It’s no secret that the beauty industry is wildly unsustainable. Between all the plastic packaging and questionable chemicals used in production to the constant push for consumerism in marketing, the beauty world has become notorious for being damaging to the environment- and it’s only going to get worse.
As the reach of beauty gurus and makeup obsessed Instagram influencers expands, so will the growth of the beauty industry. As it grows, it will only become more detrimental to the environment- meaning the industry needs to transform.
While the industry has the capacity to move in a sustainable direction, it won’t do so without a push from consumers. Consumers need to vote with their dollars by supporting sustainable beauty brands that are good for both people and the planet, rather than supporting brands who have no intention of acting sustainably.
The three main areas where the beauty industry impacts the environment are ingredients, packaging, and marketing. Most beauty brands are unsustainable in all three areas, but there are also a lot of brands that are sustainable in all three areas- meaning integrating sustainability isn’t an impossible feat.
THE PROBLEM: A lot of beauty products are laced with harmful chemicals, particularly in the US where there are very few regulations on the beauty industry. The Environmental Working Group is dedicated to informing consumers of what chemicals are in the beauty products they buy, and the results of their research aren’t pretty. They found that 88 different chemicals have been found in more 73,000 beauty products in the U.S. since 2009, and the chemicals they found have been linked to birth defects and cancer.
Some chemicals to watch out for include artificial fragrances, parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, and oxybenzone. The regulation of these chemicals in products varies depending on the country, so self-regulating by buying products made of natural ingredients is the only way to make sure you’re safe from these chemicals.
THE SOLUTION: Products made from natural ingredients are better for the earth, are usually more effective and are less likely to cause skin irritation. However, when buying natural products you have to be aware of greenwashing. A lot of companies will label their products as natural when they aren’t. To ensure that the product you’re buying is safe and actually natural, read the product label and watch out for harmful chemicals.
A lot of brands are embracing the use of natural ingredients to improve the health of consumers and the quality of their products. RMS beauty sources safe, organic ingredients and are completely transparent about everything that goes into their products. Their founder, Rose-Marie, decided to use this business model after she discovered the heavy metals that were the root of her health issues were also in the beauty products she used every day. Other companies like Au Naturale share the same sentiments, and only use naturally derived and ethically sourced ingredients for the sake of human health and the environment.
Upcircle, another beauty brand, is taking sustainable ingredients to the next level by using food waste to craft their products. They recover leftover coffee grounds, hemp husks and tea leaves that would have otherwise gone to landfills and reinvent them into beauty products like scrubs and face masks. Their products are also ethically and sustainably manufactured locally in the UK, making them the pinnacle of sustainable beauty.
THE PROBLEM: The beauty industry produces around 120 million units of packaging every year, according to Zero Waste Week, and most of this packaging is made using various types of plastic. The packing is generally hard to recycle- you have to either mail it to companies like TerraCycle, drop it off at select stores that will accept it, or find an innovative way to reuse it. This is viewed as inconvenient to most consumers, so makeup packaging often gets sent straight to the landfill.
THE SOLUTION: There are several options to improve the sustainability of beauty packaging because there are a lot of materials that are by far better than plastic for the environment.
First, there are compostable packaging options. Compostable cardboard is most often used to manufacture boxes, but some companies are innovating different ways to take advantage of compostable options. Some brands, like Meow Meow Tweet and Soué, use compostable tubes to package products like deodorant and lip balm. Other brands, like LOLI, are using compostable bags to ship and package their orders.
Other sustainable materials include glass and aluminum- both of which are infinitely and easily recyclable. Several beauty brands have started packaging their makeup in containers made solely of glass and aluminum. Upcircle, who we mentioned earlier for their ingenious use of sustainable ingredients, packages their face scrubs in aluminum tubes that are 100% recyclable. Aether Beauty sells vegan and cruelty-free eye shadow in a palette that is made of aluminum and is 100% recyclable at the end of its life (and 1% of their sales go to The Rainforest Foundation). It’s also easy to find independent brands on Etsy that sell beauty products that are packaged in glass.
Some companies are taking a different route and are offering refillable makeup to cut down on packaging altogether. Zao allows you to buy products like highlighter, bronzer and eye shadow in a bamboo case once, and then buy minimally packaged refills when you run out of the product. Alima Pure offers a similar model with its refillable compacts, as well as brands like Plaine Products who offer refillable shampoo, body wash, and body lotion. Some companies, like Lush, are completely ditching packaging, and are offering lotion, shampoo, soap, and other products completely free of packaging
THE PROBLEM: A lot of beauty companies market by making consumers feel the need to buy their products to be more beautiful, accepted, and happy. They do this by pushing an ideal look and a “more is better” philosophy. While this has made sales skyrocket, it has done so unethically and unsustainably.
Pushing an ideal look and supporting the idea that buying items is a path to happiness is not only detrimental to the mental health of consumers, but to the earth as well. Women have become increasingly insecure, and have been buying beauty products at increasingly high rates. This has pushed beauty brands to use more natural resources, energy, water, and plastic to produce more and more products.
This sheer increase in demand is obviously bad for the environment, but it goes deeper than that- its a vicious cycle. As consumers buy more products, they value the products they buy and have less, so they increasingly feel unfulfilled with what they have and lean on consumerism as a crutch to happiness, leading them to buy more products and start the cycle all over again.
THE SOLUTION: In order to spare the mental health of their consumers and decrease the environmental impact of excessive consumerism, beauty brands need to embrace diversity in their marketing. They need to stop pushing this idea that there’s an “ideal” way to look, and need to push for their consumers to embrace their imperfections and use cosmetics as a way to have fun and embrace their beauty, rather than using them as a way to fit an “ideal” standard of beauty. This can be done by having diverse marketing that includes acne, diverse body shapes, and people of all color.
Overall, the beauty industry needs to be transformed for the sake of our planet. As consumers, we can aid in this transition by voting with our dollars. When we choose to buy from brands that use recyclable packaging and natural ingredients and market themselves using diversity and imperfections, we’re investing in the sustainable beauty industry and not supporting companies that don’t value sustainability as a priority. This will force brands to change their practices if they want to make it in the beauty world.
Is the blog manager for Zero Waste Club, combining her love for writing with her passion for all things environmental sustainability. She is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying journalism, environmental studies, and food studies in hopes of building a career in environmental activism. You can find her on Instagram as @kaylaguilliams.