For Cheekbone Beauty, Environmental Responsibility Goes So Far Beyond Simple Recycling

Go deep with founder Jenn Harper.

Courtesy Of Cheekbone Beauty
Jenn Harper, founder of Cheekbone beauty

To call Jenn Harper’s Cheekbone Beauty brand a dream come true would be accurate in the most literal sense. The company’s inception almost sounds like something out of a film sequence. In 2015, Harper bolted upright in bed in the middle of the night, struck by what she’d just seen in her subconscious: three young Native American girls giggling, covered in lipgloss. She remembers brown skin, rosy cheeks, and so much laughter, and it was the sort of images she couldn’t shake — she had to pull out her laptop and start writing, planning, ideating. Eight years later, Harper’s cosmetics company, Cheekbone Beauty, has been photographed on the red carpet, on magazine covers, beloved by celebrities and everyday beauty fans alike. But to draw a straight line from that one fateful night to runaway success would mean discounting a near-fill decade of trials, experimentation, sacrifice, missteps, and breakthrough moments, all of which were crucial in crafting Cheekbone, the first Indigenous-owned and founded brand of its kind, into what it is today.

Cheekbone is a radical and rare enterprise in virtually every sense, but in the hyper-consumptive beauty industry, it’s an even greater outlier. Sitting down with Harper for a firsthand account of how it all came to be, it’s overwhelmingly evident how much her heritage as an Anishinaabe woman has influenced every single aspect of the brand — including its groundbreaking commitment to environmental protection, sustainability, and community reciprocity.

Ahead, Harper shares it all with TZR.

How She Got Started

Even amid the modern deluge of beauty brands, seemingly formed and launched at breakneck speed, there’s usually a common thread. Most of the founders are in some way, no matter how tangentially, connected to the industry already. For Harper, it was all entirely new territory, and one she found herself navigating at a particularly significant moment in her life. Just two months before her sleep-stirring dream, Harper got sober from alcohol after a four-year battle with addiction. That commitment, she says, is what she thinks helped her loves ways feel [is there a missing word here?] so supportive of her new venture from the jump. Harper’s career background was actually in seafood sales and marketing, with little to no knowledge of the beauty industry. “I think because I was sober and staying sober,” she explains, it’s like no one in her family wanted to interrupt this newfound vision. “If I didn't have a struggle with addiction and somebody did say something like, ‘You're wasting money,’ or, ‘You don't know anything about what you're doing,’ [I don’t] how much that would have actually negatively impacted me on that path.”

The first two years of Cheekbone were dedicated to a crash course in beauty regulations, product creation, and formulation. Harper originally partnered with a supplier to essentially create the cosmetics she’d logo and license — an all too common practice — but it was only a few months into the project that she started to take stock of and question how the industry operates. “When I would ask that supplier or partner about where this ingredient is coming from, or another ingredient, these are questions that they would never answer — I’d completely get ghosted on those emails, and right away recognized that there was a big problem.” It applied to not only the source material for the actual makeup, but the packaging, too.

Part of the rub was Harper’s commitment to sustainability and harm minimization from the beginning. When she first pulled out her laptop to start fleshing out her dream, she knew immediately that she wanted her creation to give back to her community in some tangible way. “I believe Indigenous people, in particular...my people, the Anishinaabe, are really the OGs of sustainability. When you look at our oral teachings that have been passed down, so many of speak to this concept of interconnectedness through all living things. It’s something that is innately in us as a group of people, as tribes and nations,” Harper explains. She describes one principle that asks individuals to reflect on how their actions in the present will impact the following seven generations. “You think about how that's going to impact somebody, not just for the next generation, but your great-great-grandchildren, if you will.” As such, even in that early iteration of Cheekbone that used a third-party supplier, Harper was fixed on products that weren’t just safe for the consumer, but safe for the planet. In a difficult and expensive but ultimately brilliant pivot, Harper brought everything — the lab, the chemists, the sustainability scientists — all in-house.

An Environmental Responsibility

Despite the meticulous approach to the planet’s wellbeing, “clean beauty” isn’t a term you’ll hear thrown around by Harper and Cheekbone. She points out that the now-ubiquitous phrasing is truly just marketing — there’s no global or even national consensus or regulatory statues around it. “We as a brand have gone so much further into what that means,” she explains. “Not only is it clean and safe for humans, our whole mission is that it's clean and safe for the planet.” That includes for animals, aquatic ecosystems, it means calculating biodegradability, and how that process actually affects the environment. Paper, she cites as an example, is biodegradable, sure, but what about its impact on trees and ancient forests? As such, the Cheekbone team chooses their packaging system based on the individual product formula, selected based on extensive research regarding the makeup’s self life and stability. “We also are really transparent, clear with our customer on why we’ve chosen this packaging versus another packaging,” Harper says. If Cheekbone does use plastic, steps are taken to ensure it’s post-consumer recycled, on its second or third life.

Cheekbone calls their full-scale laboratory an Indigenous innovation lab. The descriptor is apt because of the twofold approach that essentially drives the brand’s development. “We believe in western science, obviously,” Harper explains. “Science is very powerful. But marrying that with indigenous ancient wisdom, and then [figuring out] how we combine the two to make these decisions.” Harper analyzes the trends her audience wants to nail, the makeup they need, and then the team starts the engineering process. So many of the top-billed ingredients hold special cultural significance to Indigenous communities — she lists things like aloe, sunflower seed oils, and potent actives derived from plants, berries, what are referred to as “plant medicines.” Currently, the team is four years deep on an initiative known as the Niagra Project, which is focused on extractive actives from the agricultural industry and its vast amounts of waste.

Ultimately, the learning curve Harper faced at the outset, as an industry outsider with minimal prior knowledge, wound up being one of her greatest innovative assets. Nothing prevented her from asking why something couldn’t be done, how could it be done differently, and exploring lateral thinking that lead to some of her greatest product breakthroughs.

Community Consciousness

Every aspect of Cheekbone Beauty is built upon Harper’s identity as an Indigenous woman, specifically her roots in the Ojibwe Nation and its Anishinaabe Tribe. Interestingly, around the time of the brand’s inception, Harper was exploring a different, more difficult facet of her heritage. She shares that in 2015, she was learning about the United States’ and Canada’s dark history of Native boarding schools, usually a compulsory attendance-style education that focused on forced assimilation and cultural erosion. Harper’s grandparents both survived the institutions, which gave her a new perspective on generational trauma — she describes it as an aha moment, a revelation. “I thought, if I can change my life, how this could impact not only my immediate family, but also many other First Peoples and families? If they saw hope, that it’s possible to overcome one addiction and change this narrative, of being more successful and owning a thriving business and all of these things?”

To that end, Harper and Cheekbone Beauty have already donated around $350,000 back to her community. This year, the brand gave out its 16th scholarship for Indigenous youth. “Honor and prestige comes from your generosity, what you do for your community, and giving back.” By that metric alone, Cheekbone Beauty is in a league of its own.