Eco-Conscious vs Eco friendly: The Ugly Truth of Sustainability in the Beauty Industry

6 mins min read

By Christina Shiels

We have seen a strong switch made by beauty corporations - both large and small - to become more ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘eco-conscious’. Certainly, an increasing number of beauty brands claim that they are finding ways to minimise the impact they leave on the world when making products.

Indeed, recent data suggests that tightlining may no longer be reserved for lining your lashes. 

According to Zero Waste Week, the beauty industry is approaching a very tight line as it was reported that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced globally every year by the cosmetics industry. An estimated 90% of which is not recycled, contributing to the loss of over 18 million acres of forest annually.

A total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia alone. Scientists and environmental campaigners have warned about the link between carbon emissions and dangers to marine life for decades, however, it is only in recent years that it has become a mainstream concern. Despite this, 320,000 of the 3.4 million tonnes of plastics were recycled in Australia. So, how can we improve?

The problem is, every beauty corporation has its own definition of sustainability. 

Many beauty enterprises proudly declare themselves to be ‘eco-conscious’ which, on the surface, tends to lead consumers to believe that sustainability efforts have been considered across the manufacturing process.

However, it is simply that - only considered. In comparison to other considerations such as supply, packaging and operational costs, does sustainability really play a strong role for beauty businesses? 120 million units of waste point to an ugly reality. 

The Perfect Cover-Up: ‘Green’, ‘Clean’ and ‘Natural’ Beauty:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that: “cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market”. With no official standard in place to guarantee the quality and protection of these claims, products can be labelled "natural" - even if they only contain a tiny percentage of natural ingredients.

US giant ULTA Beauty has a “natural beauty” category on their website however, the site has no clear definition regarding what constitutes inclusion in that category. The company also doesn't appear to have clearly defined sustainability benchmarks, suggesting that these products probably contain the word “natural” on the packaging, not necessarily the product.

For example, natural vanilla, an ingredient many people would identify as ‘clean’ or ‘green’. However, natural vanilla is predominantly grown in Madagascar - these ‘clean’ ingredients have questionable supply chain mileage causing environmental impact. In this case, synthetic vanilla would be a more sustainable choice as it means the perfume can be made closer to home.

Meanwhile high-profile celebrities including Kourtney Kardashian, Jessica Alba, and Gwyneth Paltrow advocate for the use of chemically-free products claiming natural ingredients are ’better’, they neglect to display how far these ‘clean’ products have travelled.

Subsequently, consumers have demanded ‘paraben-free’, ‘organic’, ‘natural’ ingredients, without considering the carbon footprint of the formulaic ingredients. 

During lockdowns, many cosmetic enthusiasts swapped their makeup routines for skincare rituals as pampering became an important part of maintaining positive mental health. Indeed, Google searches for ‘self-care’ jumped 250% throughout 2020 compared to the previous year. As a result, the “clean beauty” movement is estimated to have more than doubled in value - from $11 billion in 2016 to over $24 billion by 2025. Despite the term's tendency to mislead. 

Jay Westerveld, environmentalist, first coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986 after writing a paper on brands who make eco-friendly promises, without actually backing it up with eco-friendly practices.

Companies today continue to “greenwash” their customers by stating that their product contains only ‘natural’ ingredients. For example, sheet face masks “made with natural Aloe” or “enriched with vitamin C”, whilst neglecting to inform the consumer about how the product is packaged. Most sheet masks are made single-use, creating a lot of unnecessary waste. 

“In the case of sheet masks, there’s a pouch, the mask, and sometimes the mask is wrapped in a plastic sheet. The pouches that hold sheet masks are often a combination of aluminium and plastic, which cannot be recycled.” Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Made With Respect, told Vogue last year.

Similarly, many corporations claim to be eco-friendly after launching “green” initiatives. For example, packaging and container recycling initiatives or the use of ‘recyclable’ glass over plastic.

However, many fail to consider that the colour of the plastic and glass used for these containers really matters - even if it’s a technically recyclable material. Elizabeth Schussler, of the Recycling Partnership detailed:

Australia has set targets for 70% of plastic packaging to be recycled or composted by 2025, and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging to be phased out. However, recent reports suggest that with the current recycling upgrades in place, Australia will be able to recycle only 36% of plastics by 2025 as facilities differ between neighbourhoods. 

Alongside this, makeup brushes are generally not recyclable, even if they are composed of primarily eco-friendly materials alongside mascara applicators and even vegan hairbrushes, which still use virgin plastic. Furthermore, many corporations rely on ‘vegan’ or ‘cruelty-free’ branding to convey that they are “eco-conscious”. However, this does not mean that the labour practices are ethical or that the supply chain is clean and sustainable. 

“Brands are careful about how they phrase things for customers. My old brand wouldn’t put ‘sustainable’ [on packaging], but would call themselves eco-forward, to let consumers know they were trying, but weren’t there yet.” (a former beauty marketer confessed to Teen Vogue). 

Certainly, since there are few compulsory regulations for brands to adhere to, retailers may have their own rulebook for what eco-friendly and eco-conscious beauty looks like when stocking their stores and creating products.

The Ugly Face of ‘Eco-Conscious’ Beauty:

Due to a lack of enforcement, instances of greenwashing are now increasingly common. Just think about the products you buy and how they are marketed.  So, where has this left the sustainability movement within the beauty space?

Tiny Microplastics are everywhere. Glitter, for example, is almost impossible to remove from our oceans. As a result, Microplastics are infiltrating the food chain at every level, they have been found at the dark depths of the Antarctic, and right in your back garden. Research into Microplastics in the air, water, salt and seafood, suggests that children and adults could be ingesting more than 100,000 microplastic specks every day.

Similarly, Microbeads that are used in facial scrubs are also problematic. When washed down the drain, they pass through sewage treatment filters and make their way into rivers and canals, resulting in plastic particle water pollution. What’s more, Avobenzone, a common ingredient found in most sun cream and sunscreen formulas, has been proven to bleach and deplete coral reefs, with 15,000 tonnes washing into our oceans each year.

Another problematic formula is Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are used to keep products such as fragrances and hair sprays in liquid format which contributes to smog, air pollution and can even be potentially cancerous for human beings.

Most infamous is the devastating effects of palm oil. The excessive use of palm oil in over 70% of cosmetics has led to mass deforestation, whilst the conversion of carbon rich peat soils are emitting millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

However, there are trusted logos consumers can look out for such as the Soil Association symbol, which shows that a product is organic, or the Rainforest Alliance frog logo, which only appears on products that meet rigorous sustainability standards. In Australia, natural skincare and cosmetics brands can apply for a COSMOS certification, which ensures a sustainable manufacturing process with no water wastage or by-products.

Consumer Demands Are Making Big Corporations Blush:

While we become increasingly aware of the ugly side of the beauty industry, consumers are willing to play their part.

In January 2021, CHOICE, a national Australian survey, reported that 57% of people say it's important to them that the products they purchase are environmentally friendly. A further 51% say they'd choose such products if they could afford them.

As a result, the Australian Government is supporting ‘Close The Loop Ltd’ to provide a cosmetics waste solution by developing a comprehensive collection network that will collect, process and recycle this waste. The program, set to launch in mid 2022, is already endorsed by leading cosmetic brands such as MAC and Estee Lauder.

Australia’s strong commitment to sustainability is reflected within the marketplace as Melbourne-based skincare brand, Sukin, has introduced a 100% carbon neutral, greywater-safe and biodegradable formulation. They also partner with Greening Australia on the country's Reef Aid Programme which rebuilds eroding land and restores coastal wetlands.

Changing The Face Of Beauty Through Talent

At CSG, we’re ready to welcome a new way of thinking. We’re excited about the influence consumer demands are already having on the ethical and sustainability targets of large corporations. 

We take great pride in sourcing and placing the talent who can innovate, discover and save our planet - whilst simultaneously changing the face of beauty. Over the last 18 months, we have seen an increase in candidates enquiring about the measures potential employers are taking to combat global warming. As a result, we have collaborated with clients, helping to improve, promote and maintain new processes, aimed towards championing sustainability.

The topic of sustainability is a huge discussion area within the beauty and consumer sector with many candidates conscious of business stance and vision on this. Are you looking to work for a company who takes sustainability seriously? Contact a member of our team for further information today.