Aaah. You sink back into the pillows, close your eyes, and let that new face mask do what it’s supposed to: simultaneously soothe your skin and your soul. Or does it? Is your mind actually troubled by worries – about its supply chain, ingredients and sustainability? Because unless you do your homework, there’s no easy way of knowing how hard a product is working to care for those things you hold most dear, namely the planet and humankind (and, yes, your skin).
We get it: reading the small print and scouring the brand’s website before you slather on that treatment can be about as joy-killing as counting the units in a large glass of wine or the calories in that sharing bar of chocolate but, when it comes to beauty, ignorance isn’t as blissful as it’s cracked up to be. That product might not sit as prettily on your conscience as it does on your face when you start to ask questions: were any animals harmed in the making of this product? Are the ingredients ethically sourced? And what does ‘natural’ mean anyway?
‘Social media has given us the means to communicate directly with and apply pressure to brands’
So we, the beauty users, have to raise these queries. With an annual UK spend of £27.2 billion* in our collective back pocket, consumers have the economic clout to demand the one thing we really need: change. Why now? Because social media has given us the means to communicate directly with and apply pressure to brands. Bit by bit, we’re waking up to the terrifying threat of the climate emergency and the role that over-consumption and opaque supply chains play; and, this year, the global pandemic has recalibrated our moral compasses and our idea of what it means to shop well. We have the perfect conditions for that change. The traditional offer was ‘hope in a jar’, but that doesn’t cut it anymore. Now we want facts, too.
The truth is, we have long demanded transparency from the food and fashion industries, but beauty has always been a little trickier to pin down. As with all cultures, this starts at the top of the chain: back in July, the men in suits at Westminster chortled over the delayed reopening of salons and spas –clearly superfluous and silly to their minds. The multi-billion pound beauty industry is still regarded as trivial and unserious: no wonder it’s left to its own devices to both self-serve and, frustratingly, self regulate. Deemed to be one of life’s ‘little luxuries’, beauty products just aren’t held to the same kind of standards as the food on our supermarket shelves. An ‘organic’ bag of rocket leaves is subjected to a lot of green checks and regulations. An ‘organic’ lavender bath oil? Almost none.
here is no true regulation,’ says Jayn Sterland, managing director at Weleda UK, of our fragmented beauty industry standards. ‘We have “REACH”: an EU regulation that brands must comply to. It lists banned chemicals, but it can take five years of evidence for nasties to get on the list. We’re basically guinea pigs.’ And if you want to shop clean and sustainable, it’s even more complicated. ‘There’s no official definition of “natural” or “organic”,’ Sterland explains, which makes the beauty industry a hotbed of ‘greenwashing’, whereby marketers are able to label bad ingredients with good words.
Mark Smith, Director General of NaTrue (the International Natural and Organic Cosmetics Association) adds: ‘General advertising standards mean the most flagrant non-compliances may be prosecuted, but there’s a lot of grey – or, one might say, shades of green. This means that greenwashing can take many forms, from the most subtle and sophisticated to deliberately misleading. There’s a real disconnect between the demands of consumers for greater transparency and the deliverables by law for producers.’
Even if you’re not a warrior for green beauty, most of us would like to believe that brand promises aren’t empty words. But, as Anna Teal of the Walgreen Boots Alliance explains, ‘The product claims space is really complicated. There’s compliance that all brands have to go through to sell in the UK, but there’s a huge spectrum of clinical testing. Some brands only test one ingredient before staking a claim, while others will spend thousands testing the final product. That’s why finding brands that you trust and really doing your research matters in beauty.’
‘We need to change our mindset from consumer to citizen’
But beauty shopping was never meant to feel like homework, so thank goodness for the independent certification bodies doing the hard work for us and, better still, sticking labels on boxes so we can clearly navigate the aisles. Green consumers have long depended on the NaTrue and COSMOS symbol, cruelty-free shoppers on the Leaping Bunny sign, while shoppers at Cult Beauty can now take advantage of its provenance labelling, which flags 10 proof points including how organic, sustainable, vegan, coral-reef friendly and carbon neutral a product is. And there’s news that The British Beauty Council is working on a sustainability report for consumers and brands.
But until these standardised seals of approval are regulated and universally applied, we need to change our mindset from consumer to citizen, and take back a bit of the responsibility for our choices. ‘It’s difficult to be a perfect shopper, but my advice is to be clear on what you want the most, be it a green, vegan or carbon-neutral product, and look for labels that really matter to you,’ says Teal. And remember, we can use the power of our pound to drive change. As Sterland says, ‘You can vote with your money. If you stop buying a product, it will stop being made.’
From going cruelty-free to supporting brands that champion diversity, here’s how to shop like a beauty citizen of change…
The Responsible Shopping Guide
A product must contain no ingredients that have come into contact with animals for a brand to say it is cruelty-free. A quick way to check is to look for the Leaping Bunny symbol. It’s enforced by the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics, formed to regulate a cruelty-free standard. Animal rights organisation PETA also has its own logo (sticking to the bunny theme) and Australian-based Choose Cruelty-Free goes a step further by not certifying a brand unless its parent company is also cruelty-free. Previously, brands sold in China were required by law to test on animals, meaning those with an interest in the enormous Chinese market had to do so. But, in April 2019, the country’s government announced that it would approve non-animal testing methods, helping the industry move in a more cruelty-free direction.
2. Vegan and Vegetarian
Don’t assume that cruelty-free means vegan or vegetarian: it doesn’t. Frustratingly, it’s not as simple as looking for animal extracts in the ingredients. While usual suspects include collagen, gelatin, lanolin, silk, pearl, milk protein and glycerin, there are lesser-known names for animal products, such as ceraalba (the Latin name for beeswax) and guanine (which may be derived from fish scales). PETA has its own cruelty-free and vegan label that is awarded to conforming brands, or look out for approval from The Vegan Society.
3. Carbon Footprint
At present, there’s no simple way to find out how your preferred brand contributes to global carbon emissions. The Carbon Trust measures carbon footprint based on the total supply chain, including carbon emissions involved in resources, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, retail, use and end of life. Big brands such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé are working with the Trust to develop a carbon label system, which could apply to beauty products in the future, while Climate Neutral is an independent not-for-profit organisation working to create a label that measures every part of the company’s carbon offset and the long-term plan to reduce it. At the moment, however, it’s US-only and has only certified six beauty brands. Individual brands have been making pledges to become ‘carbon neutral’ by making an array of changes, from production and packaging to transportation. But until there’s an independent body verifying their claims, you’ll have to take their word on it.
4. Coral-Reef Friendly
In 2018 the Governor of Hawaii signed a legislative bill that banned the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, due to the chemicals being toxic to coral reefs. These ingredients were thought to be in around 80% of sun creams at the time. Many brands responded with ‘reef-safe’ labels, but this terminology has no legal definition. Check out Haereticus Environmental Laboratory instead, a not-for-profit foundation that has developed a Protect Land+ Sea certification that tests the formulas in products, including ingredients that may not be listed. As a general rule of thumb, look for the simplest formulas; even ‘natural’ SPFs can contain ingredients such as eucalyptus or lavender, which have been proven to harm sea life. On the beach, use creams rather than sprays – which leave chemicals on the sand that later wash into the sea. And look for mineral-based sun creams, made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
5. True Diversity
The need for greater inclusivity and diversity within the beauty industry has been known fora long time. There have been signs of positive change. ‘The Fenty effect’ – and the joyful reaction to the 40 foundation shades available in Rihanna’s make-up range when it launched – highlighted the lack of a varied offering in other brands and prompted many to make adjustments to their ranges. However, big changes need to be more than just, well, cosmetic; they need to be made in every part of the industry, from hiring, to development,
to distribution, as well as educating staff on why it’s so needed. Brand inclusivity starts on the inside, which is why the ‘Pull Up’ initiative was created, as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests in June this year, to encourage brands to release diversity employment figures.
6. Forest Friendly
Greenpeace’s Forest Campaign was one of the first to highlight the issue of deforestation – when trees are removed to make room for something else, such as palm oil, which is found in hundreds of beauty products – and degradation. To combat the problem, brands such as Weleda have switched to suppliers with the Union for Ethical Biotrade’s ‘Sourcing With Respect’ certifications. Palm oil plantations can be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which protects areas of biodiversity or fragile ecosystems. To check whether a product’s packaging is forest-friendly, check for the Forest Stewardship Council’s FSC labels: FSC 100%, which means wood in the product is from FSC-certified forests; FSC Recycled, where packaging comes from reclaimed or reused materials; and FSC Mix, which means wood within the product is recycled or used from controlled wood (meaning no illegally harvested wood can be used).
7. Is It Really Organic?
To be organic in the beauty world involves the same lingo you see when doing a food shop: no ingredients within your product involve the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms or herbicides. The most common certifications are regulated by NaTrue and The Soil Association. In order to get this certification, the brand must be checked for organic practices throughout the entire manufacturing process.
8. Real Efficacy
How do you know a product will do what it says? Most of the time, you just have to trust what brands say. Independent advertising regulators the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Advertising Standards Authority make sure that brands stick to advertising codes when promoting a product. They work to check that consumers are not misled, offended or harmed by ads, as well as making sure it’s a level playing field between competitors. This includes issues such as editing ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of someone who’s used a product. CAP found that one of the main problems with efficacy claims on beauty products is that they need to be supported by tests on people. However, a lot of brands use lab tests to support claims, which have frequently been dismissed as inadequate.
9. Supply Chain
Unfortunately there isn’t just one sticker that certifies the transparency of the process, but a number of certifications will tell you a lot, from how a brand makes a product (is it ethically sourced, vegan, cruelty-free?), and how it’s transported (carbon footprint) to its afterlife (recyclable packaging). Calvin Klein’s CK Everyone fragrance is a prime example of a successfully transparent supply chain. The vegan formula is made from 79% naturally derived ingredients (even including the alcohol), the bottle is recyclable, while the outside packaging is made from 30% post-consumer recycled materials. The fragrance was certified by the Cradle To Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which assesses the environmental and social performance across multiple sustainability categories from material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, social fairness and water stewardship. Currently there are only 19 individual beauty products globally that have passed this rigorous testing.
10. Recyclable Packaging
More brands are making the commitment to 100% recyclable packaging. On REN Clean Skincare’s journey to go waste-free, it has developed infinity recycling technology, involving a unique heat and pressure process that makes recycled plastic identical to virgin plastic. Loop, TerraCycle’s new circular delivery service, works to eliminate waste – when you reorder a product, empties are collected, washed and refilled, negating the need for new packaging. REN Clean Skincare, Dove and Pantene have all signed up to take part in the scheme.
11. Whole Range, Or Just One Product?
If a product has a certification (with the exception of some, such as Cradle To Cradle mentioned above) it was awarded for a single product, not the whole range. You can’t assume that because one product has an organic certification the whole range does, which is why it’s so important to look at the labels on your products and be able to understand what they mean.
12. Genuine Sustainability
There isn’t just one box to tick when it comes to sustainability. It means being environmentally responsible in all aspects – not using chemicals that are toxic pollutants (such plastics, parabens, BHAs and fragrances) and making sure that all packaging is recyclable. Essentially, having zero impact. A big sustainability hot topic is water wastage. According to The World Water Development Report, more than five billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change. One of the top ingredients in most beauty products – if not the first – is ‘aqua’. And it takes 22 gallons of water to make 1lb of plastic. To highlight any plastics unnecessarily lurking in products, use the Beat the Microbead app.
13. Ethically Sourced Ingredients
Ethically sourced ingredients are those that have been obtained in a socially responsible way. This includes making sure workers are fairly treated and safe. The Union For Ethical Biotrade issues certifications for brands that respect the planet’s biodiversity, and those making specific ethical commitments.
*The Value of Beauty, The British Beauty Council, 2019.