Sustainable, Beauty and the Spa Industry. Our Q&A with Davide Bollati, Chair of Davines Group

Davide Bollati, chair of Davines Group, is a true pioneer of sustainability. He joined Davines, his family company, in 1992, having first completed a degree in pharmacy from Parma University and a masters in cosmetic science from Farleigh Dickinson University in the US. 

His leadership of Davines, the parent company of SSA brand partner Comfort Zone, has been characterised by a drive to achieve Sustainable Beauty – a term which Bollati describes as a “combination of plant chemistry and respect for the environment and society”. This approach has resulted in Davines Group being widely recognised as a company with a strong commitment to both ethics and sustainability.

As a hallmark of this commitment to sustainability, the group became a B Corporation in 2016. The company’s status as a “B-Corp” means that, as a business, it balances purpose and profit and is legally required to consider the impact its decisions have on its workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. 

We spoke to Davide about all things sustainability – from his passion for the topic to the role played by SSA in promoting sustainability.

Sustainable Beauty is a term strongly associated with both Davines Group and you personally – what does it mean to you?

I’ve always had a passion for a type of chemistry that takes experience from nature and is in harmony with the planet. Early on in my career, however, it was just that – a passion, it wasn’t very well structured.  

In 2005, however, we decided to attach sustainable beauty firmly onto the brand identity of Davines Group, so for the past 16 years it has been very much a part of what we do as a company. Becoming a B-Corp was a big step too, and we’ve learned to better measure our sustainable practices. 

We’ve now embedded sustainability in our industrial strategy, so it’s very much part of our routine and our daily work. 

Your HQ, Davines Village, located in Parma, is often highlighted as an example of your commitment to sustainability? Could you tell readers about that?

The Davines Village is a place where everything happens – from the beginning to the end of our industrial process. It includes our offices, our research and development laboratory, the production plant and the warehouse. It also features our scientific garden and greenhouse. The total area is around 77,000sq m, of which 80 per cent is allocated to green space.

The scientific garden is central to operations and run by our chemists. It is a sort of experimental garden – it is relatively small but it allows us to start the research on the ingredients we use in our products.

As a beauty company, it’s important that our products “work”. But as we’ve made a commitment to find and only use ingredients that are also environmentally sustainable, the research we conduct is all about finding a balance between the two. 

We want ingredients that, for example, rejuvenate the skin, but are also sustainable. We aren’t satisfied with just ticking one of the boxes.

As a result, we’re now reinventing our supply chain. It is a chain based on regenerative organic agriculture. We want every product to have a product life cycle and a score card which measures that.

What do you see as the biggest challenges you see, when it comes to being sustainable?

For us, there are two. 

The first is a lack of technology that would allow a systemic transition from unsustainable into more sustainable operations. There are several areas in which the technology is lacking – everything from energy, materials, packaging and chemistry in general. 

In principle, it could be very simple – all we really need is sun, water and soil to grow the things we need. But, as humans, we are spoiled and we want everything here and now. We don’t count externalities, we don’t measure externalities and we don’t pay for externalities.

This leads to the second challenge, which is consumer education. It takes generations to turn attitudes. The current young generation is in a different world and they are beginning to see things in a different way. It will be interesting to see how those who are now in their teens will go and what their attitudes will be like when they are in their 20s and 30s and so on. 

Are you ever prevented from doing something (as a company) by the ethics you adhere to? Is there ever a conflict between sustainability and “business sense”?

There is never a conflict, because when it comes to ethics we have a higher purpose and the three core things – beauty, ethics and sustainability – are part of our DNA. If there is something that has no beauty, no ethics or no sustainability, we don’t even consider it. 

The beauty industry can be a bit strange and over the years we’ve had companies come out with shampoos using caviar and products with diamond dust and all kind of crazy stuff. 

From a Davines Group point of view, perhaps my biggest frustration is that our most sustainable formulas across our product lines are not our best sellers. That tells us that there is still a lot to do when it comes to educating consumers. So it doesn’t help when other beauty brands come out with products that include these crazy ingredients as a marketing gimmick. It feeds the wrong narrative. 

What would your advice be to companies which might have those conflicts? For example, a company which wants to use an ingredient that it knows “works” – but also knows it’s not sustainable?

My advice would be that they need to decide whether the decision relates to a short-term goal or a long-term one. If it’s a short term one, then taking short cuts might be ok. 

But if the company is planning for the long term, they shouldn’t compromise. The return they get from it is improved trust in the brand, increased credibility and an enhanced reputation. 

How valuable do you see organisations such as the Sustainable Spa Association, when it comes to providing support to the industry?

Very important, especially considering the systematic changes we are now witnessing not only in the spa/beauty industry but in the wider society. I’d say that the only way for companies to succeed now, is to work according to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Not even Amazon, which is probably the biggest and most powerful company in the world today – or Facebook or Apple – can do it all by themselves. So we really do have to come together to retransition our human journey on this planet. 

So in the small little corner of the tiny niche market that is the spa and wellness industry, it is very important for us to come together and to have an industry strategy, a plan and proper benchmarks to help us transition. 

And while the spa industry is small, it can be a very good influencer! When it comes to numbers, it is a small industry – but when it comes to influence, it’s much bigger than its economical scope.

What would your message – or rallying call – be, to the spa and wellness industry when it comes to being more sustainable?

My message would be that the spa industry has a lot of positive things it can do. The sector comes from a good place. 

This is because, as an industry, we can interpret and offer solutions during this very challenging period of transition. We’re already used to looking at things in a holistic way and I think that the “business mind” of the spa industry is a mind that is more equipped to be more resilient. I think by looking at things in a more holistic way we can offer solutions which have good consequences for health, for people and for the planet.