Where sustainability meets the well-kept secrets of the Amazon. By Rekha Shanmugam.
A childhood in Brazil, over a decade as design director of Calvin Klein Collections, and now, his own beauty and lifestyle brand; the trajectory might have been steep for Francisco Costa, but there always was a commonality that defined it, an inclination for sustainability.
“I have been thinking sustainably since I was a child,” says Costa. The design-director-turned-entrepreneur recently debuted his own, sustainable, Amazon-sourced, ‘slow luxury’ brand, appropriately named Costa Brazil amid much anticipation and excitement. Face and body oils, and scented vegan candles form the core of the line, but Costa is particular about one thing, we need to get closer to nature in our endeavor to consume and not away from it.
Costa Brazil, the child of ardor and inspiration was in fact conceived during a journey closer to nature. 2016 saw Costa bid goodbye to his high profile job as the design director of Calvin Klein womenswear, when the mighty Amazon forest beckoned. He yielded, ready to be enthralled by its beauty, and as destiny would have it, chanced upon Breu, a resin extracted from the Almacega tree of the rainforest, one said to be used in healing rituals by the indigenous population to keep dark spirits at bay. Subsequently, the resin, which for centuries has been consumed by the forest dwellers for its antioxidant and antiseptic properties, became, along with Kaya and Cacay (other ingredients which he chanced upon during trips he made to the Amazon forest frequently after that), the core of his sustainable line of products.
“The ingredients found me,” says Costa, “I didn’t find them!” The distinct properties of the three and how potent and effective they were as a trio galvanized his decision to center his impending venture on their potential to heal and nurture. “We are very proud to be bringing Breu and Kaya to the market first, and Cacay (known as the ‘Gold of the Amazon’) has quite literally transformed communities previously burdened with drug trade. We are also proud and deliberate in the manner that we are extracting the ingredients.”
Costa’s early life was one that was intertwined with the importance of ecological ways of life, one that formed and informed his life-long quest to incorporate responsible methods to source, produce and transport materials. When he was a child, he witnessed his mother encourage local communities to be self-sustainable by distributing fabric scraps from her factory and teaching the women to sew and create quilts. “When it comes to beauty, growing up in Brazil gave me an inherent appreciation of nature and an understanding of the beauty of simplicity. In Brazil we celebrate ease, happiness,” he says.
He is especially proud of a collection he did for Calvin Klein made from dead-stock yarn from Scotland and Italy, and of another in which the clothes were designed in a way as to utilize the least possible space to ship or store. “I ended up winning the Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Award for this collection but more so than it being sustainable, it was conceptual and embodied minimal packaging, shipping, and display,” says Costa.
As a continuation of that awareness comes his drive to ensure that Costa Brazil commits to mindful sourcing. In an era where much has been said and written about beauty behemoths exploiting natural resources and indigenous populations for commercial gains, Costa says he is particular that Costa Brazilworks with the local community and extracts ingredients in a responsible manner, that trees are not cut and resources not exploited.
In order to facilitate this, the company has partnered with the nonprofit environmental organization Conservation International, which has been actively involved in the area. In September 2017, Conservation International along with other partners announced a six-year project to restore 73 million trees in the Brazilian Amazonia region by 2023, spanning 30,000 hectares of land, which the organization says is the largest tropical forest restoration in the world. The main objective of partnering with Conservational International, according to Costa, is that environmental consciousness is incorporated in the development of the brand right from the nascent stages. “Conservation International is our partner helping us establish best practices in our sourcing activities while also working hand in hand with the tribal communities,” he says.
Owing to an increased level of awareness about the exploitative nature of the fashion and beauty industries, triggered in part by social media outrage, more and more brands around the world are exploring the realm of sustainability, in different capacities. But the shift comes at a cost. Costa says it was difficult to find the right suppliers and manufacturing partners initially. “I was shocked by what I saw in some of the labs I visited, and it was hard to find out how raw materials were being sourced,” he says. He credits Conservation International with helping mitigate that obscurity, with making sure that the procedure is ethical.
Costa says the business is also starting to have a positive influence on the lives of some of the indigenous people. He says a certain community in the Eastern Amazon region is actively involved in harvesting the Cacay plant, one of the key ingredients of Costa Brazil products, helping offset the problems associated with harvesting Coca and the subsequent drug-trade-related issues that arose from that.
The transition to establishing his own brand has been rewarding and liberating for Costa, and the interest in the brand has assured him that he is on the right track. There is a definite possibility of it expanding in the future to include apparel as well, with sustainable being the operative word.
“I could only imagine creating a business with longevity, a feeling of slow luxury. I take my time to consider each element and if it means delaying a product launch, to make sure we can trace the origins and sourcing-methods of our ingredients, or find the perfect custom packaging that is both beautiful, functional and inherently good for the earth, then I know I am doing my job.”