Sundra Essien left behind a career in law to set up Isangs, a cosmetics store which is also an open beauty workshop. She wants to revolutionise the industry by connecting people with the stories behind products they use.
Tell us about what you do in as few words as you can.
I would say that I build connections. Hair and body care products are the vehicle through which I hope to achieve that, but the big goal is to build better connections through which we can create more sustainable buying practices and supply chains. Better connections produce more empathy among buyers, producers and growers.
How did Isangs come about?
My formal background is in human rights law. But it has always been a dream of mine to start a business that recognises its social responsibility, and takes that responsibility very seriously.
As an attorney, I was working on everything from poverty alleviation to torture rehabilitation. A lot of it was policy work, which at some point became too abstract for my temperament. I wanted to do something where I could be closer to the people that we were working with.
Isangs is a hair and body care open production workshop based in Copenhagen. All of their ingredients are organic, fair trade and vegan. You can see the entire production cycle right in their store, and even try your hand at making the products yourself.
In the past I had done some work with permaculture research, working on farms in Costa Rica and Nigeria to learn restorative agricultural models. I also have a strong chemistry background, and I had been making hair and beauty products as a side thing.
If you think about the hair and body care industry, it has two features that are really important when we talk about sustainability and trade.
First, nearly everyone comes in contact with hair and body care products on a daily basis. Second, it’s an industry that implicates a great variety of the issues we come across when talking about building a fairer and more sustainable world. You almost can’t name an issue without seeing how it’s directly connected to the production of hair and beauty products: power imbalances in the supply chain, local communities, deforestation, raw ingredients, agriculture, misinformation, plastics and packaging…
“The cosmetics industry is great at telling us about problems that aren’t really problems and then selling us solutions for them”
Samples of ingredients are on display at Isangs for customers to explore. Photo courtesy of Isangs
I thought this was the perfect vehicle: it’s something that I can do, that I enjoy doing and where I can have a direct impact by creating a holistic, sustainable and connected business model. In 2010 I founded Isangs and in 2012, we opened our store in the heart of Copenhagen.
What aspects of the hair and beauty care industry need change?
A lot of what we do is to disseminate good, honest information about what products can and can’t do for you. Because the cosmetics industry is really great at telling us about problems that aren’t really problems and then selling us solutions for them. To combat that, we need another type of information about how things work so that people can stand in front of any product and evaluate the claims that producers make. We need to be able to assess whether we actually need those products, so that we can ultimately buy less stuff. We don’t need to have 40 different creams for every square inch of our face!
“It’s about helping people realise that shea butter doesn’t just magically appear”
Another problem is that for some confusing reasons, sustainability has become intertwined with a sort of luxury, wealthy buying community. It shouldn’t be this way. We make what we call “everyday products” which are simply organic, fair trade, vegan products, handmade right in our store. Anyone can stop in and see how the products are made, what the raw ingredients look like, and where they come from.
What I hope when people walk into our shop is that they walk away with a more nuanced understanding of how the world of hair and body care works, and a more connected relationship to the entire process and its people, which is why it’s crucial for us to have production in the shop. Customers can come and physically meet people, ask questions, and understand the process from when a shea nut falls from the tree and is picked from the ground, to when it’s roasted and churned into butter. It’s about helping them realise that shea butter doesn’t just magically appear, there are real people doing real work who deserve a fair cut of this industry.
What makes you most proud of what you have accomplished so far?
The community of people that we’ve built. The ones who come in, stay for a chat and want to go into conversations about the world and about how things work. This is community, this is what we mean by connections and local businesses.
What advice would you give to inspire others who want to make a positive impact?
Right now the world wants everyone to put on this veneer of all-encompassing knowledge about everything. In reality we all have a lot of gaps. Don’t be afraid to exist in that messy space of uncertainty and nuances. Don’t be afraid to change directions and paths. Seek out scary and contradictory information, constantly revise your worldview and your way of approaching things. I think that leads to better products and better connections.
Who do you want to pass a High 5 on to and why?
I want to give a High 5 to Zozo Mposula, the creator of a community space called My Beautiful People. She has inspired me a lot because she’s connecting people and building bridges through empathy. That’s how we can get past some of the issues we feel are insurmountable: feeling more connected to ourselves, the world around us and the spaces that other people live in, it’s what makes concepts real and tangible.