Environmental Sustainability in the Beauty Industry

By Penelope Martinez

Since time immemorial, humans have always discovered ways to enhance their physical appearance. However, as various research and development in cosmetics took place, people have progressively shifted away from nature-based beauty products toward processed, packaged formulations.

These beauty products may be effective and convenient to use, but we should also consider the implications of such innovations. As with most consumables, cosmetics also leave behind an environmental impact that we must examine.

Fortunately, more and more consumers want to be informed and conscious of everything they use, leading to a gradual increase in sustainability in the beauty industry. Such individuals are eager to understand the importance of our natural resources and how they can adopt a sustainable beauty routine to mitigate the negative impacts of consumerism on the environment.

Everyone must realize the value of being educated about what’s best for oneself, business, and the ecosystem.

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The Environmental Impact of the Beauty Industry

The beauty business has been growing at an unprecedented rate, thanks to the advent of highly customer-centric brands.

But here’s a caveat: innovative product options entail an unseen environmental cost. Moreover, an influx of new participants drives these alternatives due to the ease of entering the business market, which is highly driven by technology, social media, digital marketing, and other relevant factors.

There’s a long list of challenges for brands looking to minimize the environmental effects of their products. These include wasteful packaging, water wastage, carbon production, microplastic pollution, and animal cruelty. Let’s explore each of these issues.

  1. Packaging waste

Packaging leans more toward commercialism and less about practicality in the beauty industry. Yet, for most beauty companies, packaging seems to be a top priority. The higher the face value of a beauty product is, the more elaborate and superfluous packaging it is likely to have – especially in a time where the unboxing experience is a significant aspect of online shopping.

Cosmetic packaging is not always easy to recycle. Much of the boxes, bags, and containers these products come in are made of a mixture of materials. It is frequently a waste of time for recycling personnel to separate the components, even if they are separable. It is also inconvenient even if consumers can separate the packaging components themselves.

  1. Water wastage

Water may not be the first component that springs to mind when thinking about beauty care treatments, but it is used in a wide range of cosmetics. From bathing and cleansing products to lotions and creams, water dissolves the ingredients that penetrate the skin.

Plus, with the growing global population, the rapid progress of the economy, and the massive consumption that goes with it, the water demand is alarmingly increasing.

While agriculture consumes most water, the personal care and cosmetics business is a rising contributor to the issue. As more people become aware of the matter, pressure is mounting on cosmetic brands to develop long-term solutions.

  1. Carbon production

Cleaning products, printing inks, insecticides, and wood finishes all include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are air pollutants. VOCs can also be found in cosmetics such as fragrances, deodorants, and hair sprays.

A study shows these products significantly contribute to carbon dioxide emissions. In particular, household and beauty product emissions account for half of the VOCs generated in as many as 33 major cities.

Fossil fuel-derived ingredients used in cosmetic products and packaging also contribute to the carbon footprint. Carbon pollution is a significant problem even when natural components are extracted, as they can be processed in non-sustainable methods.

  1. Microplastic pollution

It is not only cosmetic packaging where plastic pollution comes from. Microbeads, a type of plastic, are found in the merchandise themselves.

These microbeads are small-sized plastic particles that are commonly used as exfoliants in body scrubs and other beauty products. A consumer can flush thousands of microplastics down the drain and into water bodies simply by using cosmetics that contain microbeads.

Microbeads that absorb toxins are eventually ingested by fish and humans, exacerbating a problem that already exists in the world’s oceans: catastrophic plastic pollution.

  1. Animal cruelty

Animal testing for cosmetics is inhumane and uncalled for and is a part of why vegan beauty products have become more popular over the years. Some tests animals are subjected to include skin and eye irritation experiments, in which animals’ eyes and shaved skin are subjected to the chemicals.

Another harsh experiment is the lethal dose test. Here, researchers administer a deadly dose of chemicals to animals to identify fatal, dangerous substances. Animals that do not die from the stresses of laboratory experiments may be subjected to asphyxiation, neck-breaking, or decapitation.

Sustainability in the Beauty Industry: vegan professional makeup brushes
Photo by William Shu on Unsplash

Sustainable Practices in the Beauty Industry

Amid the environmental issues, consumers have developed an immense interest in how the manufacturing processes of beauty products affect the ecosystem. As such, companies in the beauty industry are encouraged to adopt eco-friendly practices.

Improved Formulas

In the cosmetics industry, “green” and “sustainable” are products made with natural ingredients derived from renewable resources. This production method is opposed to polluting the environment with components like microbeads and petrochemicals.

When consumers see the phrase “green cosmetics,” they instinctively assume that the brand is environmentally friendly. Such brands are respected for their product quality, effectiveness, and corporate responsibility.

Green cosmetic formulas include bio-based oleochemicals, which constitute the backbone of the green cosmetics movement as they are derived from renewable plant and bacterium sources such as natural oils and agricultural plants. Waterless skincare is another formula gaining traction for its water conservation purposes and cost-efficient production.

Sustainable Packaging

Pollution brought about by plastic containers and packaging is widespread in the cosmetic sector. Plastic waste can be found in various forms, including color and shadow palettes, lotion bottles and receptacles, serums, shampoos, and conditioners, or tubes for beauty products like mascara, liquid eyeliners, and lip gloss.

There are two main techniques that beauty companies are considering in response to this: biodegradable solutions and plastic-free packaging. Other workable solutions would be the provision of return-and-refill alternatives or strict usage of recyclable plastics for packaging.

Recycling Programs

The benefits of socially conscious initiatives for recyclable packaging can be challenging to recognize because some end users choose to recycle on their own. More companies, however, are well underway in promoting recycling programs covering all types of industrial waste to reinforce circularity. This entails that customers who return product packaging for recycling receive discounts and perks from brands.

Ethical, Local Sourcing

A long history of unethical product sourcing can be traced to a vast majority of global cosmetics businesses. However, some cosmetic companies have spearheaded a move toward sustainable development as customer needs have shifted and ethical consumerism has grown. Sustainable strategies make it possible for ethical, environmental, and eco-friendly initiatives to flourish.

With ethical sourcing, the cosmetic products’ raw components are guaranteed to be supplied responsibly and ethically. In addition, the people involved in the process are adequately compensated and treated with respect, while the industry’s environmental and social implications are highly considered.

Custom Production

As discussed, the cosmetics industry causes environmental problems other than packaging waste. The mass production of beauty products per se involves a rigorous process of trial and error to come up with the best formulation that suits the needs of the many.

Although unlikely to minimize the overall waste caused by the cosmetics industry, custom production can contribute to sustainability goals by prompting consumers to expect personalization from their trusted brands, thereby urging businesses to reconsider their operations and limit their lab testing.

Custom production could impact how the rest of the industry works, making a meaningful difference in the waste issue. 

Reuse and Refill over Single-use

Although it is essential to the cosmetic buying experience, single-use sampling and disposable beauty product packaging contribute to massive waste production.

According to Mia Davis, VP of impact and sustainability at U.S. clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty, “We’re in a waste crisis. We are producing billions of materials that we use for mere seconds and they live on our planet for centuries.”

To put that in context, the cosmetics industry produces 122 billion single-use sample sachets every year and only a tiny percentage of which are recyclable. In 2020, Credo Beauty distributed 660,000 sachets and 3,000 pounds of single-use masks and wipes. It is time to invest in plastic alternatives and product reformulation to reduce packaging wastage.

One sustainable packaging model that will help consumers quit single-use plastics is reuse and refill. As a result, the cosmetic industry can significantly mitigate the global problem of plastic pollution by moving away from disposable packaging. As a bonus, this option also has the potential to shift consumer behavior while also unlocking cost savings and new revenue streams for beauty businesses.

Towards a Sustainable, Beautiful Future

It is just reasonable to take as much care of our environment as we do of our precious bodies. Personal care items that pollute the planet are not representatives of true beauty. In addition to adopting a sustainable lifestyle, we all should make an effort toward promoting an eco-friendly beauty routine.

As for business owners in the cosmetics industry, the time to start going green is now! Consumers are increasingly expecting eco-friendly beauty products that are safe for them and the environment. As a result, the market for green cosmetics is rising exponentially. Using raw, natural ingredients can re-establish your brand both environmentally and financially.

About the Author:

Penelope Martinez is a writer for various beauty brands. She is a big fan of skincare and an advocate of sustainability. She enjoys traveling, listening to music, spending time with friends, and discovering new skills in her spare time.