Sustainable Beauty: Explained

What does “sustainable” mean in beauty? Because of the rise in false advertising, it’s important to get familiar with the definition of this term and be able to spot fake labelling. Essentially, it means that everything the company is doing regarding that product is not harmful. The materials, production and distribution would all be done in eco-friendly ways, in order for it to be considered sustainable. 

Companies must use the UN’s sustainable development goals as a benchmark for whether they are selling truly green products.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that “under U.S. law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market,” with color additives being the only exception to this rule. This means the companies themselves are responsible for making safe products and advertising true to the product. 

According to Teen Vogue’s interview with a former beauty industry marketer, “brands can put “cruelty-free” on their packaging, but not Leaping Bunny certification if they have parent companies that test in China. If selling in physical stores in China, products have to undergo animal testing, even if the company doesn’t do animal testing anywhere else: “Brands are careful about how they phrase things for customers. My old brand wouldn’t put sustainable, but would call themselves…eco-forward, to let consumers know they were trying, but weren’t there yet.” 

FDA states, in order for a cosmetic to label themselves “organic” they must adhere to both USDA and FDA regulations. For example, a product has to be composed of at least 95% organic ingredients to have the USDA organic label on it. Because of this, any material may contain 75% organic components but isn’t allowed to use the official emblem- which calls for 95%.

One upcoming part of sustainable beauty is waterless beauty-  a product containing no water. With water shortages increasing as a result of population and industrial growth, many companies are claiming “no aqua” products. According to Susanne Langmuir, founder and CEO of Toronto-based waterless skincare brand aN-hydra, “It’s a simple fact — where there’s water, there is also bacteria.” Water naturally prevents contamination but it shortens product lives- and is not completely safe for users. In order to fight off the bacteria produced by water, extra preservatives are added to diminish microbe birth- and this adds to the chemicals users put on their skin.

While this idea is theoretically positive, any product sale requires water. As pointed out by Formula Botanica, whether it be for gathering ingredients, production, distribution or use- there can never be a total absence of water. Teen Vogue (Sicardi) explains this further through Charlotte Parker, the CEO of Dieux Skincare and cofounder of Nice Paper. She has researched clean beauty loopholes, while developing her own brand alongside a dermatologist. “If your product is waterless and ‘all natural,’ how do you think that crop was made? With GMO-free good wishes? It takes water to grow a plant,” says Parker. “If I use a synthetic ingredient, with 10 ml of water, I can tell you that barbari fig seed oil took a hell of a lot more water to grow, clean, and process.”

She emphasizes that the most frustrating is the waterless beauty that actually has water in it. “There are two workarounds that I’ve seen brands do. They’ll add ‘extract,’ or ‘proprietary blend,’ which means you can just add water to any active on the supplier side, and then your lab can legally put it first on the list, conveniently not mentioning there’s water in that proprietary juice. They also switch out water for hydrosols. Hydrosols are perfumed water. Hydrosols are made during the essential oil process; it takes a lot of water to create both essential oils and hydrosols.” 

Along with product sustainability, there has been a notable growing responsibility for sustainable packaging. More important than making claims about 100% clean packaging, having transparency between producers and consumers will increase motive in both to choose more eco-friendly directions. In March 2021, L’Oréal’s incoming CEO Nicolas Hieronimus emphasized the company’s commitment to transparency and increased sustainability goals—from ingredients to packaging—at the firm’s first Transparency Summit. He also said packaging will include scannable QR codes so consumers can easily learn more about a product’s ingredients (Beauty Packaging). With no federal laws regarding sustainable packaging, it is up to the companies to stay true to their environmental goals.

Jamie Matusow, Editor-in-chief of Beauty Packaging writes, “Nick Vaus, partner & creative director, Free The Birds, says the UK government has imposed a new plastic packaging tax, arriving in April 2022. He says this “will no doubt be a catalyst for positive change in this direction [re-usable, refillable packaging]. He says U.S. consumers already have the chance to purchase durable, sustainable packaging from Loop and Ultra Beauty which can be refilled, limiting the plastic waste from beauty products, and “we might see more re-usable packaging here [UK] for certain products.” The crucial point,” he says, “is that beauty brands not only need to embrace sustainable practices like biodegradable packaging and organic ingredients, they also need to be transparent about their efforts and help educate consumers on how to take care of the packaging after use to create genuine, long-term impact on the sustainability agenda.”

Sustainable Jungle has compiled a list of zero-waste and ethical beauty brands. 

Check out their article for specifics on each brand and why they earned a spot on the list. 

I urge you to take a look at Beauty Packaging to understand the elements of sustainable beauty packaging and distribution.  

For further questions regarding sustainable beauty or sustainability in general, do not hesitate to follow our instagram (@letclotheslive) and reach out via email or direct messaging!

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