Everything You Need To Know About Sustainable Beauty
As with many other industries, cosmetics companies have been increasingly called out for unsustainable and unethical practices, which include the heavy use of single-use plastics and toxic ingredients as well as animal testing. Some estimate that the cosmetics industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging a year, contributing to the loss of 18 million acres of forest annually, which is more than 65 times the size of Hong Kong.
As Millennial and Gen Z consumers show more interest in environmental sustainability, and are willing to vote with their wallet, more and more brands are being forced to rethink their unsustainable practices and find ways to minimise their impact on the environment. Within the cosmetic industry, the organic and natural beauty market was said to be worth about US$34.5 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow by at least 1.5 times by 2027.
We speak to two Millennial entrepreneurs from the Gen.T community in the sustainability space on the topic of sustainable beauty. Weighing in are Stephanie Dickson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Green Is The New Black, a lifestyle media and events platform focused on sustainability, and Nicolas Travis, who is the founder of Allies Group, which owns clean beauty brands Allies of Skin and PSA.
What does “sustainable beauty” mean?
This may come as a shock: there’s no global definition of "sustainable" beauty.
Across Asia, different regulations apply. In 2003, Asean markets, which is made up of 10 Southeast Asian countries, transitioned from a pre-market approval to a post-market monitoring system. They abide by the Asean Cosmetic Directive, which provides a list of ingredients that are positive, negative and restricted.
On the other side of the world, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that “cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market”. The only exception is for colour additives. Individuals and companies in the US are thus legally responsible for ensuring the safety of their cosmetic products, which has resulted in different standards across the board.
Breaking down the jargon
Plenty of terms are used to describe beauty products that are promoted as “safer”, “more natural” and “more ethical”.
For both Travis and Dickson, seeing a product with the label “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” is particularly important. “It’s horrible to think that for some of our beauty products, there is this ugly process of testing on animals before they get to us,” says Dickson. In Travis’ case, his products under Allies of Skin and PSA are all PETA-certified.
Travis also uses “clean beauty”, another popular term that refers to products that are safe and non-toxic, to categorise his products. “We list down the pH of our formulas, the percentages of our active ingredients, our commitment to only using recycled paper (never virgin paper) and soy-based ink. So, you can ask us anything,” he says.
Other terms used to describe different kinds of sustainable beauty include organic beauty, which is used for products containing ingredients that are grown without the use of genetically modified organisms, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers and others; and waterless beauty, which originated from South Korea to describe products that supposedly contain no water.
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When it comes to sustainability, every bit counts
— Nicolas Travis
The problem of misinformation and greenwashing
With there being no internationally recognised definition of sustainable beauty, consumers can sometimes get the short end of the stick. One of the main issues affecting the sustainable beauty industry, says Travis, is greenwashing and false information.
“It’s really complicated to have full transparency across the supply chain,” adds Dickson. “A lot of big brands make lofty green commitments or claim to be ‘clean’ or ‘natural’, but when you look at their practices, their claims are not necessarily true. In some countries, there is surprisingly little regulation and testing required [of cosmetic products], and labels are allowed to be incomplete and misleading. This makes it difficult for consumers to navigate.”
The packaging conundrum
For Travis, the nature of the beauty industry makes it difficult for it to have zero environmental impact. “We are in the business of encouraging people to buy more products each time we have a new launch,” he says. “Newness is what drives growth in the beauty industry.”
Aside from misleading marketing, the beauty industry has a serious packaging issue. Its heavy use of single-use plastics has been a hot topic, with some brands choosing to move away from plastics in favour of other, supposedly more eco-friendly materials such as glass or bio-based plastics. Yet some of these alternatives, too, have their own environmental drawbacks.
“Glass is not always the best option because it’s heavier and can take more resources to produce and ship across the world,” says Travis. And with bio-based plastics, there is at least one study that argues about the other environmental issues, such as pollution caused by the fertilisers used to grow the plants to produce this plastic alternative.
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Packaging, however, often plays an important role in ensuring a product’s longevity and luxury quotient. “Before shifting away from single-use plastics to post-consumer plastic or other materials, there are a few factors that we, as brands, have to consider,” says Travis. “The first is stability—can our formulas stay fresh in these recycled plastic tubes for years? Secondly, will the aesthetics of the post-consumer plastic tubes look premium enough to appeal to customers and retailers? Lastly, the cost of using special recycled plastics still isn’t cheap. Who will bear this cost, especially if you're a small beauty brand? That’s the million-dollar question.”
But Travis acknowledges that beauty brands like his must be cognisant of their footprint as they grow. Hence his company started its transition away from single-use plastics last year, switching to highly durable glass bottles for six of his products for now. Travis says this move will cut down the company’s use of single-use plastics by 22,000kg annually.
The unpretty side of beauty ingredients
Sustainable beauty players are also working hard to replace synthetic ingredients in products, but not all natural ingredients are sustainable. Palm oil is a classic example: it's natural, safe and thus commonly used in cosmetic products, but it's often produced in plantations that require the clearing of natural rainforests.
Other problems may lie in how an ingredient is sourced. Mica, for instance, is a popular ingredient found in natural or organic beauty products. It is a naturally occurring silicate mineral dust, often found in the mining grounds of India, that gives users shiny lips and sparkling eyelids. But it's also associated with child labour.
Most of the mines producing mica in India are illegally run, which means they often lack the essential health and safety regulations. This allows young children to work in the mines, exposing them to a dangerous environment that can lead to injury, illnesses and death. According to Dutch campaign group SOMO, there may be as many as 20,000 children involved in mica mining in Jharkhand and Bihar, two of India’s major mica-producing states.
Several brands have launched efforts to boycott such problematic ingredients, but it’s a long and complex journey ahead as the world has already developed a strong dependency on some of them. After all, it's never easy to break a habit—especially if it helps to pay the bills.
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How to be a more discerning customer
Still, change can and is happening. For individual consumers who are new to sustainable beauty, Dickson and Travis offer some advice on how to make an informed purchase.
“If a brand is selling itself as sustainable, look at the packaging they use and how they ship their products,” says Travis. “Then, look at what they are doing in terms of giving back—are they planting trees or offsetting carbon? If in doubt, reach out to the brand to ask. You should be able to tell quickly after.”
For Dickson, reading the ingredients list is key. “I look at the ingredients that are used and if I can’t pronounce or understand what they are, do I really want to be putting them on my skin, especially on my face? Also be weary of products that say they’re natural, but maybe have only one or two natural ingredients while the rest are toxic chemicals.”
She also encourages consumers to look into a brand’s philosophy, purpose and certifications. There are also resources out there, from apps to documentaries, that can help people make sense of the nascent sustainable beauty industry. Dickson recommends two: the Think Dirty app, which helps you assess a product, and the 2019 documentary Toxic Beauty, on unregulated chemicals in personal care products.
Whether the beauty industry can ever truly be sustainable is yet to be seen. But, as Travis says, “when it comes to sustainability, every bit counts.”
See more honourees from the Fashion & Beauty category of the Gen.T List.