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blog article30 May 2023

Clean beauty goes global: how the Network empowered a Polish cosmetics company to conquer new markets

Four Starlings Poland
Sustainability
international partnerships
clean beauty
SMEs
Asia

As clean beauty is reshaping the cosmetics landscape, Four Starlings – a family-owned soap-making business in Poland – emerged as a rising star in the industry. We talked to Grzegorz Sienkiewicz, Managing Director of Four Starlings, and Anna Wrzesińska, Chief Specialist for International Cooperation at Podlaska Regional Development Foundation and Business Adviser at the Polish branch of Enterprise Europe Network, to find out how the Network helped the company grow into an international success.  

When green is the new glam: the rise of the clean beauty industry

Four Starlings, a family-owned soap-making business in Białystok, Poland, is a trailblazer in the growing natural cosmetics industry. As the natural and organic cosmetic industry is on the rise with a projected global market value of $38.8 billion by 2027, consumers are becoming more aware of the potential dangerous effects of synthetic chemicals, more conscious about the environment, and more concerned about animal welfare. Clean beauty products use non-toxic, environmentally friendly, and sustainable ingredients that are free from harmful chemicals. Items are based instead on natural or organic ingredients that are ethically sourced and produced, and often contain beneficial antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Clean beauty brands also prioritise eco-friendly packaging materials and minimise unnecessary waste.

Although there is no universal certification that attests to a product’s natural or organic status, major players in the industry have established their own guidelines. Some of the well-known certification bodies in Europe include COSMOS, ECOCERT, and NATRUE. The European Union (EU) has also set out regulations to ensure the safety and quality of cosmetics across member states. For example, the Cosmetics Regulation 1223/2009 – the main regulatory framework in the field – requires that all cosmetics marketed in the EU undergo a safety assessment before being placed on the market. In addition, all cosmetic products must be registered via the Cosmetic Products Notification Portal to quickly identify safety concerns. The EU has also created two bodies, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Union Reference Laboratory for Cosmetic Ingredients (EURL) to ensure that producers meet these regulations.

As claims and standards vary among different retailers and brands, consumers today invest more time researching beauty products and make informed decisions about their purchases. Mintel’s 2023 Global Beauty and Personal Care Trends report reveals that a growing cohort of knowledgeable shoppers expects effective products without sacrificing sustainability. With its focus on natural ingredients and ethical practices, Four Starlings is well-positioned to cater to the growing demand for clean beauty products.

A brand that walks the talk on sustainability

The company has its origins in Podlasie, a region in Poland known as the 'land by the forest'. What started as a hobby for Magda and Tomek Kudaszewicz has now blossomed into a successful business that produces high-quality cosmetics using traditional methods and natural ingredients. Inspired by the minimalist approach of Norwegian cosmetics, the duo first began by making bar soaps for family and friends.

The idea behind their business is simple yet powerful – to create personal care products that are good for the skin and for the planet. "Right from the get-go, even before clean beauty became a global trend, we’ve had our own solid principles that guided our work. Our products are natural, vegan, and crafted using essential oils, which means they are suitable for the entire family", said Grzegorz Sienkiewicz, Managing Director of Four Starlings. He went on: "We’re equally mindful about the environment, so we stick to paper, aluminium, and glass packaging. The company also embraces a zero-waste approach in its manufacturing processes. Our products are not only effective but are also aligned with the sustainable development goals that promote prosperity while protecting the planet". Four Starlings also aims to make a positive impact on the world by spearheading social campaigns that benefit people, animals, and the environment.

As demand grew, the company has successfully expanded its product portfolio to over 100 offerings, including liquid and bar soaps, hair products, deodorants, face creams, body oils and scrubs, soy candles, and accessories. Products are now available in Poland, other EU countries, Switzerland, Norway, Great Britain, and Japan. Despite this accelerated growth, the small business remains committed to tradition. 

For example, they still produce everything by hand, just like they did when they first started. Four Starlings was determined to balance their organic growth with the aspiration of becoming a global brand. To achieve this goal the company needed to secure funding and identify which specific markets to target. Here’s where the Enterprise Europe Network stepped in.

How the Network propelled Four Starlings into global markets

To diversity their markets, the company sought guidance from the Network via the Podlaska Regional Development Foundation (PRDF), a non-profit business support organisation operating in the region for over 27 years. The company collaborated with the PRDF and the Polish Investment and Trade Agency to become export-ready, hire staff, adapt offerings, and pinpoint foreign markets for expansion. To achieve this, they evaluated factors like the share of global beauty product imports, population size, GDP per capita, global trends, and how well the company aligned with these markets. In the end, they selected five countries to expand to: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Spain, and Singapore. The advisers at PRFD helped the company put together an internationalisation business model, assess markets, and come up with advertising ideas. "Additionally, networking support helped us customise our offerings to meet local needs", noted Sienkiewicz.

With the Network’s aid, Four Starlings obtained funding from the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development for its internationalisation efforts. This enabled the company to buy manufacturing equipment, train employees, obtain the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certificate, and attend company missions and international fairs, such as COSMOPROF in Bologna, Italy. ‘This is one of the largest and most popular events in the cosmetics industry worldwide’, said Anna Wrzesińska, Chief Specialist for International Cooperation at the PRDF and Business Adviser at Enterprise Europe Network. "Four Starlings got new chances to connect with important business contacts", she emphasised. "Businesses are ultimately powered by people, and despite the advancements in virtual meetings, nothing can replace the value of face-to-face interactions", echoed Sienkiewicz.

Four Starlings also got help from the Network’s business experts to overcome obstacles during their internationalisation journey. For example, PRDF connected the company with a Finnish supplier of high-quality birch tar, a key ingredient in the cosmetics industry. These contacts enabled Four Starlings to produce premium natural cosmetics and introduce them to both domestic and international markets. Here’s another example: with the guidance of PRDF, Four Starlings secured a spot at the Cosmobeauté Malaysia fair in September 2022, which aligned with their plans to move into Asian markets. Following the event, Four Starlings gained access to new customers and contacts. "This trip kickstarted our international campaign last year. We were already present in Japan, so we decided that South-East Asia would be a strategic direction for our growth. We leveraged the stand of the Polish Investment and Trade Agency to connect with people in the cosmetics import industry. It was an amazing experience that left us feeling inspired."

Small businesses interested in the natural and organic cosmetics world can learn a lot from Four Starlings. When asked for advice on entering the industry, Wrzesińska recommends having a solid business plan; this should include a mission statement, goals, target market, and financial projections. It’s also important to do thorough market research to understand customer needs and competition. Prioritizing a safe supply chain for ingredients and packaging, as well as having a comprehensive marketing strategy are also essential. Finally, entrepreneurs should update their plan regularly to adjust to changes in the market, industry, and business goals.

For Sienkiewicz, courage is key for successful entrepreneurship. "The world belongs to the brave. It’s worth chasing your dreams, staying committed, and not worrying about rejection or failure. Innovative ideas are often met with resistance at first, like our bar shampoos and cream deodorants, which were among the first to be produced in Poland. We’re now proud to be leaders in this area. Of course, the Network’s support was a crucial factor in our success."

About the author(s)

Anna Wrzesińska is Chief Specialist for International Cooperation at Podlaska Regional Development Foundation, and Business Advisor for Internationalisation of SMEs at Enterprise Europe Network.

The article was co-authored by Ruxandra-Laura Bosilca, PhD, Social Media and Community Manager for Enterprise Europe Network.

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