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Sustainability 101: The Environmental Impact of the Beauty Industry

Sustainability 101: The Environmental Impact of the Beauty Industry

Sustainability is a complex concept involving many subjects regardless of the angle you’re seeing it from—and the same goes for cosmetics. There are a lot of variables we should consider before stating that a product or brand are truly sustainable. With the growth in consumption of beauty products, there’s a pressing need to understand the beauty industry’s environmental impact, and how companies and retailers can rise to the occasion.

With you, we’ll try to dive into the defining moments of the cosmetic life cycle. This approach should help us to understand the critical variables that may lead us to greener beauty! From brands to retailers, we’ll see what’s the role of each party in a truly sustainable beauty industry. You, as a consumer, are also key in this cycle! We’ll do our best to cover that as well!

On this post:

Cosmetic industry & sustainability issues

What’s the environmental impact on the industry side of beauty? There are a lot of hidden environmental costs that you can’t see straight away when looking at your serum or foundation. Let’s analyze the issues and mitigating actions, one by one.

Facilities & energy

On what do companies’ facilities run? We know that there’s no such thing as the perfect energy source. Even renewable energy comes with its own issues! However, the environmental impact of a facility fully running on renewables is far lower than its nonrenewable counterparts. As the world is still heavily relying on fossil fuel and nonrenewable energy sources, this comes as an issue to the cosmetic industry as well. If you try to learn more about beauty brands you know and love, you’ll find a few that already are making moves in the direction of operating in energy-self-sufficient facilities.

Consumers are showing more and more concern about the environment. Luckily enough, technological development are making renewable energy a clever financial choice for companies! We hope that this synergy will lead us to major improvements in the industry soon!

Ingredients

As it happens for most industries, ingredient sourcing plays a defining role in the environmental footprint of a product (or industry if you will!). In fact, the “design and raw materials selection phases were ranked with the same and the highest impact percentage (16%)” in the lifecycle of a beauty product, according to a study from MDPI.

You may look at this issue from many angles, all of them important! First of all is the land use and water cost of an ingredient; if a product uses natural ingredients that require a huge amount of water and land to grow and thrive, it’s difficult for it to be sustainable. This is true for both plant-based and animal ingredients. On the other hand, lab-grown molecules that require few resources to be produced, consume fewer natural resources from the environment and are a great start for a sustainable formula. When looking for key points in sustainability related to ingredients, we need to prioritize biodegradability. Equally important, “the origin of the raw material (i.e., synthetic, animal or vegetable source) is as important as the way it was synthesized, extracted and/or purified.”

We couldn’t discuss issues with ingredients without mentioning microbeads, microplastics, and glitter particles. These particles may be safe for human use (otherwise, they wouldn’t be used in cosmetic formulas) but, being non-biodegradable, they will end up polluting marine life and ecosystems. The health of the oceans is vital to humans, so this should be considered as a negative environmental impact of the beauty industry.

Natural vs Synthetic ingredients

As we’ve seen—natural is not always perfect and synthetic is not bad. As an example, imagine that we have two face creams containing avocado. One may use avocado pulp, and another one may be using the peel and seeds as a by-product from the food industry, minimizing “solid waste, and […] their potential negative impacts on the environment”, as stated by a study of the MDPO. The circular economy seems to be one part of the solution, by transforming waste into a valuable ingredient. Equally important, science innovation develops new ingredients and technology that present solutions for today’s sustainable problems!

Water usage

Water may seem like an abundant resource, but it’s far from that. This precious clear liquid is a limited resource essential to all life forms! Considering that climate change is leading some areas to severe drought, it’s more important than ever to use water wisely. Companies use water not only as a base for many cosmetic formulas but also in the facilities—to cleanse and to keep the facilities working for production and employee use. Recycling water and harvesting rainwater may sound like suitable solutions to counteract excessive water use, but they may not always equal a smaller footprint overall. It’s key to develop systems where the water is used to a minimum. If you consider that everything requires water to be produced, then the water footprint of a product starts with the ingredients and ends in the transportation and packaging! Speaking of which…

Excessive packaging

You may not be surprised with this one! It’s not uncommon to find beauty products wrapped in too many layers or in packaging that’s too big for the product it accommodates. More than the packaging that holds the product in, you’ll often find it protected by an external cardboard package, that may or may not be protected with a thin plastic layer. Whether your product comes in plastic, glass, or paper, keep in mind that all have a considerable environmental impact. Glass is often seen as the gold standard while plastic is the evil to avoid at all costs. This approach doesn’t consider the nuances that actually determine what the best option is! Glass has a considerable environmental footprint, and a 100% recycled plastic bottle may in fact be a good option.

Transportation

Regardless of how you get them to your door, cosmetic products have a fair amount of travel before starting to do their magic. A study on the sustainable life cycle of cosmetics summed it up for us. In short, the calculator of the transportation footprint should start with the distribution of raw ingredients for the product and the packaging; then, consider the transport of the product to the distribution center, then to the retailers to finally get to the consumers. But that’s not the end of it! The packaging then needs to be disposed of, whether it’s going to be recycled, composted, or conducted to landfills. Since transportation involves the use of planes, boats, trains or trucks, there are inevitably emissions associated. And, with so many journeys for each product, the emissions are not neglectable. You may find the image below, from the same study previously mentioned in the Sustainable Chemistry and Pharmacy journal. It should be helpful to visualize how much your cosmetics have to travel!

The Beauty Industry's Impact on the Environment

Here, companies won’t need much creativity to cut emissions. According to Cosmetics Europe, “companies are shifting their transportation from road to rail and from air to sea, or introducing hybrid or electric vehicles”, adapting distribution practices in order to reduce emissions. Another solution may be to have smaller package. The smaller the size, less space it takes in transportation, which means that more products can go on the same journey; using bigger trucks is also a valid way to reduce the footprint. These are great ways to mitigate the transportation impact on the environment. Yet, to this day, transportation still represents a big slice of the product footprint even with optimized practices.

Consumers & beauty consumption issues

We’ve seen the big issues on the manufacturer side, and there’s not much we, as consumers, can do about that. However, we still hold some degree of responsibility over our beauty consumption. How are we negatively impacting the environment when using and disposing of beauty products? Let’s see:

Overconsumption & waste

In the last decade, we’ve seen a generalized interest in cosmetics, especially skin, hair, and body care cosmetics. While, for some people, their routines don’t feel complete with fewer than 10 products and their skin rejoices, that may not be the case for everyone. It’s not easy to identify the skin’s needs or know one’s preferences in texture and products before trying multiple formulas. Some buy a lot of products they love and use until the last drop. Others end up with endless almost-full jars that didn’t work for them; in some cases, these products may even have triggered another need for a new product, to correct the results of the first one.

Overconsumption is often not intentional, but rather the journey to finding that holy grail product. Setting realistic goals of what you can and cannot achieve with skincare can be a great starting point to buy exactly what you need and want for your skin! If you have an entire jar of face cream that you truly dislike, try to offer it to someone who may love it. Alternatively, demote it to a less sophisticated use. For example, a face cream can turn into a decolletage, hand or foot cream!

Disposal

When we throw things “away”, remember that away is located on planet Earth. How we dispose of each product and packaging should also be considered as environmental impact on the beauty industry!

Next time you finish a beauty product and find yourself struggling to figure out how to dispose of it, consider the following options:

  1. Refilling the package would be ideal, considering that you’re not using a new package to keep using your favorite formulas; there are plenty of options available today!
  2. If the product is not refillable, you may opt to upcycle the packaging. Create a vase out of an empty jar, for example!
  3. If you can’t upcycle or repurpose the container, then you’re left with the options of composting it. Keep in mind that only compostable material can be composted, and it’s very rare to find compostable packaging. Alternatively, separating the packaging to the recycling bin, if it’s recyclable;
  4. Finally, consider disposing of it with domestic waste if none of the previous options are a possibility. Considering that objects in landfills release methane and other greenhouse gases, we should avoid this option at all costs!

Interested in how we see sustainable cosmetics at Care to beauty? Then come with us to find what sustainable skincare means for us!

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