What Are The Human Costs Of “Sustainable” Beauty?

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After partnering with beauty incubator The Center to acquire Make Beauty in 2021, Carrie Barber faced a choice familiar to any creative director in the skincare space: Include earth-harvested ingredients like green algae and prickly pear extract in a bid to appeal to consumers' appetite for “clean” and “natural” products, or opt for the same ingredients harvested in a lab chamber. 
Barber knew descriptors like “synthetic” or “lab-made” can imply ingredients some consider less safe for the planet and people. “When it comes to lab-engineered ingredients, I think the automatic association is that it's synthetic and chemical — which might be true, but that can also still be ‘clean,'” says Barber, acknowledging that the definition of the term "clean" in beauty changes with whoever is defining it. 
To Barber's point, Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic biochemist who has specialised in formulating “clean” beauty products for more than a decade, says there's no real proof that a lab-engineered ingredient is less "clean" or more "dangerous" than a freshly-harvested one. 
“Lab-derived ingredients are produced in a much more controlled environment and therefore purity levels can be kept in check, unlike farm-grown ingredients,” Koestline says. What's more, thanks to a proliferation of available materials that are fermented, propagated, and grown in labs — and therefore leave the earth’s precious natural resources intact — lab-nurtured ingredients are often more sustainable, too.
As Chase Polan, the founder of holistic skin-care brand Kypris Beauty, has discovered after a decade of using lab-nurtured ingredients (such as red seaweed) in her formulations, going the lab-derived route can profoundly reduce environmental impact and labour issues. 
“Opting for the lab-created option allowed me to sidestep ecological and labour safety concerns that come with people mucking about in an already fragile ecosystem,” she says. “The lab setting also allowed for greater quality control and consistency.”

“Lab-derived ingredients are produced in a much more controlled environment and therefore purity levels can be kept in check, unlike farm-grown ingredients.”

Krupa Koestline, Cosmetic biochemist
For both Barber and Polan, opting for biotech-derived ingredients has meant forgoing claim to buzzy marketing terms that some eco-conscious customers look for, like “wild-harvested,” “naturally grown,” or ”certified organic” — even when use of such ingredients may be the less sustainable choice.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement aimed at ensuring the survival of more than 38,000 internationally traded plant species, including thousands of medicinal and aromatic plants used in cosmetic products. Agarwood, aka oud (used in fragrances and skin care), Boswellia (from which frankincense is derived), and several species of orchids top the organisation’s list of ingredients being monitored for protection. Meanwhile, research shows familiar skin-care ingredients like argan and bakuchiol (heralded as a vegan retinol alternative) may face the same fate as the world’s supply of fragrant sandalwood, nearly every species of which The International Union for Conservation of Nature has flagged as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Rather than drawing from these increasingly limited resources, lab-made and lab-nurtured ingredients can be created by synthetically reconstructing them. Danielle Joubert, a dermal therapist and product manager at SumaNurica, says, "Biotechnology enables the production of synthesised ingredients derived from natural sources like fungi, yeast, and bacteria, maintaining the same genetic structure. This innovative approach eliminates the need for extensive land use, water resources, and other inputs typically associated with botanical ingredients, leading to a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint of production."
Labs can also synthesise single molecules from plants, create molecules via biofermentation using genetically modified microbes, or simply use biotechnology to grow plants in a lab environment. Mibelle Biochemistry has done the latter with the Swiss apple, a varietal on the brink of extinction. Because the process only requires starter plant material from a few fruits, the company’s process doesn’t further contribute to its decline.
Biotech versions of popular beauty ingredients have also helped to spare wildlife and their ecosystems. Amyris, the synthetic biotechnology company that develops and supplies beauty ingredients to some 20,000 brands in the industry (including its own label, Biossance), has created a biotech-produced squalane, a moisturising lipid that was once most commonly derived from shark liver. By the brand’s measure, the innovation has not only spared sharks, but significantly lowered the carbon footprint for sourcing the ingredient.
The benefits of lab-based ingredients don’t stop there: Because they’re created in controlled settings, ingredient stability, potency, and efficacy are far more consistent than when sourcing from seasonal crops — a smart way to avoid sourcing issues and waste.

“This innovative approach eliminates the need for extensive land use, water resources, and other inputs typically associated with botanical ingredients, leading to a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint of production.”

Danielle Joubert, dermal therapist and product manager at SumaNurica
“If you grow plant cells in a bioreactor, you can control their environment — temperature, pH, carbon dioxide gas levels — and feed them nutrients as needed, and get same results every time,” says Barbara Paldus, PhD, who spent 20 years building biotech production equipment before founding her own beauty brand, Codex Labs. Paldus taps lab-made ingredients, including biotech-fermented corn feedstock, in order to preserve her formulations. Because some biotech ingredients are more potent than their crop-based counterparts, Paldus estimates she needs to use 75% less of an active ingredient in her formulations to yield the same results, an efficiency that saves energy and packaging. 
Joubert echoes this, saying that the controlled lab environments used to formulate stable lab-derived ingredients are less susceptible to interference from pesticides and irritants that can be found in nature. She says that this can result in more effective formulations, citing SumaNurica's Collagen Essence Hydrating Face Mask as an example. "[This was] developed using fungi as an alternative to bovine or marine collagen, [offering] a more reliable, pure, and consistent collagen source while reducing batch-to-batch variability, allergic reactions and unsustainable sourcing," she says.

The barriers to biotech

For a class of ingredients that stack so many sustainability wins, why aren’t more of our everyday products packed with these lab-nurtured wonders? Well, money is a big factor.
When pharmaceutical company Roche opened its Basel biotech production facility in 2007, it came with a price tag of USD $450 million dollars. “I'd love to have my own biotech manufacturing facility,” Paldus says. “Until you're a big company, it's not an option — no matter how smart you are. For now, we're looking at what we can do down the road for maybe five to $10 million in a smaller-scale production.” 
In addition to the fiscal roadblocks, it takes considerable time to figure out which cells of the plant will best produce the desired bioactive, often necessitating years of waiting before the results come in. Even then, lab alternatives aren’t always cheaper than going straight for nature’s bounty. For instance, Codex Labs’ lab-crafted fermented preservative system cuts the need for phenoxyethanol (a synthetic preservative with allergenic potential) by using farmed coconuts. But the added cost for this ingredient swap tacks on another 30 to 50 cents to each product sold. “Other brands might think profitability trumps all, but to me it's worth it for the peace of mind and feeling like my ethics are intact,” Paldus says.
This pricey point of entry is likely to remain prohibitive until the industry as a whole more widely adopts the use of sustainable, lab-based ingredients. “Due to the lack of brands [embracing them], the actives made by biotech are still more expensive than the conventional ones,” says Nicholas Vu, co-founder of luxury skin-care line Orveda, which uses lab-made options for a staggering 88% of its active ingredients. Vu says he hasn’t seen prices drop on these ingredients since co-founding the company in 2016. (Still, his affluent customer base seems unfazed by a USD $330 bottle of emulsion.)
Other players in the market insist that sustainable, lab-based ingredients are becoming more affordable for non-luxury brands, which means everyday consumers may be getting more sustainable formulations — whether they know it or not. While Dr. Sunil Chandran, Amyris chief science officer and head of research and development, admits that it takes a range from half a million to three million dollars a year for the company to develop a new biotech molecule, he says the overall cost to beauty brands and consumers is dwindling. 

“Other brands might think profitability trumps all, but to me it's worth it for the peace of mind and feeling like my ethics are intact.”

Barbara Paldus, PhD and founder of Codex Labs
“We are now able to better predict what it will take to bring a product to market,” he says. “The R&D costs and upfront investment keep going down and the timelines [to develop a molecule] keep shrinking, though the cost of actual manufacturing becomes fixed at a certain point.” 
Beauty giant Coty, parent company to some 39 global beauty brands (including CoverGirl and Rimmel), has employed sustainable biotech ingredients in the creation of sun protection, skin care, and fragrance products, says the company’s CEO, Sue Nabi. In skin care, that means using lab-crafted peptides made to mimic our own bodies’ processes, such as in stimulating the regeneration of collagen. In perfumes, new materials like Ambroxide and Clearwood are produced with synthetic techniques, which can replace the need to use clary sage and patchouli extracts, respectively. Similarly, lab-based and biomimicry ingredients, like jasmine closed buds (used in the Gucci Bloom fragrance), convey the impression of a floral without harvesting acres of blooms. 
“This is an area of great focus for me — both as the CEO of Coty and as an environmental engineer,” says Nabi, who co-founded Orveda with Vu prior to joining Coty. “I have been a very early believer in the power of biotechnology since deciding to study in the field at 17 years old.”

Factoring in human costs

Of course, sustainability isn’t just about reducing the use of natural resources — there’s a social factor that’s often overlooked in the larger conversation: Is wiping out a local economy in order to lighten one’s carbon footprint really all that sustainable?
Kypris’s Polan had to weigh this question recently when creating the brand’s first products with a shimmery finish. 
“I was really tempted to go the route of sourcing synthetic mica, because you can, for the most part, sidestep a lot of the human rights abuses that come along with mining mica,” Polan says. “But when I started researching that particular ingredient, it was really clear that the people who are mining the mica, especially in eastern India, rely on the income of that material and I don’t want to vote for destabilisation and poverty for people.” In the end, Polan chose to skip the synthetic mineral and use mica from the US or a UN Global Compact signatory with a Human Rights Charter to eliminate child labour, offer fair pay, and ensure safe working conditions. 
Therein lies the nuance often missing in beauty’s sustainability conversation. The best choice for ecologically and socially sustainable ingredients must be made on a case-by-case basis. While using lab-based ingredients can rule out the kinds of human rights issues that come with harvesting some raw materials, “it's a little too reductive to just think, ‘because it's biotech it's going to be more sustainable,’” says Polan. “People all over the world, including in the U.S, rely on proceeds from agricultural exports and products, so we don't want to get divorced from that reality.”
To this end, Amyris has pledged to give an ongoing portion of sales from its Costa Brazil brand to Amazonian communities that have traditionally harvested the brand’s key ingredient, breu, after it starts to bio-produce the fragrant resin ingredient rather than harvest it from the rainforest. The company won’t reveal how much it plans to give, but brand founder ​​Francisco Costa calls the initiative a “high priority.”

“The way that I really knew I was doing the work when it came to sustainability was when I started realizing things that were completely counterintuitive to what I had initially surmised.”

Chase Polan, founder of holistic skin-care brand Kypris Beauty
A significant amount of time, money, and research goes into determining what’s best for the planet and people — and with emerging ingredient innovations, the most sustainable choice is a moving target that requires ongoing analysis.
“The way that I really knew I was doing the work when it came to sustainability was when I started realising things that were completely counterintuitive to what I had initially surmised,” Polan says.

Rethinking sustainability: shifting perceptions for a more sustainable future

Though sustainable alternatives to farmed, animal, and mineral-sourced ingredients are growing thanks to lab-based innovations, many in the beauty industry are just beginning to think about sustainability from an ingredient-forward perspective.
"Everybody's talking about sustainability, but not at an ingredient level — they're focused a lot more on packaging," Koestline says. "There are a handful of companies that I’ve worked with that are really concerned about where an ingredient comes from, and want to spend the time to find the most sustainable choice. But most of the time, brands don’t have the luxury of time and resources, so [sourcing the most sustainable ingredients] isn’t part of the conversation as much as we would like." She says only about 30% of her “clean” beauty clientele is talking to her about the sustainability factor of ingredients.
Joubert says that by being produced in controlled lab environments, biotech beauty products eliminate the need for vast farmlands, significant water resources, and energy-intensive processes associated with traditional botanical ingredients. "These products align with a growing consumer demand for beauty items that not only enhance personal well-being but also lessen the environmental impact, promoting a more sustainable and responsible approach to skincare and cosmetics," she says.
So what will it take to get the rest of the industry to adopt more sustainable choices on a formulaic level? Dwindling costs for use of lab-based ingredients and more availability will certainly play a role. Amyris says it’s starting to venture into developing molecules that may have promising futures, rather than focusing on those that satisfy customer demand — something that may help spare ecosystems before they become endangered. 
“When I first joined the company about eight years ago, most of the industry was looking at how to serve [market demand],” says Johnson. “Now we’re seeing an interesting phenomenon with a lot of natural ingredients that have awesome activity, but just a couple of nice applications; we're taking on projects that aren't necessarily commercialised yet, but have so much potential for expansion and scale.”
The good news is that this type of consumer awareness is beginning to take shape. “While 'clean' beauty began as a movement within natural skin care to ensure safe ingredients, consumers have learned that just because an ingredient is lab-born does not mean it’s toxic. Synthetics can also be safer and more sustainable for the environment,” says Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD Group, a market research firm.  
As consumers, we can insist upon sustainability by demanding ingredient origin information, traceability, and transparency from beauty brands. But it’s also going to take leadership from beauty execs like Nabi (who declares “biotech is the future of Coty and the future of the industry”) to implement sustainable ingredient changes en masse within the industry — and ultimately shake lab-made’s “unnatural” stigma and create real change.
“Look, we're not gonna conserve our way out of this pickle,” Polan says. “We have to innovate and get people to change their behaviour. It’s really hard, but we can build a better system.”
Disclosure: The author also contributes to Rose Inc. content platform, which was acquired by Amyris in October 2021. 
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