Reduce, Reuse, Recycle... Regenerate? Sustainable Beauty's New Rules
Ashleigh Cometti discovers how beauty brands are navigating the climate crisis amid new standards of sustainability
At the start of 2021, we predicted that sustainability would be one of the biggest shifts in the beauty industry.
But how far has the industry come, and what benchmarks are standard now that mass brands are following suit?
The global beauty industry is a $532 billion dollar business and contributes an estimated 120 billion units of waste into landfill every year*, not to mention the shipping required to get products from A to B, which is said to contribute more than 1 billion tonnes of C02 per year**.
The burden beauty has on the planet can no longer be ignored, and with the next generation more aware than ever before, consumers are taking action via their purchasing decisions.
A First Insight study in 2020 found that 62 per cent of Gen Z and Millennial participants prefer purchasing from sustainable brands — ones that have the proof to back up claims.
Below, five industry experts share how the industry is evolving now that discerning consumers are using their purchasing power to align themselves with values-based brands that put the environment front and centre.
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE BEAUTY ACTUALLY MEAN?
Today, there are a multitude of different standards for what sustainable beauty looks like, and the largely unregulated term means it's mostly up to the brands to ensure their products are safe to use, while eco-labels offer assurance that they’ve been tested by an additional governing body (more on that below).
For John Molloy, co-founder of niche molecular fragrance brand Hermetica Paris, sustainability should be intertwined with a brand’s ethos from the start.
“More than a term, it’s a conviction at the genesis of the brand. A conviction that you can always break the mold, think differently and create in a better way that is respectful to the planet and therefore to our customers,” he says.
Be wary of marketing trickery, warns founder and CEO of plastic-free beauty brand Ethique, as some brands will claim to be sustainable by doing the bare minimum.
“The word sustainable itself doesn’t mean much anymore; it’s become overused and meaningless as lots of brands will stick some kind of tree planting or recyclable packaging initiative on the end of their product and call it sustainable,” she says.
“We don’t talk about sustainability so much now – we’ve gone a step further and talk about regenerative beauty. Sustainable is just maintaining the status quo, which is obviously better than making no effort at all to mitigate the impact of industry. But the state of the environment right now is so terrible, we need to be going much further than just sustainable and start rewilding, reforesting and rehabilitating much of our planet.”
IS THIS THE END OF THE #SHELFIE?
Are complex 10-step beauty routines and #shelfies shared to Instagram of cabinets brimming with pretty products to blame for exacerbating beauty’s sustainability problem?
“It makes me feel sorry for their skin honestly,” RMS Beauty founder Rose-Marie says of social media stars with multi-step routines.
“A ten-step ritual is just too much — imagine going out to eat and order 10 dishes, your body would feel overloaded and I believe the same is true for skincare. Less is more always! That said I do love a good meal (and I never skip dessert).”
This ‘less is more’ approach translates to skinimalism, which works on the principle of reducing steps or products to form a more streamlined (yet still efficacious) routine.
It’s something Virginie Courtin-Clarins, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Clarins, and granddaughter of brand founder Monsieur Jacques Courtin-Clarins, believes was spurred on by the pandemic, as consumers gave up things that were once deemed as essentials.
“There is a real return to basics: it comes down to doing things better, differently and with less, getting back in touch with a more natural, more authentic kind of beauty and quality brand,” she says.
THE TENETS OF SUSTAINABILITY
The shift in consumers no longer shopping with brands due to their product offering only has ushered in a new era of conscious consumerism, with a brand’s ethos, sustainable practices and approach to diversity, equity and inclusion measured against a consumer’s own values.
“Consumers today have an expectation that brands will, and should, do good for people, animals and the earth. They are looking for companies to aid their environmental footprint such as minimising their plastic use, working to combat their impact on climate change and doing what they can to be socially responsible — essentially, they want companies to stand for something,” says Jackie Kankam, director of sustainability and social impact at Deciem.
When Rose-Marie Swift set out to create RMS Beauty, she was eager to develop a range of products that weren’t limited to one area of the face. In a bid to declutter vanities and makeup drawers, her first two-in-one product, Lip2Cheek, was born, and has since skyrocketed in popularity thanks to its creamy texture and versatility.
Zero-waste, plastic-free options
Prioritising bars over bottles is something Brianne pioneered in Aotearoa with her zero-waste, plastic-free beauty brand Ethique, which has seen everything from shampoo and conditioner to deodorant and moisturiser reimagined in solid form, along with a range of concentrated household cleaning products.
As of this year, Ethique’s approach has meant 13 million bottles have been saved from entering landfill, with the goal of half a billion bottles saved by 2030.
Carbon neutrality or positivity, including eco-friendly transportation or the pursuit of offsetting emissions
Businesses are going one step further by striving for carbon positivity, meaning they offset more than they emit.
Carbon offsetting agencies like Toitu Envirocare helps businesses become more energy efficient, minimise their carbon footprint, and be more sustainable.
Total emissions are calculated by algorithms which factor in every aspect of the supply chain, including transport and logistics, emissions from offices, manufacturers and retailers, along with electrical, gas or fuel consumption.
A new area of focus is pursuing renewable energy sources like solar or hydroelectric power, and where these are unavailable, purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs).
It pays to do your research: many businesses are happy to disclose what steps they’re taking to reduce their emissions, or publish milestones they wish to achieve and when.
Recycled, reusable and refillable packaging
Brands are designing out single-use plastics, and no longer rely on packaging upcycling models, rather opting for bioplastics, recycling programs and refillable options.
Packaging innovation remains top of mind for Rose-Marie, who says she’s continually striving for solutions that benefit both the environment and the consumer.
“When we created refillable products like our primer, I wanted to find ways to help the consumer refill items that they would purchase several times over — not just source refillable packaging to check a box. That to me is a sustainable practice,” she says.
Today, a brand’s positive impact also extends to social strategies that ensure that organisations, both big and small, benefit.
For Deciem, this looks like monetary pledges to five community fund partners that impact black lives, supporting global disaster relief efforts and fostering diversity, equity and inclusion by creating platforms to foster conversations amongst the LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and disabled communities.
Others donate a percentage of their annual profits to social and environmental issues, including Ethique’s mission to spread two per cent of sales annually to more than 200 charitable organisations, including those that push to address deforestation, biodiversity loss and habitat damage.
Sustainable ingredient sourcing and supply chain transparency
In the same way that ‘farm to table’ has exploded in the hospitality sector, ingredient provenance in cosmetics offers consumers the assurances they want.
While some brands work with local suppliers, others have the capital to establish their own farms or laboratories, like Domaine Clarins nestled in the heart of the French Alps.
Some 1400 metres above sea level, the open-air laboratory implements organic horticulture to cultivate plants in harmony with the seasons, before being harvested, extracted or distilled into skincare.
It’s something the brand is extremely proud of, says Virginie. “Eco-conception of all of our products that is always challenged. All our ingredients have strict specifications to guarantee complete traceability. All of our decisions around development, production and distribution are taken by considering the environment as top priority,” she says.
Others opt to use ingredients from renewable sources, including Hermetica Paris who claim each fragrance contains up to 50 per cent of its ingredients are regenerative. This includes organic compound pinene, which is extracted from pine trees to create molecules instead of petrol, which is more commonly used in perfumery.
Supply chain transparency goes beyond ingredients solely, it also means that workers are paid and treated fairly, which ensures they can look after their community and environment, Brianne says.
Certifications like BCorp, Leaping Bunny, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, COSMOS/Ecocert, NATRUE and BioGro create a level playing for brands by creating a benchmark against which to measure efforts.
“They know what and where they are buying from, and what the company is doing for the greater good of our planet. That makes consumers feel better about their purchases, and after all, beauty is meant to make you feel good,” says Jackie, adding that Deciem is currently on its journey to achieving BCorp status.
But according to Brianne, few certifications don’t offer much in terms of credentials.
“Some certifications out there are so weak as to be meaningless, or badly run so they are incredibly time-consuming and resource intensive to work with, and some are too expensive for smaller brands to achieve,” she explains.
“But good ones like BCorp are worth a go. BCorp is hard to achieve, but absolutely covers all bases,” she says of the certification, which is measured against social and environmental performance, and uses the UN’s sustainable development goals as a benchmark.
THE WAY FORWARD
As conscious consumption continues to rise, brands are called to strive beyond existing sustainable practices to secure beauty’s bright future.
COLLABORATION OVER COMPETITION
According to Virginie, the culture of collaboration is propelling the industry forward, with collective efforts to reduce waste, drive innovation and overhaul existing business practices a priority.
“I believe that companies must work together to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and a better future. We need to cooperate with the competitors: when we work together, we usually find much better and quicker solutions,” she says.
“This is why, together with other major beauty brands, we are moving towards the co-creation of a voluntary rating system for the environmental impact of beauty products.”
Pioneering the movement locally is Emma Lewisham, who openly shared her IP with the entire beauty industry in September last year in a bid to accelerate the shift towards a planet-positive, circular beauty model.
The entrepreneur released her 100 per cent circular designed product packaging and carbon positive model to her website (Emmalewisham.com/beauty-blueprint) enabling beauty businesses big and small to benefit from the brand’s investment to implement widespread change within the industry.
According to industry watchdog Cosmetics Design, upcycled ingredients are on hot on the innovation agenda for 2022, as brands seek out ways to establish truly circular business models.
The real-life example of trash to treasure, leftover food including olive oil waste, citrus extracts, coffee and cacao bean waste, dried fruit seeds discarded from jams and juice along with grape waste from wine production can be given a second life when blended into natural skincare or cosmetics.
One such brand who is proud of talking trash is Circumference, which, as the name suggests, considers the entire lifecycle of an ingredient with its Waste-Not Sourcing Initiative.
This endeavour effectively ‘designs out’ waste using a cross-industry model which promotes full circle sustainability from root to leaf.
Circumference has partnered with olive oil makers Brightland to utilise unused olive leaves and steward them into Olea Europaea Leaf Extract — the hero ingredient contained within its Daily Regenerative Cleanser.
Beyond skincare, upcycled ingredients was the starting point of Hermetica Paris. Founded on the principles of green chemistry by John and Clara Molloy, Hermetica Paris’ range of alcohol-free, cruelty-free, clean and vegan eau de parfums aim to efficiently use renewable raw ingredients, including Jade888 which uses disposed orange skins, as well as Megaflower, Rosefire and Spiceair from waste recovered from the paper industry.
“That’s also part of our approach: transforming what was considered a waste into a precious perfume. It’s alchemy. And it’s sustainable,” John says.
A SECOND LIFE FOR SHARPS
An unlikely sector up for reinvention is appearance medicine.
Salon recycling service Sustainable Salons is currently trialing its new Sharps Collection Program by way of a sustainable sharps container at The Face Place — the first medispa to be under the guidance of the social enterprise since its inception.
It’s an exciting move for The Face Place founder Dr Catherine Stone, who says the flow-on effects of this trial could be monumental.
“I’m excited about being the first in New Zealand to trial a sustainable sharps container as I see the potential for massive change in all areas of the health sector — private clinics, GPs and hospitals,” she says.
“The health industry generates so much medical waste so it’s a huge potential area for improvement. At The Face Place, we would use upwards of 1000 needles per week doing injectable cosmedicine treatments."
Each SSANZ 1.8L sharps container complies with ANZ regulations (AS4031, AS/NZS4261) to treat sharps as a biohazard and dispose of them in leak- and puncture-proof containers.
Inside, nurses and technicians can safely dispose of needles, needle cartridges, microneedle cartridges, threading needles, lancets, blades, razors and more, to be collected through the Sustainable Salons network.
Once the standard of the beauty industry, today’s consumers are dismissing beauty’s one-size-fits approach and are seeking products tailored specifically to their skin’s needs, says Rose-Marie.
“Customisation according to skin types is what brands have set their eyes upon next. Custom beauty today has gone one step further, by converging technology, science and beauty with e-commerce. These elements combined allow brands to engineer the perfect products, entirely customised to an individual’s needs, and all from the comfort of their own home,” Rosie-Marie says.
But is there a market for made-to-order, grown-to-order, personalised skincare to help reduce the industry’s sustainability problem?
While it may help to declutter bathroom shelves by subbing out four different serums for a single tailored version, Brianne predicts its impact isn’t widespread enough to exact lasting change.
“I understand they are trying to combat overproduction, but I don’t think custom made is every going to be mainstream enough to have a huge impact. And a lot of manufacturing actually becomes sustainable with scale, so making tiny, personal batches of stuff tailored to an individual may have more impact in the long run,” she explains.
What will help, she adds, is more accurate forecasting by brands — the result of better information gathering to establish what and how much consumers want.
At a time where thinking about sustainability and preserving the environment is top of mind, it seems the simplest way to care for the planet is to buy less.
And if there’s little fat to trim in your routine, shifting the way in which you consume skincare — from questioning the eco credentials of your preferred beauty brands to using your purchasing power to support those with a transparent supply chain — can make a world of difference.
This article was originally published in volume seven of Viva Magazine.
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