What Green Means For Cosmetics

The word green is a familiar term to everybody and used to describe many different things daily. From the iconic symbol of money, to the green on a golf course, as well as the world-wide signal symbolizing the right to proceed, the word green is used for various different and unrelated purposes.

The word green has also become a powerful concept in cosmetics, but with a much less certain definition. The truth is, green in green cosmetics or any green product is not truly known because there is no exact definition. “I think that consumers are confused about what green means because the word green has been used to mean so many things,” noted Aveda’s VP of Earth and Community Dave Rapaport. The most intuitive definition of a green cosmetic is its association with environmental friendliness and organic/natural components. However, there is no set boundary in what green truly constitutes. Are there set concentration limits? Or do green products indicate there is specific environmentally friendly packaging? How many of these environmentally-friendly features are necessary for a product to be green?

Regulatory bodies around the world have very different laws regarding cosmetic products. However, the classification for a product to be natural or environmentally-friendly has always been a grey area, as the meanings of the claims are broad. Canada’s Competition Bureau actually discourages using the words green, environmentally friendly, all natural, environmentally safe and eco from product claims, as they “do not convey a precise or specific meaning to consumers and are difficult to effectively substantiate." In Canada, the falsification of claims may result in hefty fines in addition to prison time, enforced by the Competition Bureau. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published “Guides for the use of Environmental Marketing Claims,” an extensive guideline with regards to environmental claims for products in Volume 77, No. 197 of the Federal Register. The FTC goes into great detail about various types of claims such as those concerning renewable energy, recycled content or toxicity.

Unlike North America, the European market contains a more rigorous, albeit private, standard for what constitutes a “green” cosmetic. The COSMOS standard, or cosmetic organic standard, is a non-profit, well established certifying body consisting of various members that classifies cosmetics as organic and natural based on set criteria. Products compliant with the COSMOS standard are given a seal of approval on their label, which indicates the product as a green cosmetic under the COSMOS standard. In order for a product to be classified as a green cosmetic by the COSMOS standard, the product specifications must be compliant with its ideals. These include: origin and processing of ingredients, composition of total product, storage, manufacturing and packaging, environmental management, labelling and communication, and inspection, certification and control. With this well-established standard, the European market has a means to ensure truthful claims. As more and more certifying bodies are applying to become a part of the COSMOS organization, these standards may help to establish a unified definition and criterion for labeling cosmetic products as green.1

So what is the advantage for a product to go green? Environmental concerns have recently become rampant political and sociological issues. The global population is becoming more aware of society’s negative impact on the environment as many political and environmental activist groups attempt to promote environmental friendliness. The motivation to become environmentally friendly has sparked a great interest in green products, including green cosmetics, all around the world. This new global interest has become a business opportunity for many corporations, since marketing a product as green opens a pathway to a whole new user base. However, this competition to become appealing to a broad spectrum of environmentally conscious consumers does come with its vices. Many green claims on products are vague and difficult to prove. In fact, many green claims have been found to be false, which are chargeable offenses in many countries and may carry civil as well as criminal penalties. The act of falsely advertising green claims have become so infamous that the act has been coined the term “greenwashing." In 2007, the company TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc., since acquired by UL, performed a study to verify environmental claims on 1,018 consumer products. Of the ,1018 consumer products, a total of 1,753 claims were examined. The conclusion found that only one of all 1,018 products examined contained true and verifiable green claims. These realities are concerning for the public, as many consumers purchase products with the intent of promoting a cleaner environment, but may actually not be doing so due to false advertisement.2

Environmental concerns are beginning to be more and more serious as the years progress. The main cause of environmental pollution is the constant expansion in industrialization. The Huffington Post found China to be the number one largest contributor to global pollution, producing about 8,240,958 metric tons of emissions into the air in 2010. The United States was ranked in second place, contributing about 5 million metric tons. The severe environmental conditions in China have forced many of its urban residents to resort to wearing filtered air masks in an attempt to protect their respiratory systems from inhaling particulates. Of course, China and its citizens are aware of this issue, which has marked an extraordinary rise in the popularity of green products, including cosmetics.

A large upward trend in “green cosmetics” interest in China has already attracted many large international brands to the market. Product safety has been the number one factor in the appeal of green cosmetics in the Chinese market, according to a presentation by the Fung Business Intelligence Centre. In China, the main regulatory body for cosmetic products is the Chinese Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). The current requirements for the sale of cosmetics in China are quite daunting, and require many steps to complete. For example, the ingredients must comply with China’s “Hygenic Standard for Cosmetics,” which includes a list of prohibited and restricted ingredients, including approved testing requirements to determine the ingredients. However, recent market data from 2012 obtained by Dupont Industrial Biosciences found that a growing number of Chinese consumers are familiar with the personal and ecological benefits of using green products. In fact, the research shows that a greater percentage of Chinese consumers compared to US and Canadian consumers believe in the environmental benefits of green products. This research is a strong indication of the potential growth in the user base for green products, including cosmetics.14 Although regulations for green products remain the same as conventional cosmetics in China, it is interesting to note that the Chinese government already provides incentives to the public for fuel-efficient vehicles in an attempt to slow down the rate of environmental pollution.

In the past, many environmental products have been known to be associated with higher costs as well as subpar performance. However, this is not always the case. “That green makeup equals crappy makeup is a myth,” noted Toronto-based makeup artist Donna Bishop to the Globe and Mail. In other words, green cosmetic products can be effective while at the same time being environmentally friendly. New technological advances in extraction technologies are being developed by various major product developers. Akzo-Nobel currently holds the rights to the ingredient extraction method known as Zeta Fraction Technology, which extracts organic ingredients from plant based organisms in an efficient and sustainable way. The technology preserves all components of the raw materials, and prevents ingredient degradation, improving the safety and quality of the product. The Zeta Fraction Technology does not involve the use of solvents, and extracts a larger range of ingredients from plants than possible using conventional methods. This technology received the 2013 China Personal Care & Cosmetics Innovation Award.

In conclusion, the notion of green cosmetics is becoming popular all around the world. As the issues of global warming and environmental sustainability become more and more prominent, the need for society to adopt environmentally friendly alternatives increases. Since there are no global standards to define green, care must be taken in making claims pertaining to these products. But with increasing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products, a solution for this issue is badly needed.


1.K Heinze, The Cosmos standard: implementing the rules, Oneco (Feb 6, 2013) http://oneco.biofach.de/en/news/the-cosmos-standard-implementing-the-rules---focus--57fc1ed3-85e9-4b10-96ec-aa9cca92db66/ (accessed May 15, 2014)
2. How False 'Green' Marketing Claims Can Lead to Liability for Officers and Directors, Environmental Compliance Insider, http://environmentalcomplianceinsider.com/topstories/how-false-%E2%80%98green%E2%80%99-marketing-claims-can-lead-to-liability-for-officers-directors (accessed May 15, 2014)

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