Embracing Sustainability: Important Practices and Impact in Cosmetics


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Cosmetics have an impact on sustainability throughout a product’s lifecycle—the entire supply chain, from raw material inputs, through manufacturing, packaging, distribution and wholesale, to retail. Further, consumer use and disposal will leave a footprint on the planet not only environmentally, but also socially and economically.

With increasing debate over and demand for sustainability, there is a strong market trend to formulate more sustainable products. Several factors have encouraged sustainability in the cosmetics industry: climate change; greater diffusion and awareness for social issues caused by the industry; the consumer demand for more natural, green or organic products since they are typically associated with promoting health;1 greater availability of sustainable ingredients from raw material suppliers; and legislation that requires the adoption of certain sustainable measures. In fact, according to a study performed by Unilever, one-third of the consumers are now buying from brands based on their social and environmental impact. The pressure to move in the direction of more sustainable patterns of production is greater than ever. In previous years, there was a transition from synthetic to natural and organic formulations, but now producers also consider the responsibility and ethical sourcing of ingredients as well as fair trade, resources used during manufacturing, emissions and waste formation, and packaging potential for recycling and/or reuse and biodegradability of products. The aim of companies is to accomplish reducing the environmental, economic and social impacts of cosmetic products. Bertil Heerink, director-general of Cosmetics Europe: The Personal Care Association, wrote, “Thinking and acting sustainably is an unquestioned priority for our future. However, this is not only an ethical commitment, it is also a business interest which must be embedded in the strategic planning of all companies.”2 Responding to market pressure or to consumer trends, sustainable practices in the cosmetics industry and the adoption of philosophies underlying environmental, ethical and social safeguard are a requirement that must be incorporated into the business modus operandi to achieve long-term success and viability.

Defining Sustainability

However, the concept of sustainability is ambiguous due to its complexity. One major scientific debate focuses on the adoption of a “strong” or a “weak” concept of sustainability. Here, a strong sustainability approach is one that defends that the substitutability of natural capital by other types of man-made capital is severely limited; i.e., these two types of capital are complementary instead of interchangeable. In order to achieve a balance between these two incompatible approaches, the concept of critical natural capital has emerged as a trade-off.3, 4

On the other hand, a lesser or weak sustainability approach promotes social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability. These factors have an equal importance and postulate that natural capital is perfectly substitutable. However, this concept raises several questions because the challenge is to define which part of the natural capital performs important and irreplaceable environmental functions, and thus needs to be preserved for current and future generations.

This being said, it will only be possible for sustainability strategies adopted by the different mechanics involved in the lifecycle of a cosmetic product to preclude all requirements.5 Cosmetic companies are continually showing efforts to improve the sustainability of their practices and products.

The Push for Ethical Sustainability

With the development and search for sustainable products, it is necessary to establish criteria regarding the sourcing and selection of raw materials. The supply chain, however, is one of the lifecycle phases where there tends to be misinformation.

We previously emphasized that while it is typical to associate synthetic properties as “bad” and nature-based properties as “good,” this is not always the case.5 As an example, palm oil and mica, which are raw materials from natural sources, raise several sustainability issues. Palm oil does due to its unethical supply at the cost of deforestation in tropical regions, which in turn affects the native people, biodiversity and contributes to climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Consumer pressure is currently forcing companies to look for deforestation-free palm oil sources. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has helped in curating Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) if it is in accordance with specific criteria such as fair working conditions; protection of local lands and rights; the prevention of clearing primary forests; the protection of wildlife on plantations; the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the minimization of industrial pollution.5 Similar sustainable roundtables exist for soy and cocoa.6

The use of mica as a pigment also raises several issues related to the social domain of sustainability. For one, child labor remains predominant in mineral mining in India. Mining itself also impacts the environment.5 In relation, L'Oréal has initiated a project aimed at sourcing sustainable mica, pledging to remain in India and to ensure the traceability and transparency of its supply chain. With this strategy, currently 98% of L'Oréal’s mica comes from secured sources.7 If companies aim to be sustainable, they must take a holistic view and feature the multiple dimensions of sustainability likewise to L’Oréal.

The cosmetic industry is being forced to consider alternative feedstock for ingredients, not only due to green consumerism demand, but also because of declining petrochemical feedstock supplies. In the name of sustainability, new cosmetic ingredients are emerging from agricultural-based green chemistry and oleochemistry.5 Raw material suppliers such as BASF, Natura-Tec, SEPPIC, Evonik, Clariant, DSM Nutritional Products, Earthoil Plantations and KLK Kolb are consistently launching alternatives to synthetic raw materials. However, many of these alternatives can be more expensive, which by some accounts, as discussed, conflicts with one definition of sustainability.

Richard Blackburn, Ph.D., co-founder and director of Keracol, Ltd., believes that with proper technological advances, it should be possible to substitute all components of an unsustainable cosmetic product with bio-based raw materials. The real question is: is it possible to substitute ingredients in an economical and affordable way? To solve this question, Blackburn has suggested the industry should consider the vast amounts of waste material from the foods industry, e.g., coffee grounds, avocado stones, grape and mandarin skins, wheat bran, sugar beet bagasse and corn stover, and think about how these could be valorized and used in cosmetic formulations.8 This is a possibility but researchers, raw materials suppliers and formulators will need to work together to develop and expand this new area.

Sustainable Strategies

Companies are gradually embracing sustainability through strategies such as changing energy sources to solar or wind power; rainwater harvesting; reducing temperatures during manufacturing; using less water for cleaning procedures; insulating measurements for heating and conditioning to reduce energy consumption; optimizing the production planning, i.e., sequence of batches produced using the same equipment; and replacing old equipment by new energy-efficient electrical devices to recycle energy. The adoption of these strategies can help companies reduce water and energy consumption, as well as emissions and waste in order to reduce environmental, carbon and water footprints.5

L'Oréal, Shiseido, Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Unilever, Aveda and AmorePacific are companies trying to embrace sustainable manufacturing strategies to reduce the environmental impact of their practices. Indeed, climate change has been a recent leading subject globally, as the consequences of human acts are becoming visibly detrimental. In relation, L'Oréal recently committed to zero-net emissions by 2050, to contribute to keeping the global temperature increase to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. L'Oréal will take gradual steps toward the 2050 target, reducing 25% of its absolute scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2030, and scope 1 and 2 emissions at all industrial, administrative and research sites by 2025 (see Table 1).

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  1. Unknown. (2017, May). Report shows a third of consumers prefer sustainable brands. Unilever. Retrieved from https://www.unilever.com/news/press-releases/2017/report-shows-a-third-of-consumers-prefer-sustainable-brands.html.
  2. Heerink, B. (2014). Foreword. In Sustainability: How the Cosmetics Industry Is Greening Up.
  3. Lim, C.I. and Biswas, W. (2015). An evaluation of holistic sustainability assessment framework for palm oil production in Malaysia. Sustain. 7(12) 16561-16587 doi:10.3390/su71215833.
  4. Brand, F. (2009). Critical natural capital revisited: Ecological resilience and sustainable development. Ecol Econ 68(3) 605-612 doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.09.013.
  5. Bom, S., Jorge, J., Ribeiro, H.M. and Marto, J. (2019). A step forward on sustainability in the cosmetics industry: A review. J Clean Prod 225 doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.03.255.
  6. Berg, J. Van Den, Ingram, V.J., Judge, L.O. and Arets, E.J.M.M. (2014, 6 Jan). Integrating ecosystem services into tropical commodity value chainscocoa, soy and palm oil. Dutch policy options from an innovation system approach. WOt-technical reports 9-101.
  7. L’Oréal. Sustainable Mica Sourcing. Retrieved from https://www.loreal.com/suppliers/our-sustainable-procurement-policy/sustainable-sourcing-mica.
  8. Culliney, K. (2019). Waste stream ingredients for cosmetics has massive opportunity but hurdles remain. Cosmet Des Eur.
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