In such a saturated market, it takes real chops for a beauty brand to achieve cult status. For New Zealand-based skincare brand Emma Lewisham, its monumental success can be chalked down to two things: product efficacy and values that go beyond making a buck.
As we beauty obsessives become more conscious of the havoc our consumption can wreak on the planet, the green beauty movement has boomed. But beyond using natural ingredients and throwing around vague 'green' terminology, what are brands actually doing to negate their eco-footprint? As of today, Emma Lewisham has announced that the brand has achieved a world first in officially becoming 'carbon positive'. So what does that mean? We chatted to the founder to find out.
What does it mean to be 'carbon positive' and how can a beauty brand achieve this?
To be 'carbon positive' means that a business has not only neutralised their carbon emissions but also actively taken more carbon emissions out of the atmosphere than it has put in. (Confusingly, the same thing is also sometimes referred to as 'carbon negative'.)
In order to become certified carbon positive, the brand worked with Toitū Envirocare, a world-leading independent environmental certification agency based in New Zealand.
"Over twelve months, we measured the carbon emissions emitted at each stage of our products’ lifecycle including growing, harvesting, transportation, product packaging and end-of-life. This allowed us to clearly see where we could reduce carbon emissions and enabled us to implement an extensive carbon reduction strategy as the first point of call," Lewisham tells Refinery29 Australia. After reducing the carbon footprint of each product as much as possible, they then offset their remaining carbon emissions by 125%, to become certified Carbon Positive under Toitū’s Climate Positive programme.
"This reduction strategy is a really important part of our certification as we don’t believe that purchasing carbon credits or focusing on offsetting is the way of the future. We are committed to firstly reducing our emissions as much as possible prior to offsetting — our goal is by 2023 to halve our products’ carbon footprints and cut them to virtually zero by 2035."
What inspired the brand to undertake such a feat?
"Circularity is the pinnacle of sustainability," says Lewisham. "It’s about eliminating waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating our natural systems.
"We must move away from the linear take-make-waste model of business and at Emma Lewisham, our business practices and decision making are all aligned around these circular principles."
"Each year the beauty industry is responsible for 120 billion units of waste, with this single-use packaging being the industry's largest contributor to carbon emissions," Lewisham explains. "So, to reduce the industry's carbon emissions, we have to solve its packaging problem. The solution is circularity — which is about keeping materials in use to eliminate waste and pollution."
For the beauty industry, this means focussing on refillable packaging. While recycling is a part of circularity, what a lot of people don’t realise is that very few recyclable goods are actually recycled correctly. The economics just aren’t there so it ends up in landfills, burnt or in our oceans.
Being entirely circular means that all of the brand's packaging has been specifically designed to be refilled as much as possible before being recycled through its specialised recycling partner, TerraCycle. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that in addition to significantly reducing carbon emissions, a circular economy has the potential to reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by up to 80%, something that felt major but achievable for the Emma Lewisham brand's offering.
How can we be more environmentally conscious with our consumption?
With the rise of greenwashing and new brands popping up every other day, it can be tough to know what exactly to look for as a shopper. To consume beauty in an environmentally responsible way, Lewisham recommends looking for brands that are actively offering refilling and recycling (i.e. the reduce-reuse-recycle principles of the circular economic model).
"It’s really important to look for brands that are doing more than just recycling," she says. "Refills should always be available as the first option for consumers, before recycling. Typically, refilling requires significantly less energy and resources than recycling and therefore emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. When measuring the carbon footprint of our products we discovered that by our customers choosing an Emma Lewisham refill pod instead of new packaging, carbon emissions are reduced by up to 74%."
Secondly, it helps to do your research on the brand beyond their clever marketing and chic packaging. "Look for brands that are carbon neutral or, ideally, carbon positive certified and check that they have been independently certified by a [credible] third party agency."
It’s also important to be aware that some businesses can misrepresent their certification. "Certification by independent auditing agencies ensures that environmental claims are supported by comprehensive evidence and that the appropriate methods of carbon research and reduction have been taken. The most reliable independent auditing agencies are also independently audited, to ensure the integrity of their performance and guarantee there are no conflicts of interest," says Lewisham.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask brands for more information. Whether it's about clarification on its supply chain or if its sustainability goals are based on science-based reduction targets or just vague aspirations, a brand committed to these values should be open to be held accountable. Some other points you may want to dig into include: where are its ingredients from, how are they extracted, what certifications it holds, and what its stance is on animal testing.
"We publish all of this information transparently on our website to ensure that our customers can make informed purchasing choices. When consumers vote with their wallets, choosing to buy products that don’t exploit people or the environment, the impact this consumer demand has on businesses cannot be underestimated," says Lewisham.
How will this step change the beauty industry?
Lewisham has seen firsthand that the pandemic has impacted purchasing behaviours. "It has further solidified what consumers truly perceive as important in their lives," she says.
"In the beauty industry, they are increasingly prioritising skincare that positively contributes to their health and wellbeing, but also products that are good for society and the planet — they don’t want to compromise, and neither should they have to. There is an increasing groundswell and recognition that we must collectively change the trajectory we are on."
"Governments can give direction and put in policies, but it is us, people and businesses that have to be the ones that make the changes."
And on whether or not she sees this having a domino effect? Lewisham hopes.
"We expect to see an industry-wide transition to circular, carbon positive and collaborative models of business, as this is the only viable solution to the beauty industry meeting global climate targets," she says, adding that it's up to brands to not only take on these practices but to pay it forward by sharing their wisdom.
"Collaboration and the sharing of knowledge must play a primary role if we are to meet these targets. This is why we publicly released the IP for our circular designed packaging and carbon positive business model. By doing this we hope small and large companies alike can capitalise on our innovation and investment to accelerate their transition to a circular and carbon positive business model."
Lewisham says that we no longer have time to operate in isolation. Climate scientists estimate that we have less than 10 years left to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis. She says, "We must work together if we are to create a truly beautiful beauty industry." Here's hoping.