For Niagara-on-the-Lake business owner Al Huberts and his business partner and daughter Courtney, solving the world’s plastics problem is front and centre in their mission. Through the York Road offices of Nature’s Aid, they are tackling that problem head on.
Huberts and his wife Louise moved to NOTL just over four years ago, starting Nature’s Aid at the same time. The organization offers skin and beauty care products containing all-natural ingredients, as well as products for pets and horses.
Since its inception, Nature’s Aid has had its eye on being environmentally friendly. Ten months ago they jumped into the burgeoning world of shampoo and conditioner bars, taking their commitment to the environment to the next level.
Not to be confused with soap, these are bars of real shampoo and conditioner, made with natural ingredients that are gentle on hair and contain no artificial colours or fragrances. And they eliminate the shampoo bottle altogether.
According to many, including the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it’s not enough to recycle and launch clean-up efforts to reduce the amount of plastics that are wreaking environmental havoc around the world. A recent report from that foundation in partnership with the World Economic Forum states that by 2050, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish. They advocate for a move toward a circular economy for plastics, keeping it out of landfills.
The hair and beauty care industry is one of those contributing to the global glut of plastics. Recent months have seen a number of companies in these industries begin to eschew the man-made material in favour of more sustainable options. Among the options that are beginning to catch on is the concept of the shampoo bars.
According to Huberts, since the launch of the new product last year, Nature’s Aid has become the number one seller of shampoo and conditioner bars in Canada. “It’s not a big deal (yet),” he says, “as most people doing it are small little home-based businesses, and a few others that try to do what we do. But we sold 84,000 bars in our first nine months.” As Huberts points out, that also means 84,000 plastic bottles were potentially kept out of landfills.
The York Road location is the home of the Nature’s Aid offices and distribution centre. Production is contracted out, with the liquid products being made in Toronto and their bath bombs produced in Aurora. The shampoo bars, however, are produced by another NOTL business, NEOB.
“We don’t want to manufacture,” says Huberts. “But I want to have tight relationships with our manufacturers, so Robert (Achal, NEOB owner and product developer) and I are working on some things together. He is very, very knowledgeable, and he understands retail.”
On the retail side of things, though they do sell products via their website, Nature’s Aid focuses on getting its products into stores across the country. “The core of the business in Canada is health food and health and wellness stores,” Huberts explains. “Where we don’t have those channels, we move into the drugstore channel. So in Niagara-on-the-Lake, for example, we have Simpson’s and Stone Road Pharmacy.” Huberts estimates that there’s not a health food or health and wellness store in Canada that isn’t selling their products.
Like many newcomers to NOTL, the move here for Al and Louise is part of their retirement plan. The business is a vehicle through which Al can collaborate with their daughter Courtney, who holds an MBA from Imperial College in London, England. The original idea was to get Nature’s Aid started together, and then hand the reins to her to take over.
Courtney, however, is currently living in Ireland with her husband and their three children (who grace the cover of their 2021 catalogue), and is handling the production and other aspects of the business from there, while Al manages the York Road operations. But the Huberts patriarch is quick to confirm how valuable his daughter’s input is in the day-to-day decision-making.
Nature’s Aid is just the latest in a long line of ventures for the British Columbia-born Huberts. After rising through the ranks to become a regional manager for Tip Top Tailors in his early 20s, his first foray into his own business was in the fashion industry. He moved from clothing to men’s accessories and, most successfully, a line of licensed cartoon-themed ties that became very popular in the 1990s.
From there, it was on to designing decorative tins containing jigsaw puzzles and selling them to Scotiabank and Chrysler, followed later by a line of activity books that taught children about Canadian history, and the rules of hockey and soccer. He has also recently developed a board game that simulates the process of building a new home.
When asked if he is a serial entrepreneur, he says, “my biggest problem as a business person is that I get bored really easily, and I like projects. The fashion business was perfect for me, because you do have to create a new collection every six months.”
Huberts credits his sister-in-law for providing the seed for the Nature’s Aid business. She began making products for horses, and had expanded her offerings to a skin gel for humans, but it never really advanced much beyond a home-based business. Knowing how well the skin gel actually worked, when it was time for him to start a new venture he took over her business and immediately began applying his restless nature to developing an expanded product line, today numbering almost 30 different items.
This year the company is introducing a number of new products, including a moisturizing hand sanitizer made with medical grade ethanol and a new all-natural gel for aches and pains. As well, two new shampoo and conditioner combo bars have been developed, geared toward a specific outdoors lifestyle consumer.
“They’re two new scents,” explains Huberts. “One is cedar and eucalyptus, obviously male-oriented, and the other is unscented. Real hunters need unscented for them and their dogs, and campers and hikers need a good scent to keep animals away. The real target is the outdoors stores.”
Huberts is looking toward 2021 with hopes that the shampoo and conditioner bars continue to catch on, contributing in their way to a less polluted environment. And though he’s clearly staving off his boredom by constantly developing ideas for new products, he’s looking ahead further, to a day when he can finally hand the entire business over to Courtney and move on to his next entrepreneurial venture.