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What Does Sustainable Beauty Actually Mean?

When I first started working in the beauty industry as an esthetician almost two decades ago, marketing for skincare was vague, and ethical standards were incredibly low compared to today. Most brands tested their ingredients on animals, and most of society accepted this. The ingredients were usually formulations of many chemicals that are now being labelled as toxic or not completely safe, and the packaging designs were often bulky and wasteful. 


With the climate crisis here, there has been a positive shift in the way the industry functions. Although progressive changes need to happen a lot faster in order to make some significant positive impacts on the environment, what we are seeing in the industry is an increasing trend geared towards the sustainability movement.


What is Sustainability?


So, with that being said, what is sustainability? According to the Oxford Dictionary, sustainability has two definitions, both which are relevant to our article:


  1. The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

 

  1. The avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

 

The problem with trends or buzz-words in any industry is that they are usually unregulated and fabricated words or phrases that can mean whatever a company wants it to mean. So in the beauty industry, words like clean, ethical, organic, eco-friendly, and green mean something to a consumer, but are really just marketing words that can mislead consumers to believe a brand is something that it is not. Greenwashing at its finest.


When we look at sustainability in the beauty industry, we tend to look for the “cruelty-free”, “vegan”, “water-free”, and “sustainable” labels. But a strong sustainable brand will often cover these five areas:


  • Sustainable Packaging
  • Cruelty-Free Formulations
  • Fair Trade or B-Corp Certified
  • Certified Organic Ingredients


Ingredients


You can’t have a skincare product without ingredients. This is one of the first ports of call that a brand will figure out when they first start a business. Many new startups will choose more economic and affordable options to save money, but these are generally not going to be the sustainable options.


A brand who is truly sustainable, should technically only be sourcing their ingredients from sustainable suppliers from the get-go. These suppliers can be harder to find, and more expensive to use, generally speaking.


Sustainable suppliers are those who know exactly where they get their ingredients from, and are sourced in a way that can be sustained long-term. They can trace every single ingredient back to the source, and they know if the ingredient has been in contact with unethical practices, such as child labor or worker exploitation.


Sustainable suppliers will also know the quality of the ingredients. So, whether they are either synthetically-made or naturally-derived, they can vet the quality of those ingredients.


Transparency is an important factor when skincare brands claim to be sustainable. It should be crystal clear to consumers whether the brand traces all of the ingredients back to the source, whether the ingredients are sustainably sourced, and also if the ingredients are high quality. If they don’t have this information readily available, such as on their website, then chances are they are not 100% sustainable.



Natural vs. Synthetic Ingredients


When we think about sustainable beauty brands, you may automatically think that naturally-derived ingredients are going to be better than synthetic ingredients. But when it comes to sustainability, it’s not always the case


When farmers harvest natural ingredients that have been grown for human consumption, it takes up valuable resources, such as water, to grow those plants. For anyone who isn’t aware, we currently have severe water shortages in some parts of the world, with two thirds of the world’s population predicted to be in a water-shortage crisis by 2025


Another point to mention is that some industries, like the palm oil industry in Borneo, cause massive destruction to landscapes to make room for these palm tree plantations. The farmers burn down entire forests in order to be able to plant the palm trees. 


This causes air pollution for the local communities, and it destroys the homes of so many species of wildlife. The workers themselves are also often subjected to exploitation and mistreatment. Something that is widely known, yet still continues to happen.


When buying a product with palm oil, you can choose RSPO certified products. This means that the palm oil was sourced sustainably from certified plantations where they are vetted for their ethical and sustainable practices. But not enough brands use RSPO certified palm oil, so always read the label.



Wild About Wildcrafting


You may have started to see wildcrafted formulations growing in popularity in some natural skincare brands. Take Honua Skincare, for example. They are a Hawaiian skincare company who source native botanicals from local farms in Hawaii who practice sustainable farming and wildcrafting of ingredients. 


Wildcrafting is when plants are harvested from their natural environment, leaving enough of the plant behind to continue the life cycle of that species. No fertilizers or pesticides are used on the plants, and they are sourced as naturally and respectfully as possible from mother nature.


Gray-Area of Beauty


The ”clean beauty” movement was worth $11 billion in 2016, and is projected to be more than double that by 2025. The story that beauty marketers will have you believe is that clean = sustainable. But this is a very gray area. 


As mentioned earlier, clean beauty can mean whatever a brand wants it to mean. Generally it means the products are cruelty-free, vegan, and made without harsh chemicals, such as sulfates. But that isn’t always the case. “Clean Beauty” is a vague label that brands use to market themselves to conscious consumers—which is so many of us these days. 


Identifying Certifications


Just like Clean Beauty, Sustainable Beauty is a vague label that brands use in marketing. The standards are broad and wide, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that cosmetics do not legally need to be FDA-approved to go to market. It is only if a product’s safety is questioned does the FDA intervene. This is why the certifications, like RSPO, Fair Trade, Leaping Bunny, and Organic are important and helpful identifiers when choosing skincare products. 


A brand can legally put “cruelty-free” on their packaging if they truly are cruelty-free, but if they have parent companies that sell in mainland China, they are not allowed to put the Leaping Bunny certification. This is because China law states that certain cosmetic products must be tested on animals before they can be sold on the China market.


B-Corp certification is the highest ranking in sustainable and ethical practices that a brand can have. B-Corp brands must pass the tests in areas such as workers, customers, community, and the environment, which work off the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).



Other Sustainable Words


As mentioned earlier, we are facing a global water shortage. So many brands are opting for waterless beauty products. Conventionally, most cosmetic or skincare products contain water, usually as the top ingredient. But waterless beauty means that water is not in the formulation. It can also mean that water was not used in production or manufacturing. 


Again, the gray area here is that water sometimes still needs to be used in order for the product to work, such as the Catharsis Face Mask. It comes in powder form, and the customer just adds water to create a creamy mask. Water also still needs to be used to create the packaging that the products come in, and even the logistics of getting the product from warehouse to consumer would use water somewhere along the way. 


Some loopholes also allow brands to label water as another ingredient when it is formulated in different ways. Look out for words like “extract”, “proprietary blend”, or “hydrosols”. So a waterless product is never truly waterless.


Many of us associate the word “vegan” as being something good for you and the planet. But just because a product is vegan, doesn’t make it sustainable or ethical. Palm oil is vegan, but the process to get that ingredient, if taken from standard plantations, is highly unethical and detrimental to the planet. The only thing that can be certain with the word “vegan” on a label is that the product doesn’t contain any animal byproducts. 


The word “organic” has copped some flack over the years, after some companies were found to be using pesticides, which is an industry no-no. It’s no wonder we as consumers have trust issues.


Since then, organic industries have tightened up their protocols. Cosmetic companies that want to have a “USDA certified organic” stamp on their products are now required to have 95% or higher organic ingredients, and must be approved by both the USDA and FDA. If a product claims to be organic, but doesn’t have the stamp of certification from the USDA, it means that they have less than 95% organic ingredients in their formulations. 



Packaging


There are so many issues the beauty industry faces, but perhaps the biggest one of all is the packaging issue. The industry contributes 120 billion units of virgin plastic packaging every year, with forecasts of that increasing over time if we don’t proactively change our habits and protocols now.


A sustainable brand is one that acknowledges that they are not perfect, but are consciously trying to improve their practices, and minimize their environmental impact. While the brands that we partner with are all what we consider to be sustainable beauty companies, when it comes to the packaging, most of them have the same struggles.


Certain products, like sprays and serums, require moving parts in order to have the complete experience. But sprayers, pumps, and dropper lids are generally non-recyclable. This is something that our partners have acknowledged, and are working towards a solution.


Many recycling facilities cannot recycle colored glass. So if your favorite face cream comes in a blue glass jar, chances are it isn’t getting recycled even if you clean it and put it in the correct trash can.


Anything made with mirrors, magnets, or a coating will also not be recycled by any facility, and single use items—like the handy plastic spatula that comes in some face creams—are all just wasteful and unnecessary.


Some skincare brands offer recycling through their own company, or Terracycle® programs. There are some brands who have designed their own zero-waste packaging, like Āthr Beauty’s zero waste shadow palettes that are made without mirrors or magnets, or DEW MTY’s 100% compostable paper packaging. There are even brands whose business models are based on a refill subscription model, like Izzy’s mascara, and Plaine Products.



Another way brands are more sustainable in their practices is through carbon offsetting. This is where a company will buy carbon credits—usually through third party companies who plant trees, or capture or extract carbon from the atmosphere and repurpose it as energy—to offset the emissions that they produce, becoming a climate neutral, or even a climate positive company. 



Conclusion


We hope this article sheds some light on sustainable beauty. Unlike heavy contouring, spider lashes, and fake freckles, sustainable beauty is a trend that needs to stay. We need more brands to join the movement, and we need consumers to understand its importance.


“The future depends on what we do in the present.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

 

Emma Masotti is an Australian now living in Austin, TX, and has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn’t cost the earth.

Some of the products promoted in our blog are from our online store. Many others are brands we have researched and found to be great examples of sustainable, ethical, and innovative brands in their field, and we don't make any profit from mentioning them in our blog. #CollaborationOverCompetition