Thrive isn’t simply about an efficient product, but also improving environments and communities in the process. Co-founder and CEO Alex McIntosh already had sustainability and philanthropy efforts under his belt working for the likes of nonprofit Nature Conservancy and mammoth corporation Nestlé Waters before turning his eye towards the natural personal care sector with Thrive, which launched in December 2012. McIntosh works between San Francisco and Costa Rica alongside an executive team including Director of Sustainable Operations Mario Garcia and Founding Director of Product R&D Laura Arce, and his ambitions include restoring 9,000 hectares of land by increasing biodiversity and assisting in the income of 31,000 farmers with affordable, natural products powered by three brand-exclusive plants native to the South American region.
Thanks to regenerative farming practiced in partnership with the Coopecuna co-op, the ingredients are not only more potent than traditional methods, but assist in boosting soil health, meaning higher yields and therefore more income for local communities. Within three years, the company increased farmer incomes by 40%.
Recently, Thrive launched two SPF products: BodyShield 50 and Daily Defense Sunscreen Balm SPF 30, containing mineral, reef-safe, non-nano zinc oxide. Shortly after its launch, McIntosh sat down with BeautyMatter to explain Thrive’s 360-degree approach to regeneration, the environmental and cosmetic benefits of superplants, and prioritizing positive impact.
Why is regenerative agriculture the future of beauty?
Two reasons: 1) it makes skincare more effective and healthy; because our superplant oils are more pure and potent; and 2) it moves beauty companies from a negative footprint to a positive footprint, restoring degraded lands and improving farmers’ lives. A regenerative business model means it intentionally operates in a holistic and positive way across its entire footprint, so that landscapes, communities, and living systems become healthier over time. Thrive’s regenerative farms use native plants to improve soil and biodiversity on degraded lands, while boosting farmer incomes and providing a high-quality supply of plant oils for our products. Every customer purchase adds to this positive impact plant by plant.
How did the working relationship with Costa Rican farmers come about?
We started small. Working with two farmers in rural Costa Rica, Don Juan and Don Victor, we planted 25 plants on each farm. That’s right: 25 plants. Small because we wanted to see if we could successfully grow the plants, if we could work with the farmers, if we could turn the plants into oils, if the oils would be better than synthetic ingredients, and of course, if we could design natural skincare formulas around the superplant oils and if our customers would like the result.
Over the years we expanded. A lot. Today we’re working across Costa Rica, with women-led coops, with smallholder farmers, and with fishermen looking for a more sustainable way to provide for their family. We have three regenerative superplants we grow with our farmer partners, restoring over 52 hectares of degraded lands, impacting more than 180 lives in these rural farming communities. And of course, restoring soil health and biodiversity.
One of my favorite things to do is visit our farmer partners and see what new techniques they’ve come up with for better regenerative farming. Doña Gisele and her 23 family member coop is our biggest partner and they are incredibly industrious and creative.
How do the plants improve the soil and biodiversity?
We choose our superplants carefully. First, for their ability to perform better than equivalent synthetic ingredients in skincare. But second, and most unusually, we choose our superplants for their ability to play an outsized role in restoring soil health and increasing biodiversity. On our regenerative farms, we strive to mimic the same conditions to endow our plants with that same resilience and strength. The plants fix nitrogen, build soil cations, and help restore the natural chemical balance.
A few lessons we learned shortly after bringing Don Juan on board that are still in practice today are: using fallen leaves and plants from the farm to create organic fertilizer, in order to nourish the same plants in that ecosystem; plant unique plants, apart from our superplants Juanilama and Fierrillo, in order to attract birds and bees, promote better biodiversity, and improve the quality of the soil; and applying indigenous-inspired compost to give our superplants a little extra pick-me-up post-harvest.
How does your company directly support communities?
Our leave-it-better filter—from soil to farmer, packaging to skincare—means that from the ground up, our products do more for the world while doing more for your skin.
We find and partner with hardworking rural farmers in Costa Rica and Mario works with them to ensure that Thrive’s regenerative practices are utilized to restore the farmland and increase the efficacy of the proprietary ingredients they harvest.
Each month we track the impacts of our farmer partnerships in terms of increase in household earnings, farmers’ lands restored, chemicals avoided (herbicides, pesticides), and community members impacted.
What has stood in the way of an industry-wide uptake on regenerative agriculture?
Most big companies have legacy operations that are designed for efficiency and for yield. Not for positive impact. Regenerative is the opposite. But it takes chutzpah. Especially in the early days of adoption. That’s why it is important for companies such as Thrive, Patagonia, Guayaki Tea, and others to continue to succeed. We need more “success data points” to show that regen isn’t only possible, but that it’s a better way to do business. For your customers, for your community and for your bottom line.
What benefits do the three new-to-market plant oils unique to Thrive offer over other ingredients?
Juanilama has been used by indigenous people in Central and South America for generations to soothe irritation. The plant oil from the Juanilama leaf, native to our farms in Costa Rica, is an antibacterial and antifungal powerhouse with high levels of antioxidants that protect the skin.
Fierrillo has also been used for generations for its healing properties, and, native to our Costa Rican farms, Fierrillo packs a strong antioxidant punch to promote healthy skin with wound-healing and antibacterial properties that help restore and repair damaged skin.
Both ingredients are vital to the regenerative farms with Juanilama acting as a natural pesticide for harmful insects, while the Fierrillo has vine-boosting soil organic content and provides a habitat to increase biodiversity.
The BodyShield 50 features the first-to-market coralillo, a medicinal plant with anti-inflammatory skin benefits to help heal skin that’s been impacted by sun, wind, and pollution, in addition to preventing soil erosion and bringing back wildlife at the farms.
What would you say to the critics that say essential oils can be harmful to the skin?
Most essential oils can be wonderful elements to an effective product, for the oil or extract’s skin properties, as well as for fragrance. But some people have really sensitive skin. I’m one of those people. So I always like to see what essential oils are in my products, weeding out any that don’t work for me. For Thrive’s products, we’ve added our superplant oils in percentages that are at or slightly below industry recommendations. And we list each oil used in every product—something that most companies don’t do—on our website and labels. We also clinically test each Thrive product for skin sensitivity. That’s how we know that our superplant oils are healthy for skin.
What has your reception inside and outside of the industry been like?
People try our products and love them. Especially people with sensitive skin or who live active or stressful lifestyles. And once people try our products, they start to learn more about our model, and what makes our products different and special. Customers love our story of regenerating soil and boosting farmer livelihoods, and how it all ties up into more effective products.
Thrive has partnered with Amazon since 2015 and was recently awarded one of the first-ever Amazon Launchpad Innovation Grants as part of their program to empower innovative new brands. Thrive was one of two brands selected for this grant out of thousands of applicants, specifically for our SPF formula and regenerative business model. Our best-selling Daily Defense Sunscreen Balm SPF 30 for face launched at #1 on Amazon Beauty and stayed there for 10 weeks, receiving over 600 5-star reviews!
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
Fill out our product offering for our customers, female and male. Introducing more superplant oils to our products—with a great one coming this summer in our new BodyShield 50 skincare product. And scaling our regenerative model, to help millions of customers look better and live healthier, restore to health thousands of acres of degraded lands, and improve the livelihoods of tens of thousands of rural farmers across the globe. Each customer purchase helps us grow this positive footprint plant by plant. That really helps me and my team get up in the mornings.