A Deep Dive Into the Confusing World of Sustainable Beauty

TerraCycle Garnier Include USA Kiehl’s Loop Deciem Credo
#FashionCrisis is a series that kicks off the Style section's commitment to educating our readers about sustainability and fashion. We chat with experts, influencers, designers, beauty and fashion brands about what it really means to be sustainable in 2020. In this story, we learn more about what exactly it means to be sustainable in the beauty industry.   Years ago I would roll my eyes at brands that promised to be cruelty-free, phthalate-free, three-free — free of everything, it seemed, including my attention. They had clunky packaging, weak ingredient lists that my cystic acne would scoff at, vampiric shade ranges, and forgettable branding. I just wanted products that did what they promised, a high enough order to keep me busy; concerning myself with products that did what they promised without doing a bunch of other things felt like too much to ask.   But the industry needle has been moving without me, and so has, unfortunately, the crisis of climate change. The stuff that beauty fans love is, in fact, connected to the climate crisis, because the $532 billion dollar industry that we support is implicitly linked to other industries that pollute the earth. The beauty industry contributes 120 billion units of packaging a year, according to some estimates, and the shipping industry, an integral part of the process, contributes more than 1 billion tons of CO2 a year — and this is just the world's merchant fleet, not accounting for freight or air shipping.   But more beauty brands are finding ways to minimize the impact they leave on the world when they make products. The “clean beauty” movement was worth $11 billion in 2016 and will likely be worth more than twice that by 2025. Clean beauty promises have gotten more complicated: Not only do they vow to hydrate or solve acne issues, for example, many of them are cruelty-free, vegan, water-free, and sustainable. But what does that even mean in 2020?  

What does “sustainable” beauty mean?

  There are many different standards for what sustainable beauty looks like, and hundreds of eco-labels around the world, with 66 relevant to cosmetics and personal care. 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,” and cites color additives as the only exception to this rule, though the agency will take action if it has “reliable information” regarding the safety of a particular product. Otherwise, individual companies are tasked with the legal responsibility of making sure their products are safe to use, and eco-labels are a very helpful way for you to know they’ve been tested by somebody.   Thoroughly sustainable brands often aim for a quartet of eco-labels: recyclable, cruelty-free certification from Leaping Bunny, certification for good business practices (like Fair Trade or B-Corp), and organic ingredients. To use the official USDA organic label specifically, brands have to comply with strict guidelines, available here.   According to a former beauty industry marketer we spoke with, 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.”   Many official eco-labels cover only specific products and not the entire company roster. They are largely voluntary accreditations, not industry requirements. B-corp brands must achieve a minimum score on a test that assesses impact on workers, customers, community, and the environment using the UN’s sustainable development goals as a benchmark. It’s one of the most rigorous accreditations a company can apply for. The Body Shop, a pioneer in sustainable beauty, is one of only a few brands that are B-corp certified, along with Davines and Dr. Bronners.  

Natural beauty, organic, clean beauty, and waterless beauty are all different.

  There is no official FDA definition of “organic” cosmetics, and so-called “natural” products aren’t necessarily better for your skin; some popular nature-derived cosmetics ingredients can still cause a bad reaction for people with certain skin types. According to the FDA, cosmetics labeled “organic” have to 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. That’s why brands that claim to be organic often don’t have a label; a lotion may be composed of 75% organic ingredients but is not permitted to use the official logo.   A newer trend is “waterless beauty,” a term from South Korea that refers to products supposedly containing no water, according to Formula Botanica, a company that offers courses and certificates in organic cosmetics science. Generally these products have concentrated formulas, implying a bigger impact on skin. Reducing the amount of water waste is an important part of how we can all contribute to a smaller ecological footprint — by 2050 5 billion people may face water shortages — but even if a product arrives with no “aqua” listed in the ingredients, it’s highly unlikely that it has no water footprint. Brands think waterless beauty translates to shoppers believing it’s a more sustainable product, but the harvesting of ingredients, packaging, and shipping beauty products require water in some form or another, as pointed out by Formula Botanica, not to mention that you may end up diluting it with tap water at home.   Charlotte Parker, the CEO of Dieux Skincare and cofounder of Nice Paper, has spent the past few years learning the ins and outs of 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.”   “More frustrating is the waterless beauty that actually has water in it,” Parker continues. “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.”   A vegan brand does not mean the labor practices are ethical or that the supply chain is transparent and sustainable, and all brands have an ecological footprint, so the concern is how they counteract their impact on the environment. All these terms are moving targets.  

Packaging problems.

  We’ve got a big learning curve to deal with if we want to be more responsible consumers, and it starts with learning more about what to do with things we already own. Recycling is complicated enough that a few brands, like Versed, have released recycling guides to help make it easier. If you’ve been throwing half-full beauty products into the bin, you get zero cookies for the effort, because residual product in containers renders a lot of recycling contaminated. Here is a comprehensive list of things to just put in the wastebasket instead:   Mirrors are not recyclable because of the reflective coating. “If your mirror is in good condition, consider wrapping it up safely and donating it. If it’s broken, consider a craft project,” advises Elizabeth Schussler of the Recycling Partnership.   Most available pumps are not recyclable. While researching this story, we discovered only one recyclable pump on the market, which isn’t to say a major brand has incorporated it yet. Pumps are composed of several different parts, so you need to fully disassemble them.   Applicators are not recyclable either. Mascara wands, however, can be donated, after being washed, for use in wildlife rescue effortsCloud Nine also has a mail-in recycling program for heat tools for hair.   Makeup brushes are generally not recyclable, even if they are composed of primarily eco-friendly materials. Vegan brushes still have to use virgin plastic. You can go for synthetic brushes made sustainably, like EcoTools, and send your old ones to recycling programs that specialize in beauty brushes.   Depressingly, the color of plastic or glass containers can matter too, even if it’s a technically recyclable material. “There are some packages that are more recyclable. It depends on size, shape, material, and color,” explains Schussler. “The machines [that] sort the plastic are ‘reading’ the plastic and divide it, but there are colors and materials that catch it off guard.” Black plastic is hard to recycle because the sorters don’t recognize the color. For example, don’t just toss LUSH containers into your recycling bin; instead, bring them back to the store, if possible. The brand reuses them as part of its programming.   A film or coating can also render something unrecyclable. Anything that is flexible or squeezable is difficult to recycle because it has multiple layers. (Summer Fridays does, however, have a specialized recycling program.) And those free samples you get? They are unsurprisingly terrible for the environment. “Packages that are smaller than a small soda can, for instance, have a hard time making it through the line even if they are recyclable,” says Schussler.   Single use products are bad for the environment too. “Beauty products made to use once and throw out, like makeup wipes and sheet masks, create a lot of unnecessary refuse,” Susan Stevens, the founder and CEO of Made With Respect, told Vogue last year. “In the case of sheet masks, there’s a pouch, the mask, and sometimes the mask is wrapped in a plastic sheet. The pouches that hold sheet masks are often a combination of aluminum and plastic, which cannot be recycled.”  

All retailers have different standards for what sustainable beauty means.

  Since there are few compulsory regulations for brands to adhere to, retailers may have their own guidelines for what clean beauty or sustainability is when stocking their stores. ULTA has a “natural beauty” category but doesn't appear to have an explainer on its website about what constitutes inclusion in that category. The company also doesn't appear to have clearly outlined sustainability benchmarks available. Teen Vogue has reached out to ULTA for comment. Sephora uses recyclable paper bags, and defines clean beauty as being free of specific ingredients, which they do outline on their website. When reached by Teen Vogue for comment, the company explained it has begun rolling out a recycling program at specific stores but has not made it a universal policy: “In 2019, Sephora piloted a regional empties bring-back program in select stores, to divert empty containers from landfills, through which clients could receive 15% off all Sephora Collection items when they brought in three full-size empties of Sephora-sold products. There are plans to roll out this initiative to more stores in the near future.”   Other retailers have started to pop up exclusively in the clean beauty space. There is the Detox MarketAyla, as well as BLK+GRN, which specializes in black-owned beauty brands. Credo, a retailer established in 2015, exclusively sells what it considers clean products, and is thus far the only major beauty retailer to offer a recycling-and-rewards program as part of its brick-and-mortar operations. “On average, each store sends six to eight bins per month back to Terracycle to recycle, so about 65 bins per month. Our customers use this service and love it, and they get Credo loyalty points for participating too,” says Credo’s director of social responsibility, Mia Davis. “We spend a significant amount of staff time and money sending back these materials because it is very important that we do our part to reduce our industry's footprint.”   Individual brands such as Kiehls offer trade-in programs in exchange for a discount, or have paired with third-party recycling businesses like Terracycle; however, brand-specific recycling programs generally only accept their brand partners’ packaging. The one Terracycle program that accepts all mailed-in beauty packaging is cosponsored by Garnier, but when we tried to sign up, we were put on a wait-list, and in the course of reporting for this piece, we have yet to be moved up the list for the program. Credo and Deciem’s recycling programs are the ones that currently accept beauty packaging from multiple brands, but you have to physically go to their stores.   Very few brands have an entirely closed-loop chain, and just because they offer one does not mean there is a significant percentage of customers who participate in recycling/refilling their products. Loopone such limited program trying to make it more common, partnered with some of the biggest brands on the market, including the Body Shop, Pantene, Degree, and Dove. But the program is only available in a limited geographic region and also has a wait-list. The closed-loop packaging here is not available outside of the program, and it requires a packaging deposit to use.   Sustainability is the goal, but thus far not any one brand can lay claim to being 100% sustainable. Thirty-four percent of Americans recycle, and facility capabilities differ from neighborhood to neighborhood. As a result, only 9% of plastics end up being recycled. It’s not our fault as individuals; even if a product is recyclable, it doesn’t mean a community has the ability to get the product recycled.  

Brands that stand out:

  There are more brands than ever trying to tick all the boxes for sustainable sourcing and packaging. AxiologyAcureEarth Tu FaceEthiqueFat and the MoonMeow Meow TweetKjaer Weis are all trying to encompass the goals of sustainability, though each company goes about it in different ways: Some use refillable packaging, others use recyclable packaging, and their products have different price points and uses. One brand I tried in the course of reporting for this piece was by Humankind, which offers beautifully designed bathroom essentials in solid, no-waste packaging and refillable containers. Using solid shampoo is a steep learning curve for me, but it has made travel a lot easier, and minimized the number of products I bring with me. (I admit, I feel smug looking at how beautifully minimal my shower is now.) And the products are no more expensive than my comparable, nonsustainable alternatives; in fact, they’re half as expensive as my former prestige-brand products.   Not to be left behind, luxury brands are dipping their toes into the refillable marketDiorHermesby KilianFrederic MalleHourglassChanel, and Le Labo all have refillable options, and Mugler has offered refills at perfume fountains since 1992. But if you don’t use those brands, you can also purchase a refillable atomizer and buy decanted perfumes from resellers like the Perfumed Court, which does offer proof of authenticity.  

It might do all that and still not be accessible.

  The sunk cost for ethical ingredients and packaging, eco-label certification, and ethically sourced labor means these products tend to be more expensive, so much so that it makes being able to afford a “choice” of beauty products a class issue. As Allure reported last year, “Basic skin-care products from popular clean beauty brands typically cost more than $40, and treatment formulas can hit triple digits — that’s about 35% of a standard week’s paycheck (before taxes) for somebody making the federal minimum wage. The fallout: Those with lower incomes, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, don’t have the option of avoiding certain chemicals in their beauty routines.”   Even beauty companies that try to provide sustainable options often fail to reach a variety of consumers, and people of color often feel left behind by the sustainable beauty movement.   Beauty consumer Lina White explains, “I’m still on the hunt for sustainable products that also cater to a diverse client base. And I can’t just slap on some aloe or rose water or homemade toothpaste and pray my cystic acne away, you know? Sometimes I need the hard stuff.” The reality is that some ingredients don’t have reliable alternatives yet, and the lack of regulation around certain claims made by specific products can make customers more suspicious of new ones when they arrive.   As another beauty consumer, Julia Sevin, puts it: “I don't think any consumer believes that all makeup corporations have their best interests in mind for cost, quality, or environmental impact. But what's the alternative? No makeup? Rough.”   Brands are motivated by the combination of profits and consumer behavior, so the more we demand change with our dollars, the faster the system will adapt to suit the changing world. But it’s not — and never has been — just up to us.