots, Sustainable by Nature — says it all.
“Indigenous people are the OG’s of sustainability,” she said. In line with her Anishinaabe roots, Cheekbone’s sustainability journey looks to blend Western science with Indigenous wisdoms — a co-learning concept known as Two-Eyed Seeing, developed by Mi’kmaw elder Dr. Albert Marshall. “This concept nurtures the strengths of Western science and Indigenous knowledge for the benefit of living things within our environment,” Harper explained.
Concerned with the negative environmental impacts of excess packaging and mass production, Harper and her team spent the last three years researching and creating products with the idea of using less. The company’s first line, launched in 2020, was a low-waste line of lipsticks called Sustain. All the products are fair trade, not tested on animals, vegan, and meet the Clean and Planet Positive standards set by Sephora Canada. Cheekbone Beauty also measures ingredients against its in-house Biinad Standards — biinad from the Cree word for “clean.”
“This is a journey, so we see the need for new, better innovation all the time,” Harper said. “It comes at greater cost, but this is our Indigenous responsibility to the land. Everything we put out for our consumers is created with Indigenous teachings in mind.”
Harper is encouraged by consumers’ growing interest. Two-thirds of consumers say they will pay more for sustainable products, according to a report from First Insight and the University of Pennsylvania Baker Retailing Center. Sustainability is very important to 64 percent of consumers when considering purchasing a beauty product in particular, according to a survey by the Benchmarking Company.
“People work hard for their money and want to make informed decisions before purchasing products, especially in such a saturated industry,” Harper said. “A lot of beauty consumers are switching to more clean brands that offer refillable or recyclable packaging, as opposed to single-use packaging that ends up in landfills. It’s all about perspective and understanding how and why consumers are making their decisions and adapting as a brand.”
Images courtesy of Cheekbone Beauty
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.