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Photos: This Vancouver business was one of the first clean beauty brands in Canada

Sappho New Paradigm challenges how we view both business and beauty.

“I couldn’t have had this conversation with you 10 years ago,” says JoAnn Fowler, founder of Sappho New Paradigm, as we discuss the clean beauty movement. “People would say you’re just angry, and yeah I am angry.”

As a former makeup artist who worked in film and television for 30 years, Fowler approaches everything with the fervour and reverence of a creative, including business. “I'm sort of the most hapless person to be in business because I have a very socialist kind of outlook and I'm a feminist and I created this so that women wouldn't be lied to,” she says of the company she built from the ground up, twice.

Fowler was first introduced to the concept of clean beauty by Mia Kirshner on the set of the L Word in the early 2000s. No one in North America was talking about clean beauty back then but Kirshner lived in Paris and there was a movement in the EU to ban over 1,300 toxic chemicals found in personal care items.

Kirshner didn’t want Fowler applying any makeup made with parabens, which set Fowler down a path of researching the effects of cosmetic ingredients on the body. She phoned Halle Berry’s personal makeup artist Norma Hill-Patton asking for resources and where to find clean beauty brands in Canada (there were none). Hill-Patton directed Fowler to the book Not Just a Pretty Face.

“One of the first paragraphs talks about all these studies that were done on people's blood, and they found over 387 toxic chemicals in the bloodstream, including PCBs from the 1970s, parabens, phthalates, and endocrine disruptors,” recalls Fowler. “The test subjects were newborn babies across the United States in 2004, still in the hospital.”

“That was the moment really. It was that book. It was that paragraph. It was the realization that what we do in our environment is part of our bodies, part of the environment, and I just thought, 'I can't do this anymore,'” she recalls.

What is Sappho New Paradigm?

Sappho New Paradigm is a two-fold project that set out to be a new paradigm of business and beauty. Fowler values transparency in both above all else. She builds relationships and has conversations with her retailers which are primarily women-run businesses and Sappho strives to counteract the prevailing attitude that ‘it’s just business,’ because for many that’s not true. “​​At some point, we're going to pay for that disconnect,” Fowler points out. She feels holistically the boardroom and the home aren’t as separate as people would like to believe.

One of Sappho New Paradigm's retailers is the Detox Market which vets over 1000 clean beauty products every year and only selects two per cent of submissions based on ethical business practices and a long list of banned toxic ingredients. “They’re not teaching this in schools,” says Fowler. This skews our perceptions of how our makeup should function or even how much it should cost. A three-dollar makeup product has a history of pain and suppression, she posits. 

The minerals used in the Sappho New Paradigm cosmetics are from the Responsible Mica Initiative. The packaging uses a pellet called biosphere which makes the plastic tubes recyclable but also biodegradable in a landfill. The brushes are made from wood harvested by an international non-profit organization dedicated to promoting responsible forestry.

From the beauty perspective, Sappho is also challenging what it means to wear makeup and why. Fowler acknowledges that you will never be able to achieve the silicone finish with a natural beauty product because that ingredient won’t be present but she doesn’t understand why you would want to. “Silicones are not only dangerous, they're dangerous for the world,” she says, “They're non-biodegradable, they're horrific.”

But more than that it unnerves Fowler to see the uncanny valley pore-less style of makeup. “I'm always taken aback when I walk into a makeup trailer and I see somebody that is so full-on with silicone makeup that you can't see their skin,” she says, “that's not the makeup artist I am. I've always wanted to work with the person's skin and make their skin look their best.”

For Sappho’s most recent photoshoot they put out a call on social media inviting their followers to have their picture taken. They didn’t do any touch-ups and just played around with lighting to celebrate how makeup can be a fun expression of what is already beautiful.

“We have a very strong presence in our society that says you have to look a certain way,” Fowler explains, “And it's predominantly pushed by the same people in FDA rooms making decisions about how women should wear makeup,” who don’t exactly have women’s interest at heart.

Fowler says she doesn’t wear makeup every day and doesn’t think that women need to but if they chose to they should be able to make informed decisions about what they are putting on their skin and the impact it has on the environment.