Some soaps clean more than just your body. Some can clean your conscience too. An unexpected outcome to buying a work-a-day item so unobtrusive it’s barely given a second thought. Or first. But this is the case with Friendly Soap, whose modest products deliver a lot. For their range of natural soaps, shampoo bars, and shaving bars tread lightly upon the earth – though the Victorian mill from which they spring would appear to promise another tale. One of graft, grime and clangour. Fortunately these echoes of yesteryear are as absent as the iron-shod workers who spent their days within the walls. It’s a quieter, more considered space today. Occupied by artists, and theatre prop-makers.
The Friendly Soap story has many points of entry. Many ways to tell the tale, but perhaps we should begin with their style of production, which perfectly reflects the essence of the company. All the soaps are made using the Cold Process method, a traditional approach to soap making that creates no by-products, and is almost exclusively powered by hands. It’s a slow process. Requiring two days for the ingredients to ‘cook’ and set in their moulds, before removing the soap for slicing down into individual bars. But this is not the end – for the bars have to ‘cure’ on shelves for a month, before being ready for packing, and sale. A marked departure to the rapid churn of the conventional soap makers.
Yet current practices weren’t at the forefront of Geoff Kerouac and Rob Costello’s minds, when the two friends bought the tiny soap making business in 2008. This is more the culmination of sector experience, and personal politics, that have, over the arc of time, brought an ethical clarity to every decision about the company’s methods and development. Not perhaps unexpected given that they both worked at Suma Wholefoods, the UK’s largest workers cooperative, for many years. They understand that standard business practice is not the only way of being successful, and is why their soaps are priced to meet most pockets. Unlike many handcrafted products.
While the rise in artisan businesses, from craft bakeries to micro-breweries, is an exciting development, challenging the low quality, throwaway practices of much of consumer society, there is an ‘elephant in the room.’ And that is price. In the artisan world pricing often means products are perceived as affordable only for a wealthier minority. So even when the story behind an item’s higher cost is well articulated by the makers, they are frequently speaking to the converted. The difficulty is getting Joe Public to engage with and purchase, rather than pass over products they don’t think are for them.
It’s a conundrum Friendly Soap have solved – marrying the seemingly conflicting demands of being high quality, ethically sound, yet affordable – and created true ‘everyman’ soaps. “Right from the beginning we knew we wanted make affordable products, the most natural we could create, but affordable. We wanted ordinary people to be able to buy them. We had an image of them sitting on a supermarket shelf, alongside commercial soaps, giving people an option to buy a natural one.
And we wanted to educate, let people know that not only is the skin the largest organ, but that it absorbs everything you put on it. Most soaps are full of detergents, with many having as many as 20 chemicals. You don’t need a long list of chemicals to make a bar of soap – just the oils. We wanted an ingredient list that was short. Just what was needed.”
But the path they follow was not fully formed at the outset. Rather it’s been a voyage of discovery, in which every twist has raised questions about their approach, causing them to modify their practices. “At first we were just making soap to the recipes given to us by Andy Lynne, who we bought the company off. But we quickly started getting people asking whether we used palm oil in the process. Which we did, as all the recipes were palm oil based. But once we investigated the environmental consequences of using it we changed what we did. It’s what turned us from cooks into chemists. We had to learn why, and in what way, different ingredients affected how the finished products ended up, plus find new oils to make the soaps with.
We’re always learning new things and changing what we do. Which is why we’ve recently begun using plastic free recycled packaging, we only use natural oils such as shea, coconut, olive, castor and cocoa, which are easy on the skin, and essential oils, flowers and spices to scent the bars. In many ways the company has changed us a much as we’ve changed it, because we’re both continuously considering the ethics, and environmental impacts of our personal and business decisions. ”
So while saving the planet one bar of soap at a time might appear a lunatic endeavor, in a world dominated by the marketing foghorn of a multi-million pound cosmetics industry. Friendly Soap is a breath of fresh air. Producing modestly priced natural soaps for the man and woman on the street
Written by Matthew Geraghty