Second Nature: Sustainability as the Outgrowth of Naturals, A Commentary


Read this article in its entirety in the July/August 2020 digital edition. . .

Many consumers desire personal care products that are “natural.” This is a global desire; in most regions, natural claims are important product purchase drivers when combined with product efficacy claims and brand identity.1 This is due in part to the consumer belief that such products are safer for their skin and hair.2

In response, the cosmetics industry offers a variety of products that contain natural, nature-identical, clean, renewable, naturally derived, organic and/or green ingredients; but most of these terms are not well-defined or harmonized in the scientific literature or in government regulations. Yet, consumer preference for these products has not faltered.

In contrast, sustainability is a relatively new driver in the personal care market. While natural and renewable materials are typically components of sustainable products, sustainability tenets comprise many additional factors. One of these is the use of sustainable production processes based on the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry proposed by Anastas and Warner.3 These principles outline processes that minimize energy use, produce low-toxicity products, utilize renewable starting materials and result in products and waste streams that do not persist in the environment.

For cosmetic products, indicators have also been proposed to assess the greenness of a chemistry. For example, Philippe et al. suggested the use of an environmental risk assessment as a green indicator.4 Another indicator is the level of renewable carbon in the final ingredient or product.

Green chemistry is an important aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.5, 6 Here, Goal 12 aims to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” which includes the green chemistry principles of improved chemical management and reduced waste throughout the product lifecycle, along with the reduced release to the environment. The UN agenda also asks businesses to adopt sustainable practices and report sustainability information to their stakeholders.

Consumer product firms could do more than adopt green chemistry, however. Goal 13 encourages “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Carbon emissions and climate change, in particular, are less frequently considered during the development of cosmetic products. This is partly because the climatic impact of cosmetic ingredients is not known or is known only qualitatively.

In one of the few published studies of the quantitative effect of personal care products on carbon emissions, Francke and Castro used a lifecycle assessment (LCA) to calculate the carbon and water footprint for a soap bar produced and used in Brazil.7 The authors found that one and a half times the weight of the soap bar was emitted as carbon dioxide, even though the bar was based on renewable palm oil, which has a negligible carbon footprint. The soap also generated 3.7 liters of polluted “gray” water per bar.

This water footprint is more often considered than greenhouse gas emissions because it can be calculated more readily and because personal care products have a large water footprint—if factoring in the waste water generated during consumer use.8 Other sustainable development goals, such as improving health and empowering disadvantaged populations, also are important to consider.9

Consumer product firms generally do not communicate quantitative and comparative data on product sustainability, here interpreted as performance against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In the next section, we will discuss various natural certifications for cosmetic products issued by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, none of these rate products on sustainability. This makes it nearly impossible for consumers to select products based on how sustainable they are. As a result, sustainability is greatly diminished as a market driver.

Certifiable Standards

To provide transparency for natural cosmetic product claims and harmonize existing natural and organic standards, several industry organizations established standards in the early 2000s. The first was the COSMOS standard,10 followed by the Natural Products Association (NPA) seal11 and the NATRUE standard12 (see Table 1); these are but a few. Most recently, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) issued the ISO 16128 standard,13 which attempts to unify the various natural standards. Cosmetic products—and, in the case of the NPA seal, cosmetic ingredients—can use the certification seal on the packaging and in promotional materials.

The governing organizations provide detailed rules underlying their standards. While the rules are complex, their outline is broadly similar. All eschew petrochemical ingredients and synthetic chemistry other than specific chemical processes such as esterification. Common synthetic ingredients such as ethoxylates also are not permissible.

The COSMOS standard is widely used in Europe, where many products carry the seal. Outside of Europe, only a few brands use the standard, as is the case for the NATRUE standard. In North America, the NPA seal is more recognized, although there are few certified products and even fewer certified cosmetic ingredients. The certification process is involved, and it is not clear if consumers in the United States or elsewhere recognize this certification seal, which reduces the motivation for personal care firms to pursue certification.

Natural cosmetics standards walk a fine line between science and the public’s perception of chemical hazards. They use the precautionary principle and assume that ingredients are not proven safe if evidence for their toxicity is inconclusive. For example, COSMOS and NATRUE prohibit ingredients with genetically modified content, as well as synthetic preservatives that are perceived to be harmful, such as parabens. Although published toxicity studies may be incomplete, some of the prohibited ingredients have been on the market for years without major health effects.

Natural standards for cosmetics could be valuable indicators of how natural a product is—if they were more widely used outside of Europe and if consumers were aware of them. One concern with these standards, however, is they offer information only on the nature of the ingredients and not on the other aspects of sustainability; such as social impact and climate change. A product rating focused on all components of sustainability, using e.g. the calculation methods of Francke and Castro,7 would allow consumers to make an informed decision on what products to buy. It could also motivate brands to offer more sustainable products and ingredients.

A number of certifications address carbon neutrality, i.e., zero overall carbon emissions, although these are not used extensively in the personal care industry. One example is the Carbon Neutral Certification14 issued by the consulting firm Natural Capital Partners, which has been obtained by Burt’s Bees. Here, carbon neutrality is achieved by a combination of emission reductions and carbon offsets, such as reforestation projects. It is arguable whether such projects make a company more sustainable but they are, at the moment, one way a company can achieve carbon neutrality.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its BioPreferred Program, whose USDA Certified Biobased Product label is designed to provide information to consumers about the bio-based content of a product. According to Lam-Phaure and Baki,15 this approach allows for an actual percentage to be listed on a label to indicate a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients in that particular product.

Perhaps the most comprehensive approach to certify sustainability is the EcoVadis program, which helps companies monitor the sustainability performance of their suppliers by giving suppliers a rating. The EcoVadis Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rating methodology assesses the quality of a company’s CSR management system through its policies, implementation measures and results. The assessment focuses on the environment, labor practices and human rights, fair business practices and sustainable procurement.16

. . .Read more in the July/August 2020 digital edition. . .


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  13. ISO (2016). ISO 16128-1:2016.; and ISO 16128-2:2017.
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  15. Lam-Phaure, L. and Baki. G. (2020 May). Certified ‘true”: Food virtues in beauty, part I. Cosm & Toil.
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