When I moved out of my family home for college, my local salon was the haircare aisle in Target. I couldn’t afford a $50 bottle of shampoo that lasted for as long as the $10 option at Target lasted. I mention this to Nora Schaper, co-founder of plastic-free haircare brand HiBAR, when she mentions how the bars landed in grocery stores rather than salons.
Turns out, salons were the original plan… but with so many hit by COVID, the brand pivoted to grocery stores. I commend them on the marketing strategy.
“Well, that’s unintentional,” Schaper chuckles, “but we’ll take the credit.”
As Schaper and I continue to talk, I’m quick to realize – a team of four planned as much as they could, and even then, they’re still rolling with unplanned punches. What separates them from other smaller companies: they’re Jackie-Chan-ing those rolls with each new punch, finding new avenues and strategies to propel the company forward.
But I’ll let Nora Schaper tell you more.
A brief history: HiBAR was founded by four parents whose children attended the same school.
Schaper and her husband, co-founder Jay, had already been selling bath bombs and soaps through the natural market. It was throughout the manufacturing process that Schaper and her husband realized: “we could formulate so many products, and we wouldn’t need a package. Or we could just use a paper package.” It was a lightbulb moment to the two of them.
With this idea, “I cornered Ward [Johnson, another co-founder,] in the school parking lot and said, ‘Ward, would you consult with my husband and I?’ He said, ‘absolutely,’” summarizes Schaper. And when he went by their house and heard their idea, he had one question for them: what’s your why?
“We said, ‘well, we think we can eliminate plastic.’ And he said, ‘that is such an incredible mission, and I want to be a part of that.’”
Ward had plenty of business experience, which is what Schaper and Jay were looking for; he’d built a natural pet business and sold it, managing 50 employees and patents on his business process… a manufacturing process.
The three began brainstorming: how can we eliminate plastic most effectively, and where do we start?
It was at a housewarming party that they ran into fellow co-founder Dion Hughes, who mentioned the amount of plastic he’d seen on the property line while vacationing in Mexico. When he heard what Ward, Jay, and Schaper were doing, he immediately jumped at the prospect of being involved.
The four brainstormed together, and “we landed on haircare as our place to start, since shampoo and conditioner bottles are the main thing in everybody’s showers,” says Schaper.
Initially, the team was looking for manufacturers – the formula would be taken care of, and they would be the faces of the company, educating the public and consumers on why the product was ingenious. “But we learned that nobody is making the product the way we are.”
Two and a half years later, after research, plenty of trial and error, and the hiccups that come with, you know, creating a product that’s never existed, the team sold their first bar in October of 2018. The line consists of six full-sized shampoo and conditioner bars, all of which target different hair types and woes, rather than relying on one bar to cover every hair problem.
Because I’m me, I lead the conversation to QUILL’s existence: HiBAR’s products are gender-neutral in scent (which we’ve mentioned in articles), and they also offer Moisturize as a set without fragrance. I ask if this was purposeful, if gender-neutral was the aim.
Schaper surprises me with her answer: “People were telling us, women are not going to use this product, that you should just focus on the men’s bar that they can use all over their body and on their hair. … [But] we really wanted to inspire and be beautiful for everybody.”
It’s worked, in my opinion. The bars are bright, a unique shape, and never lean toward stereotypical “masculine” or “feminine” colors. On top of this, the bars smell of light citrus – appealing to any gender.
“We really knew that to eliminate the most plastic, everybody needs to be able to use this bar,” Schaper tells me, nodding firmly. “But specifically, we have to make sure that women will use the bar, because women are still 90% of the people, I want to say, who purchase our product, whether it’s just women using it or not.”
It’s here where I express that, throughout my teenage years, my mother often bought the shampoo and conditioner for our whole family. And when I lived with my partner, I was responsible for buying neutral shampoos and conditioners.
“A lot of men were already using soap in their hair and on their body and using it for everything,” Schaper comments, and I laugh.
“We knew we’d get there one way or another,” she says, serious this time. Pleasant, but serious – a woman with a mission, who refused to give up for two and a half years to make sure every. Single. Decision. Was made — the right way.
It’s admirable, and I’m looking forward to moving to the fragrance free portion.
As I mentioned, HiBAR didn’t simply go, “we created a one-of-a-kind product,” clap their hands, and say, “that’s it!”
They worked hard to create multiple formulas for different hair types, whether you simply need to maintain your dream hair or hydrate dry ends.
“We worked with a chemist from Aveda and she said, ‘you can’t make a solid product that moisturizes or that meets specific needs.’ She just said, ‘it’s not possible.’”
And like with most of us, this was the push the team needed to conquer their challenge. Jay, who is the formulator – though not a chemist, “more out of the box,” Schaper explains – took it to heart. The technical aspects of making shampoo and conditioner – think starting with raw ingredients, with the heat of lye and the efficacy of oils when creating soap at top of mind when creating a product that cleans, just one product that cleans – took significant time.
But they stuck with it. “We want to offer solutions for the top-selling formulas because that’s how we’re going to eliminate the most plastic. We were really looking at that from the beginning and then formulating different ingredients for different hair types, and doing research on different hair types, and then just testing the product on as many people as we could and getting feedback.”
It was a long process. And it was a worthy process, because it’s been effective.
“Since then, we’ve eliminated over 3 million bottles from waterways and landfills, and we’ve saved over 550,000 gallons of water because our product is concentrated,” Schaper says, her face lighting up as she reveals these significant stats to me.
The fragrance free bars contribute to this. Currently only in the Moisturize formulation, Schaper reveals that the scentless bars are a large contribution, both financially and in the fight against plastic. “It sells pretty consistently. People really do appreciate that more than I expected,” marvels Schaper. “I thought it would be a smaller seller than it is.”
Though the scent is already so faint and neutral, the HiBAR team came together and had a conversation about how they could reach more people. “Our best channel is in the natural market, and there are so many people that have sensitivity to fragrances, and there’s a lot of bad stuff hidden in fragrances,” she says. So, the team thought, “If we really want to be inclusive again, we should offer something that is fragrance free.”
It’s not just Moisturize that’s fragrance free – the brand’s newly released Face Wash bars are also fragrance free, because “when you wash your face, it’s too sensitive to have all that heavily fragranced stuff in there,” Schaper tells me.
HiBAR had never solely intended to be a haircare brand, so the expansion into face bars – a decision made by walking through Target and picking which popular body products HiBAR could offer plastic-free – was no surprise to anyone at the company. But the transition from haircare to skincare was not as simple as one would think.
It began with manufacturing, yet again… and it ended with the team deciding to manufacture the product themselves. Enter: machinery, testing, ingredient manipulation. (“Most ingredients are water-soluble, and we’re not using water. So, we’re having to invent a way to make something in which the ingredients are effective, but not released into water.”)
Still, there were learning curves. Take, for example, Jay drying the face wash formula in 30°F weather on the loading docks in Minnesota to cool off and allow the bars to be released from the molds. “And it actually worked!” laughs Schaper.
The bars were originally supposed to be released last September, but have been delayed until now. Schaper is grateful for this. “It’s completely crazy how we’re learning … and they do take a long time. But we have been formulating and working and looking at face washes for over a year now, [and the delay helped] get us really dialed in and get it figured out.”
One example of something to figure out: excess hydration. Water droplets began forming on the waterless bars, and “we had to tweak the bars so they didn’t collect water. So, obviously, a lot more goes into it than it appears on the outside.”
They haven’t started producing in large batches yet, though they’re hoping this will begin in the next few weeks. There might be plenty to sweat, but I’m starting to realize that the team finds that to be part of the fun.
Schaper has been a delight.
Though she kindly says she has as much time for me as we need, I know better than to fill up this woman’s schedule. Plus, she’s been verbose – we’ve covered plenty of ground in our 30 minutes.
One thing we touch upon that’s also sustainability-related: their packaging. HiBAR has the nation’s only water-activated box taper; the brand is regularly playing around with the standard appliances and machinery to align with their mission. They modified their box taper to accommodate water-activated tape, “and we had to insert a water-activation piece in there.”
They also work with a pallet wrapper which uses biodegradable pallet wrap. Naturally, the length differs from other pallet wrap, but it wouldn’t be HiBAR without some tinkering to save the earth, right?
Schaper shares with me that the bars aren’t simply changing consumers’ experiences – they’re changing behind-the-scenes processes, too. “Urban Outfitters approached us and wanted us to sell our product to them, but they said it had to be shipped in poly bags.” HiBAR refused, and Urban Outfitters changed their policy to allow for HiBAR’s eco-friendly shipping.
“I think that’s part of what HiBAR stands for: really inspiring people to think about how they’re doing things, and to try something different,” Schaper muses. When it comes to the brand’s future, “we just want to keep spreading the word and expanding our product lines so we can eliminate more plastic and really keep the ball rolling on this.”
But it gets personal for me as she continues her train of thought. “If you stand by your mission, people will – if they want to be a part of that – make accommodations to make it work,” she states.
It reminds me of QUILL and my mission, of what brought me to start this organization and fight for destigmatizing gender in beauty. Of what pushes me to get out of bed every day and write, reach out, interview, create ads, follow stats, work hard, embrace hustle culture: there are others out there who will find QUILL and join our mission, and we’ll start a revolution.
A snowballing revolution, I hope, just like HiBAR’s.
There are 2 comments
Thanks for this excellent article. I am going to support this company and I am excited to eliminate plastic in my bathroom.
HiBAR is incredible, and Nora is super convincing 😉