Can Big Beauty Go Green? One Writer Tries to Save the Planet ( and Have Her Powder Too)

TerraCycle Garnier Include USA
THIS IS A TRUE STORY. It is 1998, I am at a production of Cabaret at Studio 54, and Madonna is at the next table. At some point during the show, she whips out a mirror to check her hair—I think it is braided—and I am close enough to see that she is holding a dull silver T. LeClerc Poudre compact, an item I have long coveted for its chic, Paris between-the-wars aura, but that I am too thrifty, too bohemian to break down and purchase. Suddenly a surge of lust and desire sweeps through me—this fairy dust should not merely reside in a rock star’s palm! As soon as the show ends, I run out and buy it, and I have been swearing by it ever since.   Which means that over the past 21 years I have bought—and discarded—roughly 100 of these things, which is something that until now, I am ashamed to say, I haven’t given much thought. I know that the planet is boiling, we are being buried alive by an avalanche of plastic, the polar ice cap is melting—things are really dire! But alter my beauty routine, the carefully culled roster of products that has worked so hard for me over the decades, and make a “clean” break from my faithful friends? Kill me now! After all, when it comes to cosmetics, who can deny the magical melding of efficacy and presentation they offer—the promise that lies inside those seductive boxes, those elegant bottles so charming on a boudoir shelf?   Still, even selfish me is taken aback by the stark statistics. According to Euromonitor International, a staggering 152.1 billion units of beauty and personal-care packaging was sold globally in 2018, and very little of the resulting waste, including plastic items, will actually be recycled for a number of reasons, which include variations on access to recycling programs, and a lack of uniform recycling procedures that can lead to sorting confusion among consumers. So they end up in landfills, or burned, or they find their way into oceans and waterways. Worst of all, most of these items are actually designed to be disposable, destined to fester atop a repulsive mountain of refuse.   Big beauty is finally meeting the crisis head-on, and it’s about time. L’Oréal says that by next year, 100 percent of its products will have an improved environmental or social profile, including updated formulations that incorporate renewable raw materials that are sustainably sourced or derived from green chemistry; not to be outdone, the Estée Lauder Companies has pledged that by 2025, 75 to 100 percent of their packaging will be recyclable, refillable, reusable, or recoverable. And as a founding company of TerraCycle’s ambitious new Loop initiative—an environmentally friendly shopping platform being piloted in select states that includes eight of Procter & Gamble’s household brands—P&G says that their offerings, which range from Pantene to Tide, can now be dropped off and picked up from your home in 100 percent refillable and recyclable and/or reusable packages, with the click of a button. If these corporate behemoths can be the change, why can’t I take a few baby steps in the right direction?   With this in mind, I assemble a collection of products, all vying for the winning ticket in my ethical/sustainable sweepstakes. Like you, I have tried really expensive shampoos over the years—because if it costs more it must be better, right? —but I always return to Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, which I am delighted to learn is now part of a new How2Recycle initiative that aims to overcome the challenges around proper recycling with clear, specific, and standardized labeling. (Who knew?) But in the interest of science, I investigate a trio of other contenders. First up is California Baby Calendula Shampoo & Body Wash, which features a cartoon smiley face on the bottle. The Los Angeles–based company that uses a solar-powered production facility and sustainably grown, certified-organic calendula from its own farm in Santa Barbara County is so cutting edge, it even funnels condensation from air-conditioning and rainwater off the roof of its headquarters into barrels for landscaping. The next contestant is L’Oréal Professional Source Essentielle shampoo, which has a lovely beachy smell, flaunts a vegan, silicone-, paraben-, and sulfate-free formula, and arrives in a stylish cube that is refillable up to three times. (A quick visit to its website reveals a list of participating salon refill stations nationwide.) The third entrant is a murumuru butter–and–rose shampoo “bar”—no plastic in the packaging!—from Love Beauty and Planet. It is a heart-shaped cake of soap and thus unlike any shampoo I have ever used. Though it doesn’t lather up very much (maybe that’s better for the planet?), its sentimental shape and rosy aroma look—and smell—like it belongs in a 1950s country cottage. (Not a bad thing.)   All three of these perform perfectly well, but in truth it is difficult for me to judge, since before I blow-dry my hair, I always coat it with an iron-clad gel, superstrong enough to turn my wavy-not-in-a-cute-way tresses into a semblance of the stick-straight bob I crave. The 98 percent–naturally derived Garnier Fructis Pure Clean Styling Gel, a very pleasant product with a TerraCycle partnership (you send in your empty tube; they repurpose it to make new recyclable products), is not up to the task, nor is the 100 percent–vegan Yarok Feed Your Hold Hair Spray able to conquer my limp locks. So I hightail it back to my reliable göt2b Ultra Glued Invincible Styling Gel, which is so tough it boasts a picture of a scary guy with a mohawk on the box.   The next morning, I scrub myself with Ren Clean Skincare Atlantic Kelp and Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash—the bottle is made from 100 percent–recycled plastic, 20 percent of which is culled from the ocean—but is this really waking me up, or is the shower just doing its thing? Then I give Vapour Soft Focus Foundation a spin. The Taos-based company has a serious commitment to renewable energy and a goal of using 100 percent Day Light Solar by 2022 at its headquarters and production facility, and—nice surprise!—I love this and would gladly use it when this research project ends. For the trademark dots on my cheeks, meant to make me look like a cross between a Victorian doll and a 1920s flapper, I have—editorial secret—long relied on mere lipstick, and Guerlain Rouge G in Deep Plum is sustainable because its tube is refillable. Not only does it look like a tiny chrome cocktail shaker, it is quite capable of giving me an unnatural blush. But just when it seems like it will be easy for me to do my part in saving the planet, there is trouble brewing for my lips. Admittedly, not everyone wants to look as if she has just bitten into a poison apple—but I need a lip pencil so dark, it’s almost black and capable of creating the upper-lip points my Cupid’s bow depends on. I try the darkest shades from both Dr. Hauschka (the antibacterial witch hazel in their liners is grown in their own herb garden!) and 100 percent Pure (their pigments come from fruit, vegetables, and tea! They even print their recyclable boxes with nontoxic soy ink at their 100 percent–solar-powered San Jose production facility!). Alas, they both are very pretty but too gentle, too sweet, for my kisser, and I am forced to return to my beloved MAC Cosmetics Nightmoth, which—just saying—is made of wood, not plastic.   Now for the most fraught part of the experiment: Will I be able to relinquish my precious T. LeClerc compact, even for a day? If I can bear the thought of it, there are refillable alternatives that include a delightfully petite Golden Alligator Slim Compact from Estée Lauder, so chic it could nestle cheerfully in a golden alligator Birkin. Or I might consider Antonym Cosmetics, which claims that their products contain 98 percent (or higher) natural ingredients; the packaging is made from what I think is wood (sustainable!) but turns out to be bamboo (even more sustainable!). If I ever decide I want to channel Stevie Nicks instead of Sally Bowles, Antonym is the powder for me.   In the end, even if I am not ready to abandon my T. LeClerc anytime soon (I wonder if Madonna is still using it?), it is nice to know that there are plenty of laudable goods out there, striving to help us look beautiful while at least attempting to keep the Earth beautiful, too. And I guess that’s really the heart of the matter: We want products to make us feel cool and gorgeous and transform us into the person we always wanted to be—a fantasy version of ourselves, no less powerful for being so elusive. And if these powders and potions, these shampoos and sprays can also do no harm—and guide us toward a saner, smarter future—won’t they literally become the sustainable stuff that dreams are made of?