Vitamin Sea(weed)

Vitamin Sea(weed)

Harvesting straight from the beach, Haeckels hauls seaweed up Margate’s cliff to its laboratory, building a business that’s both a B Corp and a 1% for the Planet member from it. Fiona Shaw meets MD Charlie Vickery. 




Fiona Shaw

It’s July in Margate and the Kentish coast’s beaches sweat under blankets of seaweed that turn them the black, green and purple of a ripe bruise. 

This seaweed, right here, is the base for all of Haeckels’ products: harvested straight from the beach, it’s hydrating; rich with vitamins, minerals and amino acids, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory.

The seaweed heads up the cliff face to Haeckels’ lab, in an old casino on the headland above. About 100m up the road is the shop, perched at the top of the hill in Cliftonville, overlooking the town’s iconic lido beacon.

Its coastal position is genuinely unique: Margate’s beach faces north, part of 14 mile jurassic chalk reef that’s home to seaweed not found anywhere else in the world. Volunteer beach warden Dom Bridges started Haeckels in 2012, collecting seaweed and local botanicals from the beach, and experimenting with them in his home kitchen. “It all started at the kitchen table,” says MD Charlie Vickery.

“Seaweed rots on the beach and creates this awful stench, and there were all sorts of plastics stuck in it. And that’s where the idea of a community clean-up came from.” 12 years on, Haeckels still runs a community clean-up every weekend and this summer took its litter picks to London, too.

It was that practical need – and incredible local resource – that led Dom to look into seaweed’s properties. Charlie says: “It’s incredibly bioactive and amazing for the skin. We were looking at everything that could be made… Learning as we went along. And that’s where the original soap block came from.” Back then, none of the Haeckels gang had a background in science. “And there’s a beauty to that, because you’re creating things that other people haven’t created before, because you’re not indebted to the past through having worked in this company or this company…” explains Charlie. “That has allowed us to operate outside the wider beauty market and challenge the status quo. We don’t have those assumptions that go into creating a product and ingredient sourcing and packaging sourcing – all of that stuff has been learnt over 12 years to create a pioneering, disruptive mentality internally. We’re able to do really different things because we’re not locked in this box of how things have always been done.”

Since then, he admits, Haeckels has become “predominantly a science-driven company.” That’s also why it stands out from other skincare brands. “The vast majority of brands are white label brands,” he says, “who’re just purchasing this stuff out of a factory in Germany and sticking a label on it. Whereas a lot of our early discoveries came because seaweed was left in the sun and it fermented and turned into this. Accidental beach-side discoveries led to us creating different types of ingredients and different types of seaweeds.”

"We’re able to do really different things because we’re not locked in this box of how things have always been done.”

Since then, he admits, Haeckels has become “predominantly a science-driven company.” That’s also why it stands out from other skincare brands. “The vast majority of brands are white label brands,” he says, “who’re just purchasing this stuff out of a factory in Germany and sticking a label on it. Whereas a lot of our early discoveries came because seaweed was left in the sun and it fermented and turned into this. Accidental beach-side discoveries led to us creating different types of ingredients and different types of seaweeds.”

Still, all of Haeckels’ seaweed comes from Margate. But its primary focus now is on lab-grown alternatives: “It’s become very labour-intensive to harvest the seaweed now and it’s hard to get the yields consistent,” says Charlie. “You’ll notice that a lot of the products have colour variation, depending on the seaweed and the season, which is really cool. But – as we grow – that’s becoming harder to explain, or harder to say ‘our best seller’s been out of stock for six weeks now because the sewage leaked into the ocean…’ I think that delicate infrastructure is beautiful – but, for your average customer, who’s just trying to switch to a more sustainable brand – if they can’t get their skincare products for half the year, it becomes really challenging.”

And this lab-grown approach is exactly what you’ll see if you pop into the shop: an industrial, lab aesthetic that’s far more than just a look. Vertical farm racks line the walls as you walk in, giving customers a glimpse of this brave new world. A living moss floor blooms below the walkways, prompted by Covid and increased caution about being inside, “We wanted to create a space inside where the air was purer than outside,” says Charlie. “Moss purifies the air by absorbing pollutants and releasing oxygen and we can take air readings to show that the air inside is cleaner than outside.”

The moss also absorbs and retains moisture, which regulates humidity and keeps the air moist. This helps people with respiratory problems and reduces static electricity, benefiting people with allergies or sensitive skin.

“When we first put the grey [vertical farm] towers in that store, people were like ‘what on earth are you doing?’” he laughs. “But for us it was very authentic, because all the products were made literally 100m down the road. It was about discovery – to see if we’d be able to grow our ingredients in lab conditions.”

Made in Margate

Margate has boomed in the last five years, helped by the arrival of the £17.5m Turner Contemporary and the reimagining of the Dreamland theme park by Hemingway Design. But Haeckels too has helped put this classic seaside town on the map for its sustainability creds, harking back to the Victorian resort’s sea-bathing heyday. “We always wanted to be like a Google Campus of Margate and create careers that people wanted to have,” explains Charlie. “We wanted to create spaces where people wanted to work, so it doesn’t feel like a factory. In an ideal world it would feel more like a factory but, in order to create the products we want to make, we wanted everyone to have the opportunity to do something creative.”

Did you ever think you’d know so much about seaweed, I ask Charlie. “No!” he laughs. “I’m an accountant and then I worked in fashion, then I did some data stuff. But I get to work around some of the most innovative brains in the industry. It’s a pairing of ideas: you have a lot of diverse people here who don’t have any beauty experience at a surface level; the sum of the parts is greater than the individuals. Collaboration is at the heart of Haeckels, so we’re able to do these incredible things by leveraging each others expertise. That’s what I like.”

The team has grown to 75 people, split across Haeckels’ spa, retail, creative and manufacturing functions and every job is done in house. “There’s an actual person behind everything that we do and say, which gives us real authenticity,” he says. “It allows that 360º approach to our supply chain… to our production… that is really really rare – that’s why we always talk so much about it. Because we know so much about it. Because we love it.”

This morning, Haeckels’ community sauna sits alongside the salty tidal pool at Walpole Bay. Margate has a long tradition of saltwater bathing. “It’s an integral part of our history,” says Charlie. “The principles we use in our treatment houses all come back to that – harnessing the power of the ocean in our products. We always want to pay homage to that from the story perspective and an ingredient perspective.”  

But, like the sea itself, it’s about balance. “Every bottle says ‘Made in Margate’ and that will always appear on the glass,” Charlie says. “But to lean on the town too much is a disservice to the product. It’s very important in what’s an unregulated beauty market, in many respects. Brands make all these ludicrous claims. We want to authenticate every claim we make and explain it – why you should buy our products compared to Brand X or Brand Y. We don’t try and sell, we try and explain. We have the longest emails in the industry,” he laughs.

“That allows customers to come to their own conclusions. We don’t create economies of demand that aren’t there. There are brands that will say ‘this product will make you look 20 years younger…’ and you’ll buy that product. And that product is the same as every other product. The best launch for us is a sleeper hit,” he says. “People are like, ‘what on earth is this?’ And then it slowly climbs into the top ten, because people have been equipped with the knowledge about its performance, then they’ll start to buy it and then they’ll tell their mates. And all their mates buy it and then everybody’s buying it… There are so many beauty brands that are incorporating the drop system, which they’ve learnt from the fashion world. They’re like ‘buy this, it’s sold out…’ and that’s a nonsense. So we go into a hell of a lot of detail!

“To be the most sustainable, you’ve got to stop forcing people to buy stuff. Stop offering a discount, stop doing social ads and create a community of people who will tell their friends about it.”

"...if you’re using 100% natural products, the amount of farming, irrigation, water pollution, carbon emissions and all of the pesticides coming off of that is astronomical.”

Vitamin sea(weed)

“Almost entire ancient industries are built on the magic of seaweed,” smiles Charlie. “It can impact your mind, your body and your skin. The impact on your skin depends on the type of seaweed you have; it can be incredible nourishing, calming, soothing, softening, anti-inflammatory. Some seaweeds that have UVA and UVB protecting properties; there are some that can be extracted on a cellular level and turned into packaging; there are some that – through precision fermentation – can be developed into something that replicates the performance of a heavily polluting ingredient.” 

The Haeckels eBike plies up and down the cliff to the lab, hauling 15–20kg a week. “We do it every day or every other day,” he says. “But lab-grown alternatives make for a higher impactful end product.” They’re more concentrated, in effect.

“It’s only more recently we’ve thought about the resource intensity of farming natural ingredients,” he says. “You might farm 100kg – but extract perhaps 2mg that can can be used in a product. If you think about ingredients like rose oil, that’s insane. The natural ingredient industry is huge, but if you’re using 100% natural products, the amount of farming, irrigation, water pollution, carbon emissions and all of the pesticides coming off of that is astronomical.” 

Haeckels, true to form, took a long hard look at its supply chain. “And some of those ingredients were really not good,” admits Charlie. “So we challenged ourselves, how could we be better?”

Haeckels has, Charlie says, always been obsessed with creating local supply chains. Partnerships, so far, have proved an authentic way to grow. “We know how to make things in Margate ,” he says. “But how do we take that and expand into LA or Sri Lanka?” In 2020 it began a collaboration with Patina in the Maldives, creating an Indian Ocean Collection for the reef conservation-focused resort. The team has already started looking at an LA supply chain, harvesting kelp off the coastline. But they’re not quite there yet.

The fascinating thing about working with seaweed is that different seaweeds have different properties. “The kelp lends itself into masks and wearables and things that can be consumed,” says Charlie, “so the exciting part is that we’re not just gonna take Haeckels and parachute it into another country with all the same products. It’s more like ‘if you’re going to the States, Haeckels is a clothing brand’ or if you go to another country it’ll be a restaurant.” So Haeckels will be a different type of business in different territories? “Yes,” he says. “We can operate in different verticals that all sit within the same knowledge pool. That’s the way we want to grow. It won’t be a carbon copy anywhere.” 

Haeckels signed a lease on a new store in Japan in Osaka in January 2020. So it took some time to open. But it’s now home to a Japanese version of the OG soap block, working with local fishermen in Hinase to harvest eelgrass seaweed. “The Japanese version of our soap block ended up in our innovation subscription and people went absolutely crackers for it,” Charlie says. “There’s always a product that you can’t purchase in normal retail – it might be a collaboration or a secret product and that’s where we really get to weave and turn up the excitement.”

Charlie describes the link between the natural world and Haeckel’s natural products as ‘everything’ to the brand. “And that sometimes hindered us,” he admits, “because there are projects that we don’t do because we can’t clear up the sustainability credentials. We’ve tried to be too far ahead of the curve at times; to present solutions to problems that customers don’t necessarily want, because it impacts how they use a product. That’s an interesting learning curve.” Still, he says, “every decision, every policy comes back to ‘how do we protect our planet – and our people?’”

Haeckels fans will have noticed the changes, over the years. “The amount of times our packaging has changed over the last 12 years,” he laughs. “Well, we’re not afraid to rip things up and start again. When we moved our packaging from glass to compostables, that was a major milestone for us. I don’t think there are any other companies out there that, when the going gets good, says ‘nah, scrap that, let’s do something different.’ That anyone who recognises the brand won’t recognise it now… that’s built in to who we are.”

But standing still would be doing the brand a disservice, he says. “The information we had ten years ago is nowhere near the education we have now and the materials innovation was nowhere near as good. That’s why we shouldn’t look like we did ten years ago.

“I look at Glastonbury – it has a fallow year to respect the land and its need to recover. We need to respect our supply chains; to respect our seaweed harvesting enough to know that our infrastructure can’t support this, so sometimes we need the fallow years to pull back. “It comes under de-growth.” 

(In my 25 years as a business journalist, Charlie is the first MD I’ve spoken to who’s talked openly about de-growth. He laughs when I tell him). “But how do you change the cycle of capitalism out of this constant growth story?” he asks… “Where you’ve got to do this every single year until everybody’s screwed.”

Haeckels has the confidence to turn things down because it doesn’t want to do something, or can’t see the reasoning behind it. “If all people are after is this crazy growth, then they don’t understand the DNA of doing the right things. Doing the right things means that you can’t just grow the whole time and it means having to make tricky decisions that customers might not understand for a few years. 

“In order to change things, you’ve got to allow times for stuff to dip and then it comes back… that’s very much built in. It’s having that time to pause.” It’s like the ebb and flow of the tide. As the water shrinks back, the seaweed is there to harvest.

Vitamin (Seaweed) is featured in issue 19 of Ethos magazine. If you enjoyed what you read online, issue 18 is packed with innovation, inspiration and global good business stories. Grab your copy now!

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