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British Columbia best face forward

British Columbia, well-known for its natural beauty, is becoming known in Asia for its natural beauty products as rising incomes and increasing concerns about the contents of cheap Chinese-made cosmetics open up markets for B.C. companies.

Several local cosmetics and beauty products manufacturers are already finding that sales in Asia make up a major portion of their business. Logan Cui, co-owner of Surrey-based Precision Laboratories Ltd., said South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan account for about 25 to 30 per cent of his company's skin-care product sales.

Precision's sales to Asia are well into the six-figure range, and growing.

The manufacturer's Canadian Natural Glacial Clay facial mask, a concoction made using natural clay from Bella Bella, is especially popular in those countries, where consumers associate the product with the province's pristine image, Cui said.

"B.C. has a very clean image. They think this area has never been polluted," he said.

By extension, Asian consumers tend to trust in the quality of ingredients used in B.C.-made natural beauty products, he said.

According to Statistics Canada, B.C. exported $7.7 million worth of beauty and make-up preparations to the Asia-Pacific region last year -- mostly to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. That has jumped from the $5.7 million the province exported to the region in 2001.

Local manufacturers attribute the increase in exports to a shift in Asia toward environmentally friendly and chemical-free cosmetics. Rising income levels have also prompted increased spending and greater interest in beauty products, opening up a niche market for B.C.'s small specialty producers.

Contributing to the demand, natural B.C. products also come as a welcome alternative to low quality Chinese-made products, Cui said.

"[Consumers in Asia] think products from Canada have a higher quality," Cui said. "In China, they may have nice packaging, but inside the formulation is not there yet."

For North Vancouver-based aromatherapy products manufacturer Escents, which has 20 licensed stores in Taiwan, part of the attraction for its consumers in that country is the chance to try something new.

"They like brands that aren't typically manufactured in Taiwan," Escents CEO Jacqui MacNeill said.

"They have a lot of brands out there, but the aromatherapy side is really just taking off," she added.

According to Vancouverite Maury Kolof, the appeal of B.C.'s natural image helped his company Pure Radiant Energy Inc. win a $3-million, three-year contract earlier this month to supply product to a Malaysian distributor on a non-consignment basis.

"The fact that the products are uniquely Canadian is a huge factor," Kolof said. "Canada has a global image for being clean and pure and having immense natural beauty."

Kolof said his company is now producing bottles and jars of its essential oils, skin and hair care products for its first shipment to Malaysia in early July.

Pure Radiant Energy also ships to Taiwan, China and Japan, and Kolof said its Asian markets make up about 85 per cent of the company's wholesale business.

Bryan Brown, president and CEO of Seavan Health and Beauty Partnership, said 20 per cent of his company's business involves researching, developing and manufacturing natural health and beauty products for private-label companies in Asia.

"It's a substantial part of our business and it's a direction we're definitely going in," Brown said.

Seavan, which has 26 full-time employees in Vancouver, already exports to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, but is looking to expand in other markets such as Vietnam, he said.

Stick With Us Products, a Richmond manufacturer of natural sugar-based depilatory products, has seen Japan's demand for its products double in the past year alone.

CEO Shoja Sharifi said the company's sales to Japan is in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"The thing is, in Japan, our product sells at double the price . . . and people don't mind it," Sharifi added. A jar of hair remover, which costs about $20 here, sells at around $40 in Japan.

In some Asian markets, not only are consumers willing to pay more, they tend to believe higher-priced products are of higher quality, Kolof said.

"In that part of the world, people have the mind set that if it's too cheap , it's not good," he said.

In Taiwan, where high-end brands such as Clinique and Estee Lauder are widely available in boutiques and department stores, Pure Radiant Energy's distributor set the price of the company's face cream at $100 a jar. Here, the same jar would cost about $35.

The key, Kolof said, is to set the product at a price that doesn't make it unattainable, but at the same time makes people take it seriously.

Entry into the massive Asian cosmetics market is not without its challenges, local manufacturers said.

Each country has its own market attributes, and establishing a brand name is just as challenging in Asia as anywhere else.

In addition, it can be difficult to pair up with the right importer and distributor, especially in China, where doing business can be a gamble, according to Cui.

With some importers, he warned: "You don't know if you're going to get paid or not."

But, Cui said, there are opportunities to tap the Asian markets, even without actually exporting to the region.

In local airports and gift shops, where Precision's clay facial masks are sold, B.C.-made beauty products can be just as popular among Asian tourists as B.C. smoked salmon or Okanagan wines, Cui said.

"They want to buy something truly from Canada and made in Canada," he said. "It's very popular stuff."