Our world has lost a treasured pioneer who spent his life not only fighting chemical contamination and animal injustices, but forging a safer path into the future for both humans and animals. Aubrey Hampton died in Tampa Florida on May 9.
I had the great pleasure to meet Mr. Hampton at Aubrey Organics Headquarters in Tampa, Florida a few years ago. I had an assignment to interview him for a magazine dedicated to environmental and social innovation.
Getting through to Mr. Hampton wasn’t easy. I spent many minutes in voice mail hell when I called the headquarters, and finally was told that he didn’t take calls; for good reason, I’d find out later. Hampton was CEO and founder of Aubrey Organics, a company that’s been providing truly natural and mostly organic personal body care products since 1967. His personal convictions helped him buck convention and push his once unique agenda forward, and today the value of his vision is clearly recognized. I was eventually able to leave a message for Mr. Hampton’s assistant, and his marketing specialist called a few hours later, then set up an appointment for us.
When I arrived at Aubrey Organics headquarters in Tampa, I parked in front of a six-foot wooden fence, and pushed an intercom button to announce my arrival. The wooden gate slowly slid away, granting entrance to a seven- or eight-acre complex of small, one-story buildings framing a peaceful courtyard with an orange-tree shaded patio and gazebo; an oasis in the midst of a rugged industrial zone. Adirondack chairs were scattered about the lawn and wooden decking connected an administrative office to the packaging facility. The lab was across the way, and a warehouse filled with empty bottles and jars stood ready nearby.
Aubrey Hampton was a youthful dandy at 74, decked out in a blue pinstripe suit with pink silk tie and cravat. His silver hair was twisted into a braid that flowed between his shoulder blades and a full beard rimmed his face. He welcomed me into his oasis of a headquarters compound in an industrial district. His bright blue eyes illuminated as he told about his life, his principles, and his business.
As we talked, Mr. Hampton traded his suit jacket for a lab coat and stepped over to a table to demonstrate making a cream he’d been perfecting for the past year. A blend of his special base of coconut fatty acids, grapefruit seed oil, vitamins, alpha liposomes and a few essential oils, the mixture turns from a gloppy paste to a golden cream as he mixed in deep red oils with a Cuisinart mixer. Soon he was spooning it into little jars and rubbing it onto the back of my hand. Called Lumessence Lift, the mix of oils from sea buckthorn, rose hips and shitake mushrooms sank into my skin.
“As I do this, you can see why none of the other companies have outdone me. They don’t do this. Everybody is trained to be a synthetic chemist. My degree is in organic chemistry but it’s not about herbs,” said Mr. Hampton. As he wrote in his book, Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care, published in 1987, “My soul is in the woods…”
Mr. Hampton took a holistic approach to his business, and to his life. He developed a love of nature as a child, living on an organic farm (in the days before the advent of petrochemicals), and playing in the woods in southern Indiana. He learned folk remedies as child, helping his mother blend herbal soaps and shampoos in their kitchen, and kept a pet rabbit that he walked on a leash. He combined his knowledge of herbs with scientific training from Indiana University and earned a doctorate at New York University. His love of animals guided him to ensure that his products are always cruelty-free – never tested on animals.
“I didn’t see any saneness in putting out rabbits’ eyes to experiment with cosmetics. They are not the same as us, so there isn’t any pathway between us and them. I fall along with Bernard Shaw on that. I like animals, and this company is driven by my sensibilities and how I think.” Mr. Shaw promoted vegetarianism and eschewed vivisection – the surgical testing of animals.
“I started this company with a loan of $250,” he told me. At the time, he worked for perfume and cosmetics manufacturer, Fabergé, a company that made its name with celebrity connections to such luminaries as Cary Grant and Farrah Fawcett, and which evolved through mergers and sales into Fabergé, Ltd. today. In 1967, Aubrey Organics kicked into full gear with $35,000 Mr. Hampton earned in Fabergé’s profit sharing program. “That was a big deal, financing my own company without investors or a bank. I knew if I brought in investors they wouldn’t care about the animals or chemicals, and I wanted my company to represent those things. It didn’t mean all that much in 1967, but it meant a lot to me.”
Today the world knows what Hampton always knew, that petrochemicals can be harmful to our bodies and to our environment. Our waterways are filled with synthetic chemicals that have washed away from farms, from our cleaning and body care products, even from the pharmaceuticals we take to ease our ills. Babies are born with more than 200 synthetic chemicals in their blood, and we know that some of these can cause brain and developmental damage, respiratory illnesses, cancers and hormonal imbalances. We still don’t even know what harm comes from most of the chemicals we’re exposed to every day. Mr. Hampton was a pioneer in creating natural products when few realized their importance and value, yet he managed to create a very successful business with products sold in more than 25 countries worldwide today. Aubrey Organics was the first personal care company to receive certification as an organic processor in 1994.
“Aubrey Hampton was one of the true icons in the industry,” said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the national Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, 2007). “He built a career on his passion and his products. He built the movement, really – he was truly one of the early leaders and his products are continually in the top tier of companies pushing the edge and reaching the highest standards.”
I wondered how Mr. Hampton managed to keep pushing against such big players and stiff competition in the field. “I knew what other companies that were trying to compete with me didn’t know: How to make products with all natural ingredients. I was taking the world of mass produced synthetic products and converting them to my world. They work better and they’re natural. I reject all synthetic chemicals so I’m open to other things, herbs and extracts. Others aren’t looking at that – they’ve got blinders on. Often, they’re told it doesn’t work, but it does absolutely work. I gave some information about using grapefruit extract to a scientist with one of the big companies and I told him that he could use this and stop using the synthetic preservatives that are harmful to the immune system. Later, I looked at their product, and they had used grapefruit extract, but they also had parabens – they didn’t trust me.” Mr. Hampton bubbled with a satisfied laugh.
Mr. Hampton’s staff of 55 were packing 200 orders a day, all in recycled and recyclable containers, when I visited the lab. Annual sales were estimated at nearly $20 million. Manager Curt Valva said they received frequent calls from investment firms and large companies who wanted to become majority stockholders or buy out the company.
“We can make money doing this, but they lack the culture and the authenticity and the passion,” said Valva. “All they have is profits, and they’re used to being able to simply buy what they want. But you can’t buy the culture. You can’t buy the passion.”
Mr. Hampton told Mr. Valva to stop bringing the offers to him. “What do I care about all those millions of dollars? I’m not interested in selling out, but that does not mean that I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to help them be more green.”
Mr. Hampton said his company was like a family to him. “I believe in family values – and you don’t have to be a republican to believe in that,” he said with a smile. He married his business partner Susan Hussey along the way, and lost her to cancer last year. He is survived by sons Mitchell, of Boston, and Trevor, of Tampa.
Mr. Hampton was an intellectual and an entrepreneur who managed to pursue many interests while developing his cosmetic business. He developed a lifelong long of wolves and worked to protect them and all animals throughout his life. He owned a publishing company and penned several books on natural cosmetics, filled with his ‘trade secrets’- technical facts and recipes – and peppered with tales of cosmetics that veer from Aristotle to Egypt to Chinese acupuncture. He was a playwright, too, and opened a small black box theater a few blocks from his office.
Mr. Hampton wrote a play about Mr. Shaw, GBS and Company, which was well received by Shaw scholars. In a soliloquy that closes the play, Hampton’s Shaw says, “Humans often act like lower life forms… they destroy, they kill, they hate, they so pollute nature that the delicate balance is often perverted… It is the disregard for the natural life force that has created inhumane economics… We invent all kinds of chemicals, pour them down test animals’ throats until they die, to support the data that it takes a barrel full of chemicals to kill a kicking rabbit, and then we pour only the safe half of the barrel into our water, land, and down our own throats. The test animals are dying, it’s true, but so are we as we rely on the tests.”
“Aubrey Organics is an authentic company,” said Valva. “For us it’s not a marketing fad or phase. This is what we do. For the sake of future generations, we have to make it better.”
—Trish Riley is a national award-winning environmental journalist and author, publisher of www.GoGreenNation.org and founding director of Cinema Verde, an environmental film and arts festival.
Services for Aubrey Hampton will be:
Saturday, May 14th
Visitation 3-7pm, Service at 4pm
Gonzalez Funeral Home
7209 North Dale Mabry Highway
Tampa, FL 33614-2646
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