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Sustainability: The Driving Force Behind Beauty Consumer Purchases*

Contact Author Imogen Matthews, Consultant to in-cosmetics
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*Republished with permission from Global Cosmetic Industry

At the heart of the argument for the creation of new sustainability protocols and standards are the changing demands of the beauty and personal care consumer. New research from Canadean1 confirms that 51% of consumers globally say their beauty and grooming product choices are often or always influenced by how environmentally friendly/socially responsible the brand is.

“Living ethically is of growing importance to today’s consumers, particularly as awareness of social and environmental issues grows,” said Jamie Mills, analyst at Canadean. “This can be attributed to the accessibility to information, as well as those issues being at the forefront of global and national agendas. In turn, this concern is trickling down to influence the choices of today’s consumers.”

Mills argued that accreditation for issues such as fair trade and recyclable packaging are an imperative, as is greater action by brands to include sustainability initiatives at the product level and across the wider brand ethos.

Beauty’s Sustainability Leaders

So which brands are doing it best? Sustainability pioneer Weleda, for example, has undertaken ethical sourcing of raw materials for decades, while Neal’s Yard Remedies was the first UK high street retailer to go carbon neutral. Neal’s Yard Remedies purchases carbon offsets from wind power projects in India and China, supplied by The CarbonNeutral Company, and has devised a “Carbon Action Plan” to deliver its carbon emission reductions. The brand uses its CarbonNeutral certification in advertising, catalogs, shop windows and its website.

“What has changed in recent years is that large multinationals and conventional brands are also now investing in sustainability,” said Amarjit Sahota, CEO of Organic Monitor. “It is common for many such companies to develop natural lines (reflecting green formulations), reducing packaging footprints, etc.”

Another approach is for companies to “buy green expertise,” such as Unilever’s purchase of the green brand Seventh Generation, with the plan to re-engineer its product formulations.

Waste Not

Beauty companies including Unilever and P&G are recognizing the commercial benefits of reducing energy use and water footprints and optimizing waste management.

Grupo Boticário, the second largest cosmetics company in Brazil, has switched to green polyethylene packaging for its Cuide-se Bem brand. The polyethylene is made from sugar, rather than petroleum, saving more than 90 tons of plastics per year.

“There are also cost benefits since moving to eco-design, as there is 10% less plastic material used in the packaging,” said Sahota. “Similarly, P&G has made a commitment to have zero waste to landfill; it currently has 68 zero-waste manufacturing sites across the globe.”

Sustainability is a nebulous term but has been moving up the public’s political and economic agenda.

Less is More

Sometimes, brands come unstuck when taking a particular stance. Taking parabens out of formulations, for example, was once a ploy used to sell products. Only two of the parabens in use in the industry actually showed mild toxicity upon scientific review, but now microbiome science is again bringing the issue of preservation back into focus.2

However, Marie Alice Dibon, founder of Alice Communications Inc., explained that companies that jump on the latest sustainability issue often do so without correct knowledge of the science behind it.

“Understand it,” she advised. “Hire the people that can help you communicate internally about it, informing all levels. Not everyone needs a Ph.D. in science but everyone who works in our industry needs to understand at least the basics and follow the news.”

Authentically Sustainable

According to Dibon, authenticity and ethics are values that run throughout an organization but are tricky to communicate.

“They’re not [just] injected into a product one morning because we choose to convey them now,” she explained.

Dibon believes the beauty industry needs to be proactive in setting industry guidelines as well as labels to reassure the consumer. If the big players apply best practices, they will pull the industry up as a whole.

“We can’t make the same mistake we did with organic products,” she warned, “with too many certifications in the European Union and not enough in the United States.” She added, “A good social media policy is essential as it helps with transparency. But there is no magic bullet and it will take time.”

Sustainability’s Evolution

Sustainability is a nebulous term but has been moving up the public’s political and economic agenda as businesses adopt responsible practices toward the sourcing and manufacturing of their products. In beauty, it began with a move toward natural and/or organic formulations, and has since moved on to sourcing ingredients ethically and producing eco-friendly packaging. (See Sustainability: Not If But How)

For example, Unilever has undertaken advertising campaigns that emphasize good social causes as part of its Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to expand the company’s business while reducing its environmental footprint. The program, which achieved an overall score of 92 out of a possible 100 on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, recently partnered with ingredient supplier Symrise, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and Save the Children to improve the livelihoods of vanilla farming communities in Madagascar.

Similarly, L’Oréal has made a commitment with its Sharing Beauty With All pledge. Recently, the company was granted an “A” rating by the nonprofit group CDP for fighting deforestation, “especially for its sustainable sourcing actions of raw materials [such as palm oil and timber], used in its product packaging and formulas.”

The Future of Sustainability

The growing refugee crisis, economic migrants in Europe and the United States, the rise of far-right political parties and Brexit—all of these issues will impact on the way brands do business in the future. As a result, Organic Monitor has forecasted that social issues will feature more prominently in sustainability in the future, as social inequality, developing world poverty and political unrest continue to have a profound effect on consumers’ lives.

“Key environmental and social issues the planet faces today are not the same as those it faced 20 or 10 years ago,” said Sahota. “The same will be true in five to 10 years’ time.”


  1. Candean, Organic Monitor and Marie Alice Dibon will deliver marketing trends presentations at the 2017 in-cosmetics Global event in London, taking place April 4–6. Further information can be found at www.in-cosmetics.com.
  2. Read more at skininc.com/skinscience/ingredients/Ingredient-Hysteria-and-Misconceptions-238484541.html

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Sustainability: Not If But How

Some actions aren’t voluntary but mandatory. Breathing, eating, sleeping. . .sustaining. And companies have accepted this fact, if for no other reason than maintaining profitability. Some have even fully embraced it, not only in theory but in practice.

However, according to a report by the SustainAbility think tank, a company’s future success lies not in whether they have adopted sustainable practices, but in how they are implementing them.

“A key measure of corporate leadership will be to demonstrate how to move from ambitious goals to ambitious implementation,” said Earth Security Group’s Alejandro Litovsky, in an interview.

Partnering with in-cosmetics Global, during the April 4-6, 2017 event, Cosmetics & Toiletries and Global Cosmetic Industry are proud to support the event’s new Sustainability Corner, to help product developers figure out the how. Beginning each day, our editors will kick off the discussion by presenting thought leaders and pioneers in this crucial market segment. For example, Prof. James Clark, Ph.D., of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, University of York, will present on green chemistry, the circular economy and more. (Hear more from him in our podcast).

We hope to see you in London!

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