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A Look at Sustainability in the Beauty Industry
Let’s face it – the beauty industry is a huge culprit when it comes to environmental damage.
We’re all beauty and skincare enthusiasts here, but it’s important to acknowledge that the cosmetics industry needs to become more sustainable if it wants to reduce its impact and also help our planet stay livable for longer. A 2020 report done by the British Beauty Council notes the essential role of the beauty industry in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Fortunately, recent trends show that beauty brands are leaning towards sustainable beauty due to consumer demand and more rigorous industry standards. In this blog, we take a look at the industry’s environmental impact over the years and what they’re doing now to reduce the negative impact.
Why is the beauty industry unsustainable?
Sustainability is defined as the “processes and actions through which humankind avoids the depletion of natural resources, in order to keep an ecological balance that doesn’t allow the quality of life of modern societies to decrease,” according to You Matter.
In short, sustainability is choosing what is best for both the people and the planet. Often, this is hard to achieve when large industries hold productions at scale and are more prone to conducting malpractice from sourcing down to the last stage of the supply chain.
Some of the major problems within the beauty industry are:
Wasteful packaging that promotes plastic pollution
The most obvious one is perhaps plastic waste. The beauty industry generates a lot of plastic packaging waste – up to 120 billion units, to be exact – and the removal of about 18 million acres of forests. Wet wipes and face masks alone were responsible for over 93% of sewer blockages in the United Kingdom prior to the pandemic, according to Water UK. You can imagine that the problem only got worse after COVID-19, where disposables quickly became a must for public health and safety.
Use of toxic ingredients that are harmful to the environment and animals
Toxic ingredients are another issue. Many facial cleansers and exfoliating scrubs contain microbeads, which are microplastics that are so small they go through wastewater treatment systems, ending up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Though they are tiny, they pose a threat to marine life’s safety. Similar to this is the ingredient oxybenzone commonly found in physical sunscreens. While it’s not harmful to our skin directly, it was found during a 2016 study to be highly toxic to young corals.
Animal cruelty in makeup testing
Cosmetic testing on animals used to be the norm – they were a cheap and effective way to test the safety of a product without harming humans. As of 2021, there are only 40 countries – including the Philippines – that ban cosmetic testing on animals.
You’ve also probably seen beauty brands call themselves cruelty-free. This means they don’t test on animals and allow independent audits from third-party services. There are many independent bodies that give certifications to brands that pass their standards. Among such bodies are PETA and Leaping Bunny.
High carbon footprint from production and transportation of goods
A more direct problem is the issue of high carbon emissions from the production and transportation of products. According to Green Matters, carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas with the highest amount of emissions, playing a huge role in climate change.
Unethical labor practices
A lot of makeup companies get their ingredients from suppliers across the globe. Unfortunately, many of these suppliers are prone to unethical labor practices, including mica mining. Mica is the ingredient responsible for shimmer in many powder-based cosmetics.
The sourcing and production of cosmetic products have led to widespread deforestation. One example is palm oil.
Palm oil is an incredibly versatile emollient commonly used for its moisturizing properties. But because of its popularity and demand, the rapid sourcing of palm oil has led to widespread deforestation.
Lack of Transparency
Finally, there is still a huge lack of transparency within the industry, even from companies that claim to be eco-conscious. Many brands create their own benchmarks for what “clean” and “sustainable” entail but don’t always disclose them.
Without independent audits, there is virtually no way to know whether these clean beauty companies are actually reducing their negative environmental impact, or what they really mean by “sustainable product.” Even terms like “organic ingredients” or a “clean skincare line” are very nebulous.
Why Is Sustainability Important In The Beauty Industry?
Since it’s a major contributor to plastic waste and greenhouse emissions, the beauty industry plays an essential role in mitigating the ongoing climate crisis. The vast majority of beauty brands must commit not only to sustainable products, but also reduction of long-term waste and sustainability efforts that cover each step of production.
It’s easy to pin the blame on overconsumption like many companies tend to do. But individual waste accounts for little of the problem compared to the industry’s practices. In fact, it’s not a problem limited to the beauty industry at all, but a systemic problem. There is a danger when companies prioritize profit over people or the planet.
But the great thing is that these brands can actually benefit from becoming more sustainable. In terms of sales, consumers have displayed a shift of interest to greener packaging and sustainable products.
So, is it possible for beauty to stay or become sustainable while driving sales and remaining consumer-centric? The answer is yes.
Data shows that 57% of consumers are highly willing to adjust their spending habits to become more sustainable. 77% of consumers also agree that sustainability is an important factor in what they buy.
Additionally, a First Insight 2020 report showed that 62 percent of Gen Z and Millennial respondents favor purchasing products from sustainable brands. They were also willing to spend more money on sustainable alternatives if given the choice.
Most notably, younger generations tend to prioritize sustainability compared to their predecessors like Gen X. According to Greg Petro, the CEO of First Insight, brands need to get on the eco-train if they want to sustain sales.
“With Generation Z on track to becoming the largest generation of consumers this year, retailers and brands must start supercharging sustainability practices now if they are to keep pace with expectations around sustainability for these next-generation consumers, whether it is through consignment, upcycling, or even gifting around major holidays,” he stated.
How Is Beauty Sustainable?
Is sustainable beauty possible? Definitely!
There are plenty of sustainability initiatives that large companies and individual brands can do in order to become more eco-friendly. Common sustainable practices include:
- Committing to environmental sustainability through recyclable and reusable packaging
- Reducing ecological footprint and energy consumption via local production of goods
- Eliminating water waste often found in production of liquid soaps, shampoos, essential oils, etc.
- Sustainable sourcing of ingredients, or investing in biotechnology-sourced natural ingredients
- Creating long-term sustainability goals or a mission statement that adheres to such standards
Many companies have adopted the above practices in order to do their part in protecting our beloved planet. But it doesn’t just stop there. Other good-for-the-planet commitments brands can make are:
- Seeking cruelty-free certification from trusted independent bodies such as PETA and Leaping Bunny
- Using non-toxic ingredients ie. clean beauty
- Creating sustainable packaging innovation
- Seeking certification for good business practices, such as Fair Trade or B-Corp, which advocate for safe working conditions and equal treatment of employees at production
- Promoting recycling programs to extend product lifespan and reduce waste overall
As consumers, there is also a myriad of ways we can adhere to sustainable beauty and promote a culture of ethical consumption.
- Supporting brands that sell sustainable options, eco-friendly products, or refillable packaging materials
- Campaigning for laws that promote environmental protection and sustainability in the beauty industry
- Re-assessing our shopping habits
- Buying locally-made green products and supporting your favorite local beauty brand
- Participating in a recycling program
- Eliminate waste in our own capacity
How Is The Beauty Industry Becoming More Sustainable?
Being 100% zero-waste isn’t always achievable, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Each company has the responsibility to reduce its negative impact and promote environmental sustainability along each step of production.
Thanks to the growing demand for sustainable beauty, more brands are shifting their visions to a greener future. Beyond creating recyclable packaging and naturally-sourced beauty products, here are the ways the personal care industry is helping the environment:
Ethical Production Along Supply Chain
- Locally sourcing ingredients and manufacturing products in order to reduce carbon emissions
- Eliminating or reducing single-use plastic
- Responsible sourcing of medicinal plants
- Shifting to renewable energy in each step of product life cycle
- Creating ethical labor policies
A great example of a personal care brand committing to sustainable development is The Body Shop. While many brands have just recently hopped on the sustainability trend, this one has been committed since 1987. Unlike a few brands that simply slap on a green label, The Body Shop has gone above and beyond to ensure their trade partners are financially independent and basically don’t work slave wages. Community projects that promote education, sanitation, and healthcare are just a few of their initiatives.
- Providing new packaging with refillable options for skincare products and beauty products
- Promoting recyclable bottles, containers, jars, etc.
- Reducing plastic use in shipping packaging
- Creating waterless beauty products which reduce water waste and use less disposable packaging
Companies have also been quick to refillable products to their beauty lines. Among these include Glow Recipe and Milk Makeup. Other brands like Kiehl’s, Revlon, and Glossier also sell refills for different cosmetic products.
Cruelty-Free Beauty Brands
There’s no shortage of cruelty-free brands across the globe, but it’s even better that there are plenty of cruelty-free options from local beauty stores. One example is Human Nature which has been PETA-certified cruelty-free since 2011 and was the first local brand to achieve certification. It’s also won a Sustainability Pioneer Award, which co-founder Anna Meloto-Wilk cites as a huge step to putting the Philippines on the map for its community-empowering products.
Other great brands are Issy & Co., which uses vegan and sustainable ingredients, Detail Makeover, and VMV Hypoallergenics, which creates natural products for those with sensitive skin.
Also, don’t forget to bring reef-safe sunscreen on your next beach vacay! There are plenty of options to choose from, and we even cite one in our guide to the best sunscreens.
Carbon emissions have led to global warming, and many beauty brands have taken the responsibility of offsetting their emissions. Since it can be hard to be 100% carbon neutral, what these companies often do is strike a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing it through partnering with carbon offset initiatives.
These initiatives help companies look for ways in the life cycle of their products where they can improve production practices and shift to greener alternatives.
With so many factors to consider, sustainability within the beauty industry can seem like a faraway dream. While it’s hard to imagine a 100% sustainable world, there are also so many ways that these industries can improve and adapt to a planet in danger. These are just some of the ways they can do it.
As consumers, our role is to patronize eco-friendly brands and commit to our own sustainable journey. To get started, check out our blog on how to become a sustainable beauty consumer.
Joey is an AB Psychology graduate of the University of St. La Salle – Bacolod. Her life’s passions include writing, film, and spending hours on end binge-watching fashion vloggers on Youtube.