Vegan nail polish was an obvious choice when Kiwi Anna Ross started her beauty company.
For Kester Black founder Anna Ross, it was a given that her cosmetics company would focus on sustainability.
“I grew up in Hyde in Central Otago, with a population of 64 people,” she says. “I was surrounded by lush, green rolling hills and animals. It was just a really lovely environment. Of course I’d work hard to make my business sustainable.”
Her company started off selling jewellery, but now offers nail polishes in gem-like and candy colours, as well as lipsticks and eye make-up. It’s also carbon negative and Anna has released a Better Beauty growth plan, which is Kester Black’s sustainability blueprint and strategy. She’s hoping other cosmetics labels will use it to follow her lead.
“Kester Black has always been around to make the beauty industry better. We put all of our ingredients online. We make it really easy for our competitors to copy us basically,” she says. “Because the more ethical and sustainable brands there are, the better it is for the environment, and consumers have more choice.”
Nail polishes were Anna’s first foray into cosmetics, and she says making them vegan was a no-brainer. “I just thought it doesn’t make sense to use crushed up beetles or fish scales for iridescence when there are synthetic alternatives.”
Anna lives in Wānaka now, but the fashion graduate was in Melbourne making jewellery when she created that first batch of nail polishes in 2012. One of her favourite jewellers was making enamel-painted necklaces and Anna picked up a bottle of nail polish to see if she could emulate the look by painting the polish on sterling silver. That turned out to be a terrible idea, but it did set the former tomboy’s life in a different direction.
“It was the first time I ever put a nail polish on and it made me feel super-special,” she says. “I thought, well, we sell rings, so we could sell nail polish to go alongside the rings.”
She worked with a cosmetic chemist to create the formula, but persistence was needed to get the nail polishes made.
“I rang the manufacturer and said, ‘Could I please make six colours, 40 units of each colour?’ They basically laughed me out of there. So I just called them for a year. I pestered them every week and I think they just wanted to get rid of me, so they eventually said yes.”
Her products and business ethics saw her named Young Australian Businesswoman of the Year in 2016, which boosted her profile.
“I learnt how to do public speaking and I ended up doing a talk with Nicole Kidman in front of 2700 people.” At the end of 2019 the company moved into lipsticks. “We took a long time in development, but as my friend said: ‘You only get the chance to launch a lipstick once, so don’t stuff it up.’”
Anna and her partner Fergus then moved back to New Zealand from Melbourne in 2020. She had emerged, zen-like, from a meditation retreat in Italy to discover that Covid was raging across the globe.
“It wasn’t just Covid. We’d been wanting to move back for years and we thought, why not move to Wānaka? I mean, if you can live anywhere in New Zealand, why wouldn’t you? Fergus is a big skier so we’ve been doing lots of that.”
They’re also raising capital, as Anna intends to create a full beauty range. Keeping up with any developments that could further improve their sustainability track record is always on her radar.
“There’s a palm oil derivative ingredient in all nail polish globally and you can’t make nail polish without it at the moment. If we have the opportunity to improve our formula as technology advances we will. We’re constantly updating our packaging. We just went from normal lipstick bottles to PCR [post-consumer recycled] plastic lipstick bottles. Watch this space.”