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For a Holistic Lifestyle, Go to Aisle 2

by Bee-Shyuan ChangThe New York Times
March 27th, 2013

Shortly after New York Fashion Week, I stood with my umbrella dripping on the concrete floor of Whole Body, the health and beauty department of the Whole Foods Market in Chelsea. After days of Champagne and late nights, the thought of rejuvenating with natural beauty products had conjured visions of “Sound of Music” bliss, but the aisles were jammed with more labels and products than I could easily navigate.

There were exotic ingredients (Kombucha enzyme exfoliating peel, nail polish remover made from soybean oil and lavender, Goji peptide perfecting cream) from far-flung locales (Egyptian Magic skin cream, Hawaiian shampoo, South African Marula oil). I zoomed in on shea butters sourced from Togo by Alaffia, a company that has gained a following for its yellow-labeled Authentic African Black Soap. Some of its products smelled like peppermint and others of coconut, and virtually all conjured sunny vacations. Here, every day is Earth Day.

An aisle over, rows and rows of little vials brimming with scented oils like Indian jasmine, patchouli and Egyptian musk from India brought back my teenage mall-rat days. (Body Shop oils anyone?) I dabbed some on. A nearby sales representative for Buttercup & Jake, a line of all-natural products for children, came over and sniffed a couple herself.

Once upon a time, the beauty aisle of a health-food store was something of an oxymoron, stocked with dubious image boosters like powdered henna and Dr. Bronner’s soap. But just as Whole Foods has helped make over Americans’ diets, so it is laying claim to their complexions.

Whole Body has been a part of the supermarket chain, headquartered in Austin, Tex., since it started in 1980. Susan Wattik, the associate global coordinator for Whole Body, said there has been “consistent double-digit growth in the category in the past five years.”

There are 348 departments nationwide and three stand-alone stores, including the one in Chelsea. Makeup artists and celebrities (including the model Carolyn Murphy, a “face” of Estée Lauder) have been seen checking out the wares. The grocer has also dabbled in beauty services at some locations, like a stand-alone manicure-pedicure salon in Campbell, Calif. The polish used there is free of formaldehydes and toluene, ingredients maligned for suspected adverse effects on health.

Indeed, the Whole Foods beauty offerings (which include the brands Dr. Hauschka, Weleda and Jurlique) are as notable for what they don’t contain — parabens, allergens, dyes, silicones — as for what they do. This absence of chemicals does not come cheap; though there are bathroom staples in the $5 range like Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and Burt’s Bees lip balm in the store, many cosmetics and creams bear the double-digit price tags usually found at department store beauty counters.

These days, at those counters, you will also see many of the buzzwords that Whole Foods has been championing for years.

“Up until now, science was much more focused on finding the synthetic substitutes in beauty,” said Shirin Valipour, a 24-year veteran of the beauty industry who started Orico, an organic skin-care brand, in London last October. “Now there are labs around the world that are testing bioactive and natural ingredients. Those clinically proven naturals are then becoming more and more available.”

Ms. Valipour has her sights on Whole Body as a retail partner, particularly because of the company’s reach, partly because of its reputation. “It’s like a halo for the brand,” she said.

Ms. Valipour said she hoped the “organic” backing Orico was granted by Ecocert, a French certification body, would help seal the deal, as it “ticks the boxes” for the retailer’s “premium body care” standards. Those rules were devised more than five years ago by the grocer’s quality standards team; products that qualify are flagged with green and white paper markers on the shelves. The premium label was developed partly because shoppers were asking for more information.

“What sparked it was a lot of customer awareness; a lot of the genesis for that was the nonprofits, like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,” said Jody Villecco, a food and nutrition quality standards coordinator at Whole Foods.

As for why shopping for lotions at Whole Foods sometimes feels like reading a travel brochure, it is because “so many ingredients are from palm, coconut and shea, so we do see that connection with the equatorial world,” said Joe Dickson, a food, organic and environmental quality standards coordinator for the company. “We do try to pick up products that have really compelling stories,” he added.

Local buyers help decide each store’s product lineup; the company’s goal is to have 20 percent of its beauty products made in the region in which they are sold.

Still, some lines are consistent centerpieces, like Dr. Hauschka, a German brand that Whole Body has carried for the last 20 years, said Jane Ellen Frazier Newman, the United States director of public relations for Dr. Hauschka. Its best sellers at Whole Body are a lip care stick, cleansing milk and cleansing cream.

Ms. Newman said that the natural category has become a “very crowded marketplace,” with Whole Body becoming an important national retailer drawing in the ideal shopper, one who “is very interested in a holistic lifestyle.”

Soon one more product will be added to the shelves. Elena Brower, a Manhattan yoga teacher, has concocted a sweetly perfumed oil called GiveScent, which will be sold for $46 at mid-Atlantic Whole Body departments later this year. Ms. Brower said she believed that if the holistic, green and eco movements are practically mainstream it’s at least in part because of Whole Body’s education of the customer.

“You can go to Duane Reade now and get organic shampoo,” she said.