Ep. 1: Designing for Impact and Customer Experience with Nora Schaper of HiBAR

On the first episode of Decarbonizing Commerce, host Keith Anderson is joined by Nora Schaper. Nora is an eco-preneur and a co-founder of HiBAR, the world’s first salon-quality, plastic-free hair care (and now solid luxury face wash and natural deodorant). A lover of nature, Nora despises plastic more than the average person, but believes in the power of many people making simple swaps to inspire a movement toward a more beautiful planet. They discuss the innovative design of HiBAR’s products and how this aligns with both their mission and customer experience goals as a company.

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Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e-commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability.

Welcome to the Decarbonizing Commerce Podcast. I’m your host, Keith Anderson. And I’m really excited to be kicking this off after months of development, because I’ve met so many interesting people and learned so much that I’m eager to share. First, why don’t I briefly introduce myself. I’ve spent around 20 years in retail, e-commerce, and CPG, around two thirds as an industry analyst and consultant, and about a third as an executive at a venture backed software company.

And when I left that company last year, I got curious about the state of sustainability in retail and consumer products, spent a few months neck deep in books, reports, and conversations, and as somebody who already spent most of my time monitoring the industry, there were a few things that I found really surprising.

Number one, regulatory action affecting retailers and CPG companies on environmental and climate topics is proliferating. Number two, retailer and CPG climate commitments and sustainability initiatives are moving just as quickly. More than 150 of the global majors already have science based targets, which is way up from a year or two ago.

And thirdly, major venture capital has been flowing to technology and services aimed at helping retailers and brands decarbonize across the value chain. And finally, all of these drivers of change were already beginning to impact how the industry is approaching product design, packaging, distribution strategy, store experience, fulfillment, logistics, branding, and so many other commercial decisions in ways that aren’t widely discussed outside of sustainability experts.

And I started to think about why that was the case, and I noticed a few things. A lot of the content on these topics is by and for sustainability experts, as opposed to people in conventional retail and CPG functions. A lot of the content is industry agnostic, versus focused specifically on the retail and consumer products industry and a lot of the content is news driven versus analytical and actionable.

And so it really brought me back about 15 years when I had similar observations about what, at the time, I thought technology and digital commerce would mean to the industry. And in those days, I focused my analyst practice on this looming exponential driver of change in the industry.

And frankly, I haven’t seen anything with such disruptive potential since then. And I concluded that maybe there was an opportunity to do something similar here. Basically, to shine a light on things very likely to impact your company or career in ways that aren’t always obvious or easy to engage with.

So that’s what we’re up to, an analyst practice and community with data analysis and events designed to be interesting and actionable for essentially anyone in retail or CPG. And that brings me to this first episode. My guest is Nora Schaper, co founder and COO of HiBAR, and I’m happy to say that this first episode sets a high bar for the show.

If you’re not familiar with HiBAR, it’s a pioneering line of plastic free hair and now personal care products. And as the name suggests, they’re effectively bars of shampoo and conditioner, but not the kind of bar that you’re probably used to be seeing. What I found so interesting about listening to Nora is how thoughtfully she and her team have approached designing a product, a brand and a business through the lenses of the consumer, commercial realities, and the mission. You’ll hear about why HiBAR made the choice to handle manufacturing in house, why the product looks the way it does, why concentrated products often work better for many people than the alternatives, how HiBAR’s packaging competes at the shelf, how the team is educating shoppers and retailers about an emerging product form, and much more.

And for all those reasons, it’s a great showcase of what we’re trying to do here, which is to shine a light on commercially viable strategies and solutions that also have impact. I hope you enjoy hearing from Nora as much as I did, and that you stick with us as we meet more people like her.

Well, Nora, it’s great to be with you. Thanks so much for joining the show today.

Nora Schaper: Thanks so much for the invitation, Keith.

Keith Anderson: I know most folks are, listening versus watching, but as I said to you before we started recording, I love that you’ve got such a nice branded background. It’s, it’s a cool look.

Nora Schaper: Thank you so much. That’s our bestseller right there, is our Moisturize High Bar, and it’s in that shape, so we like to highlight it.

Keith Anderson: That’s the one that I use, actually.

Nora Schaper: Oh, fantastic!

Keith Anderson: I’m a little nervous because I’ve been mentioning on some of these interviews when I’m a customer of the, the guest company, and I know that’s not going to be possible for every episode. So, I’m hoping I can just leave it out when it’s not the case, but that’s the one that I use.

Nora Schaper: Excellent.

Keith Anderson: Well, I think it would be great to start, Nora, just hearing a bit about your journey to starting HiBAR with your co founders and, you know, what, what brought you to this category in this company?

Nora Schaper: big reason why I’m here is because my husband is also a co founder and when we met, we weren’t even married. We started a business together, and we were making soaps and bath bombs. And we were, it started out as just a little hobby, you know, and, I had an interest in essential oils and using, like, food based ingredients for making my own body care and personal care, and I was really into bath bombs at the time, so, somehow I convinced Jay, who is now my husband, to, make soap with me.

I thought it would be a really fun project, so, we started a company back in 1998, actually it was even ’97, called Bodylish, and we made bath bombs and soaps and we sold them through farmer’s markets and, we had a kiosk at a local mall for the holidays, and that’s where it really all began, and that led us, we had that business for about 25 years while we raised our kids and both worked at part time while working outside the home as well, but to do this we created a studio in our basement and, you know, we really experimented with a lot of different ingredients, all natural ingredients and essential oils and then, we built that company up to the point where we were selling through the natural markets and through farmer’s markets, and so I had established relationships with local buyers.

I don’t know how well you know the Twin Cities, Minnesota Twin Cities area, but there are a ton of farmers’ markets and a ton of co-ops. We’re in a really great place for health, healthy, natural food. So we did that for about 20 years and we had kids at, a unique school in town, it’s a Waldorf focused school, so a different approach to learning and at that school, we, we became friends with our, who is now our CEO and, also partner and he had a previous business making pet food, but he had patents on the process and he’d figure out manufacturing and then he built that company up and sold it.

And I’d heard that he’d sold it and I knew what a smart man he was, so I literally cornered him in the school parking lot the next day and I said, “Hey, Ward, I heard you sold your business. Will you consult with me and Jay?” So he said, yes, and he came over to our house where we had our studio and he said, the first thing he asked us is what’s your why?

And we said, we think we can make all these products without a plastic packaging. Nothing needs a plastic package. Let’s reformulate stuff and figure out how to do that. And he just got a look on his face like, I, I need to be part of that. So we banded together, Jay and I actually were doing two businesses for about a year. It, bit got to be overwhelming as HiBAR was getting built up. And so we sold, our last business and since then we’ve focused entirely on HiBAR.

Keith Anderson: And how long ago was that? Okay.

Nora Schaper: So that was about, we sold our business in about 2017 or 2018. And we sold our first HiBAR in October of 2018. Actually, we probably sold Bodylish in 2019. Cause I know we were doing both when it was getting really crazy there.

Keith Anderson: That’s awesome. And I think starting with the why is a pretty thoughtful place to start. And

Nora Schaper: Huge Huge difference for us. Having that filter, you know, has, is really, like a critical business factor. We run everything, all of our decisions go through that, that filter of, you know, how is this, you know, moving us forward on our mission, basically. It’s to inspire the removal of single use plastic by reformulating personal care and beauty products to be beautiful, effective, and plastic free. And the effective is key in that statement. We have learned over the years that people do not convert, especially when you’re talking about hair or face.

They the product will work at least as well as, as their bottled counterpart. And so making sure it’s effective and as close to the user experience as the, you know, legacy products is key in that.

Keith Anderson: It’s a huge topic. I’ve, as I’ve been studying success stories and what are the winners, a commonality and emerging theme seems to be effectiveness, consumer experience, convenience, cost, and you don’t have to be at parity or better on all those factors, but knowing where you’re going to compete outside of simply being the better for the planet alternative seems to be a really critical part of the equation.

Nora Schaper: I totally agree with that, Keith. In fact, you know, we’re to the point where, we consider ourselves beauty first and Plastic Free Second, and, and really we’re, we’re trying to, you know, we make a, a large part of our audience, the choir, you know, are the green people. We knew that they were going to buy the product, no matter what, because they’re eliminating plastic, but honestly, to achieve our mission, we need to reach the people that don’t think like that.

So we really have to market, you know, the effectiveness and, and how well it works. In order to achieve getting that customer.

Keith Anderson: And how do you do that?

Nora Schaper: That’s the million dollar question. I think we’ve learned some ways and training is key, for us and, and also referrals are key, regarding the training, you know, we’re about 70 percent retail sold. So, we’re sitting on a shelf, and it’s really hard to reach the customer at that place, and, and the grocery stores, you know, know that too, and so, you know, both brands and, and retailers are looking for ways to bring the education to the consumer at, at, at the shelf, and actually, they are coming up with QR codes, that are on a sales tag that are, branded.

For the company or specific for the product and, you can learn quite a bit from those, but they’re not available on too many retailers yet. That’s like a up and coming thing. A big part we do is train staff.

Keith Anderson: Got it. I mean, the QR code thing is one of those things that I remember in the early smartphone era. I insisted it was never going to happen, and I’ve been increasingly proven wrong, like many things, I think the, the technology and training the public has caught up to the initial concept.

Nora Schaper: I agree with you. I, I couldn’t believe it, but during COVID, you know, all the menus had QR codes, everything moved to QR.

Keith Anderson: Yep.

Nora Schaper: that really helped accelerate it forward. I think.

Keith Anderson: And when you talk about training, given that so much of your sales are through retail, how, how are you managing the, the complexity of training different retailers? I, I don’t know how concentrated your distribution is with independent players versus chains, but I imagine. It’s sort of one door at a time.

Nora Schaper: yeah, you know, it depends on their retailer. Like, we love Whole Foods because they have a whole body staff, and it’s easy to get to the whole body staff. You know, we, we can send packages to them. We do have a training link, so we often send a link to retailers. You know, it’s really hard to even reach a retailer and a buyer via email.

So honestly, a lot of it at events, you know, we’re making sure we connect with as many retailers as we can at like the big product expos and, and just getting our training link out there. We also are using brokers right now. So we do have, you know, boots on the ground. They’re going into the independents. They’re doing aisle trainings. You’re, they’re, they’re talking to the buyers and they’re getting materials for staff and staff samples. So we also sample quite a bit so that we know that once staff uses it, you know, they can better describe it to the guest and, so we try all those different avenues and, and every retailer, we just see what context we can get and then offer them as much training as we ca

Keith Anderson: Well shifting gears a little bit, it’s clear that the mission is a big part of decisions you’re making at every level, starting obviously with the product formulation itself.

Can we unpack some of the decisions that you’ve made and what was behind them and how it sort of changed the experience commercially? Absolutely.

Nora Schaper: I think that we should start with the shape of the bar first. Because the shape really was intentional. You can see it’s right behind me as well. But the shape took us a really long time to figure out, and part of it is that we knew that, you, we, you don’t bring a bottle into, in our case, in high bar’s case, you’re not bringing up bottle with the branding on the front into the shower.

So, we knew we didn’t want to look like a soap. We didn’t want to be marketed as a soap. We couldn’t be a square box, you know, a little square, because that wouldn’t work. We also knew that it needed to stand upright, because our packaging, we wanted to sit on a shelf next to a plastic bottle of shampoo.

That’s our competition. So, we knew it had to be a vertical, and then we also wanted it to be inspirational, like there’s enough bad news about climate in the news, we want it to be a piece of good news and something inspiring and beautiful that you can start your day with something so great, you’re winning as, as the minute you take a shower and you don’t need a plastic container, you’ve already solved one problem, you know, for the day and, and you look great.

You have great hair because it works so well. So when we designed the shape, we designed this beveled edge to, really apply directly to your hair. Not everybody uses it that bway, but it’s also very easy to paint it on your hair, directing it where you want it. It also stands upright in a shower, and you know, the water, just falls off the product, so it extends the life of the bar a little bit, and then it just looks so pretty and unique.

So, all of those thoughts went into it, and then the package itself, all that thought went into that as well.

Keith Anderson: before we get into the package, I think it’s worth unpacking for a minute why a concentrated bar instead of liquid. I mean, part of, I guess maybe the primary reason that led you there was you don’t need a bottle if there’s not a liquid to leak. But there’s more to the benefits than just that, right?

Nora Schaper: You’re exactly right, and, and some of those we didn’t even understand at the time we were formulating, so.

We are actually a world’s first. We’re the world’s first solid salon quality product on shelf. And so, you know, a lot of stuff we were experimenting and we didn’t know, but what we did is that we formulated this and my husband, Jay, is our formulator, and I also call him a rule breaker.

And I think that he was able to do it because he’s not a chemist and he didn’t have to unlearn all all the rules about how you formulate something. So, he literally would do things that other, you know, a trained chemist wouldn’t even try. But basically, we took water out of a formula. So, traditional shampoo and conditioner is over 80 percent water.

The reason it has water in it is it was invented before there was running water in people’s homes. So, the convenience of adding water so you could wash your hair at home, they added the water right in there. So that was, you know, many, many years ago, and now we have running water in our homes, and we don’t need to ship water across the country.

You have water in your shower. So, by taking water out of the product, it’s 100 percent effective ingredient that you’re applying directly to your hair. So, especially in the case of our conditioner, it’s ionic, which means it attracts and it sticks to your hair and it flattens your hair shafts. And it actually works better than watered down conditioner.

The trick is, is that people don’t understand, you know, that it’s not as, it doesn’t drown your hair like a typical conditioner would. And so the experience is a little different and you have to work with it a couple of times.

Keith Anderson: Sure.

Nora Schaper: Shampoo being concentrated has made it so that your hair stays clean longer, you don’t need to use as much shampoo, you just need a little bit and it suds right up.

And then you don’t need to shampoo, it extends how many days between, and then we’ve also heard hair health is improving, and people are eliminating additional products from their routine, that come in plastic bottles, so by, by switching to this and hair health improving it’s actually eliminating even more plastic.

Keith Anderson: That’s amazing. Well, and I think, you know, part of what I’m always thinking about with concentrated products, I hadn’t before our conversation thought as deeply about the effectiveness side of things and how it, you know, when the primary or active ingredient is the majority of what you’re buying, how it changes the effectiveness.

I think the other factor that’s so interesting is It’s smaller, it’s lighter weight, and so I just picture the, unit quantity or the number of washes that you can fit on a palette versus a somebody, you know, somebody who’s selling conventional bottled shampoo, and it’s a pretty big diffe

Nora Schaper: Yes, absolutely. One of the things I, I’m just going to grab a box so I can show you. Of course, I have products all over in here, but, we also, this is the boxed product,

Keith Anderson: Mmhmm.

Nora Schaper: And this is our volumized formula, but they ship like this, we put them together, they nestle together, they are in a box that fits it exactly, the mailing label closes the box, and you need no filler and no tape when you’re shipping them out.

Keith Anderson: if you’re only listening and not watching, the packages are triangular. So the flat side is the. base that they stand on and they taper to a point as you go up and what Nora was showing us was you can stack them, you know, face them different ways and stack them and they form a rectangle so because of the thoughtful design of the each’s when you pack them for shipping you get even more space efficiency.

And I know we’re going to talk about Amazon, but, you know, what, one of the other big topics in our work is compact by design at Amazon, which, is a program. They introduced to really incentivize and encourage choices like these about, you know, minimizing the amount of water and air that is flowing through their system around the world.

And I think you just shared some pretty interesting examples of what that can look like.

Nora Schaper: Yes, thanks. That was, pretty fun to realize that too, you know, the packaging shape was intentional to stand upright, but then when we had two together and we saw how well they fit, we were like, oh my gosh, this is great. So again, the mission led us down the right path.

Keith Anderson: What about decisions about, production and manufacturing and I, I know there’s more to the packaging decisions too?

Nora Schaper: You know, a lot of that, the, like, ingredient components, so we know that, you know, our product is inspiring a healthy movement, and so we’re very careful also about our ingredients and the safety, both for humans and planet, so we do scour ingredients. We make sure we’re using natural ingredients. My, my husband, our formulator will say, you know, that, we’re 98 percent natural, and that 2 percent is ingredients that are for effectiveness, and so that, that people can leave the bottle behind, so, they’re really safe ingredients, all of them meet, you know, all the safety standards and are, are, qualify as natural according to, like, Whole Foods has a pretty, ingredient list that is, they scour for all the ingredients and we always comply with all of the highest ingredient standards.

Keith Anderson: And are you doing manufacturing yourselves or?

Nora Schaper: We are and really we got into that we did intend that we could possibly, you know, be a marketing and sales agency that just eliminates plastic and talk about a product and have someone else make it. But getting back to that effectiveness, we have a really unique formula, each of our hair care, so we have six different formulas of hair care, and each are catering to a different hair need, and each are specifically formulated for that need. And so, as we’re formulating, you know, that, it has to be that effectiveness, and so we’re just really careful about those ingredients, but we’re not using any pellets. And what most of the contract manufacturers we talked to, in fact, all of them said. We start with this base of palettes, and then you can add your ingredients in, and, you know, in order to get our products, each formula to work as well as they do, that wouldn’t, that didn’t work for us, so we had to bring in our own manufacturing, and honestly, our, the unique shape makes it a challenge.

It’s a lot easier to do a square than this. So we’ve developed all of our own molds and we’ve developed, our own process for making the shampoo. We’ve modified machines in order to do it. So, you know, and we’ve expanded our warehouse space. So we have like a room that’s a shampoo room, and with presses and a big mixer and a huge extruder.

And then we have a room that’s all hot pour products. So when we started, we launched with three formulas of hair care, but now we also have a face wash line that’s a soap free amino acid, solid face wash. And then we also have a line of deodorants and a pushup. applicator, paper applicator that’s compostable. So we’ve expended our product line to eliminate more plastic and, so now we have three spaces. One space is fulfillment. One space is shampoo and one space is hot pour.

Keith Anderson: And are you fulfilling yourself also?

Nora Schaper: We are. Yes. Yup. We have about 25 employees in, St Paul, Minnesota and about 11, 000 square feet manufacturing space. Yep.

Keith Anderson: I think I saw a job posting for a fulfillment assistant and, excuse me, fulfillment assistant slash plastic detester or something.

Nora Schaper: The slides Despiser.

Keith Anderson: Despiser. Yeah. It made me laugh when I saw it. Well, and, and I guess going even beyond the primary packaging into secondary packaging and some of what you’re able to do, because you’re not only in-housing manufacturing, but in-housing fulfillment. What are some of the things you’ve done to eliminate waste and,

Nora Schaper: Yes,

Keith Anderson: emissions in that area?

Nora Schaper: Well, one thing that I love to talk about is how we have the entire team, motivated on the mission because we do bonus at the end of the year, based on how much plastic we remove. So everybody is really motivated to help move that along. But in addition to that, we have modified our box sealer.

So that’s the machine we use to seal all of our boxes to accommodate water activated tape. So we’re not using any plastic tape, we had to modify it so that it has a tank of water and every tape that goes through gets wet and then it sticks onto the box easier. We’ve also modified our pallet wrapping machine to accommodate a biodegradable pallet wrap, that we’ve sourced locally, and we put a big note on there saying that this is biodegradable, so, please compost this when it arrives at the other end.

And then we’re also talking to all of our suppliers and encouraging them to consider other packaging for the ingredients that they’re sending us. And actually, we used to get big plastic barrels of one of our ingredients, and now it comes in paperboard, really thick cardboard barrels, with like a metal lid.

So even some of our suppliers are accommodating, this switch for us.

Keith Anderson: And that’s so far happened purely through the power of suggestion and influence?

Nora Schaper: So far, yes, you know, and I’ve been surprised at, you know, the machines that we bought, how we can talk to them and say, hey, how can we modify this for our facility? You know, like with the box sealer and everything. So, but it has been at our suggestion and we’re hoping that, you know, more and more companies are going to be going this way.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, I ask about suggestion versus requirement only because as more and more typically, you know, big retailers and brands are making net zero commitments and increasingly, including scope three commissions in those commitments, you know, they’re, they’re having to influence both upstream and downstream choices.

And many of them have done it through voluntary reporting and requests, but more and more, I’m seeing, companies saying this is actually going to become a factor in how we select suppliers or in even one, one big brand just disclosed it’s going to become a factor in their M and A targets because going to inherit the historical emissions of any company they acquire.

So it’s just always interesting to me to hear about how you, you know, anyone with leverage, either over their supplier base, or as you’re doing sort of downstream by encouraging your customers, how to dispose of packaging, you know, after use, that’s

Nora Schaper: You

Keith Anderson: increasingly interesting topic.

Nora Schaper: We’ve, we’ve said no, like, you know, Urban Outfitters approached us and said, we’d love to sell your product, but you have to ship it to us in a poly bag, which is a plastic bag. And we said, no, that’s, we can’t, that goes counter to our mission. And so they did make an exception for us. So, you know, it, you, we can change the world if, if, if we just ask sometimes, you

Keith Anderson: Mm hmm.

Nora Schaper: But it does, it is a little scary when you’re a business and you want the business and you’re saying no to people, but, no is actually good business in a lot of ways.

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience. Plus and higher tier members of decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

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