Environmentalists and scientists have long struggled with getting people to see climate change as something that impacts their everyday lives, rather than a distant threat. With sales of cosmetic and personal care products marketed as ‘anti-pollution’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘natural’ rocketing in recent years, it would seem that, on the surface, the beauty industry has cracked this particular conundrum.
But given the beauty industry is itself a large polluter, are the companies selling products that promise to protect our skin and hair from pollution doing enough to address their role in creating it? Or are they simply cashing in on climate change?
“The problem with ‘anti-pollution’ beauty products is that they are intervening at the wrong place in the system,” says Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
“At best, individual consumer products that claim to protect us from pollution may mislead us with marketing claims; at worst they may actually deter the real solutions when consumers feel like they have protected themselves, so are less inspired to work with others for the regulatory and business solutions that could protect everyone,” she says.
As with fashion, sustainable beauty is a complex issue that spans the entire supply chain, from the raw ingredients to manufacturing processes, delivery, packaging and waste disposal.
Looking at the cycle of water through the beauty supply chain illustrates this issue well. Water – or aqua, as it is often listed – is the main ingredient in a lot of beauty products. Large quantities of it are required to manufacture many of the synthetic chemicals used in them and deal with waste by-products. Because most beauty products are liquid chemicals, they need packaging that doesn’t disintegrate, such as plastic, which is also water- and energy-intensive to make. After manufacturing, the products are shipped to retailers, meaning more energy is used to transport what is mostly water.
The problem with ‘anti-pollution’ beauty products is that they are intervening at the wrong place in the system
Annie Leonard, Greenpeace USA
Once in the home, products like shampoo and face wash need more water to rinse them off. The waste chemicals from these products — some of which are toxic — end up going down the drain and into our waterways. Then, even more water is required to wash the packaging so it can be recycled (although the majority of bathroom waste doesn’t even get recycled). Unrecycled plastic packaging that doesn’t end up in landfill finds its way into our seas and litters our beaches, harming marine life and getting into food chains.
Several beauty brands are already making progress in reducing their water footprint, with ‘waterless beauty’ — which includes pastes, powders and no-rinse cleansers — set to be a big beauty trend. For example, brands like Ouai have created innovative dry shampoo formulas that don’t require rinsing, while Korean beauty brand Whamisa has brought out a range that uses botanical extracts instead of water.
The quest for sustainable beauty has led to a rise in brands touting natural ingredients, with oils and extracts such as aloe, avocado, almond, and coconut. In a similar way to food, 'clean beauty' has emerged as a concept, propelled by the rise of beauty bloggers and the Gwyneths and Ellas of the world.
While greater awareness of potentially-harmful chemicals — like parabens — used in many of our beauty products is undoubtedly a good thing, we should not assume that natural ingredients are necessarily better than synthetics for our health and the environment. In fact, doing so is “dangerous” says Dr. Richard Blackburn, a sustainability expert and chemist at the University of Leeds. “Nature makes plenty of toxic things,” he says. “There is nowhere near the level of scrutiny from a regulatory perspective on natural products than there is for synthetic chemicals.”
Blackburn argues that with land and water in scarce supply, it is plain wrong to grow crops that can be used as food for beauty products instead. As a solution, his company, Keracol, has been developing sustainable beauty products that use food waste combined with synthetic chemicals – like its range for Marks and Spencer made from waste grape skins from wine production. Romilly Wilde is another beauty brand that combines chemistry and nature, using raw materials like algae from the sea with ‘bio identical’ synthetic chemicals which mimic natural ingredients.
With land and water in scarce supply, it is plain wrong to grow crops that can be used as food for beauty products instead
Luckily, many beauty brands, like Aveda and Neal’s Yard Remedies, are thinking about the whole sustainability picture. As consumers become increasingly careful about the ingredients in beauty products, this “has led to more and more brands jumping on the natural and organic ‘trend’,” says Helen Cooper, managing director of Neal’s Yard Remedies. "So for us it is now more important than ever to help our customers understand how to cut through the greenwash to make well-informed, healthy choices,” she says.
Ultimately, the best way to deal with this complex issue is simply to use less. This doesn’t necessarily mean using lemon slices instead of deodorant or extolling the magical powers of baking soda, unless you're into that kind of thing. But it does mean thinking about whether we really need such a vast array of cosmetic and beauty products in our lives; from the tiny free samples and sachets cluttering our bathroom cabinets, to the day/night/male/female version of the same face cream.
Can we switch off our shower some days in favor of a quick rinse in the sink? Do we need to buy another red lipstick when we already own most shades on the spectrum? Can we buy our products in bulk or support retailers that allow us to reuse packaging?
None of this is easy, of course. Getting clean, having a bath, putting on a face pack or makeup feels good. And the beauty industry drives us to over-consume with its marketing; the raison d'être of big beauty companies and retailers is to sell us more stuff – that’s why they segment us into categories like gender or age. That’s why they bombard us with endless new innovations and ‘must-buys’.
Leonard says there is one great sustainable beauty product that we all should get on board with: activism. “It’s a lot more fun and emotionally rewarding than spending $75 for a small bottle of face cream.”