The $500 billion beauty industry's 'green' ambitions are a patchwork at best. And they're falling short

This article discusses the difficulties of creating an international standard for the beauty industry due to the lack of transparency around product ingredients.

The $500 billion beauty industry's 'green' ambitions are a patchwork at best. And they're falling short

CNN, written by

The climate crisis is transforming many people's buying habits. This includes the beauty industry, which is worth $500 billion and is facing a variety of sustainability issues in product manufacturing, packaging, and disposal.

Simon Kucher, a strategy and consulting firm, found that 60% of global consumers rated sustainability as an important purchasing criterion. 35% also indicated willingness to pay more for products and services that are sustainable.

Many beauty brands have embraced this shift in consumer preferences and set environmental goals to reduce single-use plastics and provide recyclable, reusable, and refillable packaging. They also offer greater transparency about the ingredients of their products so that customers can determine how green they are.

According to the British Beauty Council, many consumers are still unable to comprehend the sustainability credentials of products. The industry's efforts to clean up have been inconsistent and fail to make a tangible impact without a global strategy, collective goal-setting and uniform regulations.

Transparency in branding and ingredient transparency

There is no standard in the beauty industry for how much information customers should share about product ingredients. There are many ways that brands can create their own rules and goals. This can lead to confusion and "greenwashing" where sustainability claims are made but not supported.

Many companies use language such as "clean beauty" to market their products. However, these words can be misleading.

"The term "clean beauty" has become very dangerous. It's used for selling more products," said Millie Kendall CEO British Beauty Council. She also stated that such buzzwords are losing popularity in the UK because British customers have grown to accept their flaws. Customers need better certification and marketing information.

The British Beauty Council called on the industry to be "courageous" to make changes in 2021's business practices. It stated that natural ingredients used in the manufacturing of products are often subject to "over-consumption and non-regenerative farming practices as well as pollution and waste."

Kendall stated to CNN that transparency is the only way out.

Jen Lee, chief executive officer of US-based Beautycounter, stated that she still sees confusion among consumers about ingredients. (The company published "The Never List" in 2013, which currently lists more than 2,800 chemicals, including heavy metals and formaldehyde. It claims that it never uses them in its products.

The debate about natural vs. artificial ingredients is still ongoing. Lee explained that people often believe natural ingredients are safer than synthetic ones. Natural ingredients that are formulated in this industry can carry a toxic load. Natural components of the earth can contain heavy metals.

Sasha Plavsvic (founder of ILIA Beauty makeup brand) said, "We used to have more natural and organic" "The problem was (that) raw material were hard to source or came in inconsistently, or products wouldn’t perform."

Plavsvic explained that most makeup is made and molded at high temperatures. This heat can cause organic materials to deteriorate, which can lead to inconsistent results and poor product performance. Plavsvic stated that not all synthetic materials are bad. Plavsvic stated that sometimes it is beneficial to create the best formula in its class.

Unpacking plastics

According to the British Beauty Council, 95% of plastic packaging in the industry is thrown away. The vast majority are not recycled.

According to Vantage Market Research, the cosmetics industry is the fourth largest plastic packaging user worldwide, after food and beverages, industrial packaging, and pharmaceuticals. Plastic accounts for 67% of the industry’s packaging volume. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, L'Oreal, a beauty giant, used 144,430 tonnes of plastic in its packaging material for 2021. Estee Lauder Companies reported that its brands used 71,600 tonnes of plastic in product packaging the same year.

According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, only 9% of global plastic waste can be recycled. Only 4% of the plastic waste from the United States is recycled.

Many brands are working to eliminate harmful plastics and use post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) plastic. L'Oreal set a goal of 50% PCR plastic use by 2025. Estee Lauder targets 25% PCR plastic, but both are still far from their targets.

Sander DeFruyt, EMF's Plastic Initiative Leader, said that between 60 and 70 major global brands have made remarkable progress in PCR plastic usage across all industries. DeFruyt said that PCR plastic should be used in conjunction with brands that remove single and virgin plastics from their use cycles. This will make a real difference.

However, PCR plastic can be difficult to find because of the low recycling rates worldwide. DeFruyt stated that there is a growing demand for it across all industries. Its price is now higher than virgin plastic because of increased competition.

FEKKAI, a hair care brand, claims it used as much as 95% PCR content in its packaging. However, pricing and supply problems made it difficult. FEKKAI now aims to use packaging and containers that contain at least 50% PCR.

"PCR plastic is more costly than stock plastic. CNN founder Frederic Fekkai said that the cost of PCR plastic is more expensive than stock plastic. "PCR is something we hold dear, but there is a huge demand for it, so it is hard to find recycled plastic."

Retail weight

The role of beauty retailers is pivotal, and often under-utilized. They have control over stocking decisions as well as supply chain management. Many retailers have different standards when it comes to what brands they sell.

Jessi Baker, the founder of Provenance technology platform that helps brands showcase their sustainability credentials to customers, said, "Small businesses do more." They move more quickly. Some are born-good brands. Their setup included climate friendliness. They don't have to restructure the entire supply chain. They already have it, compared to larger brands that need to adapt.

Sephora's "Clean + Planet Positive" initiative was launched in 2021. It identifies products that meet its criteria. This is distinct from Sephora's "Clean at Sephora", which currently faces a lawsuit by consumers alleging that it carries harmful products. Target launched a similar program 2022. It featured a Target Zero icon that can be used online or in-store to identify products that are either recyclable, compostable, compostable, or have reduced plastic packaging.

Despite all the efforts taken by retailers and brands, they fail to address the problem of waste and pollution in supply chains, manufacturing, and shipping. This is a huge problem for the industry.

The missing player

Certifications like the US-born B Corporation or B Corp can fill in some of the gaps in standardization within the beauty industry. The non-profit B Lab issues this accreditation, which is one of the most prominent in the beauty industry. It scores companies on a range of criteria related to ethics and sustainability. It is voluntary for brands to apply, however, no matter how beneficial it might be for eco-conscious consumers.

Experts and business leaders agree that enforcing regulations by governments and multinationals would make a significant impact on achieving sustainability claims.

Susanne Kaufmann is the founder of the beauty brand named after her. She believes that her efforts in Austria would yield better results if there were more countries with stricter and more uniform garbage disposal laws.

Kaufmann stated, "I pack our product in a recycled material." Her products' packaging is recyclable and refillable, and 75% of it is recycled plastic. She explained that the US will not separate the garbage and the trash isn't recyclable if she sends it there. This was due to inconsistent recycling laws in the United States.

The European Chemicals Agency has a list of 2,495 banned substances from cosmetic products that are sold or used in the bloc. The US Food and Drug administration lists only 11, making it harder for American consumers find safer and greener alternatives. Environmental Working Group, an independent watchdog, examined 51 sunscreen products tested in 2021. It found that 35% failed to meet the EU standard while 94% passed the US standard.

While the government can establish minimum requirements, Mia Davis (Vice President of Sustainability and Impact at Credo Beauty) says that the needle will move in private sector.

"Regulation can raise the level a little. Even if you don't have the knowledge to address sustainability issues, you should still be able walk into a bodega to get clean products. She said that this is not what the market can do. "Market leadership is crucial."

This "leadership" -- by both brands and customers within the beauty industry -- will likely be the most immediate vector to address the industry's climate problems. To see real climate-consciousness change, it will require continued collective advocacy and leadership.