The beauty industry is not a sustainable industry. That isn’t messaging that you tend to find within it all that often, especially considering that there are few industries quite as consumed by the environment; few as utterly focused on appearing to have a virtuous relationship with the planet. It makes sense.
While I’ve been an editor and writer working in beauty for years and rely on it for my income like everyone else in the industry, apart from the pharmaceutical wing of skincare and the medical wing of aesthetics, we don’t really need beauty. We just want it.
The damage it does to the planet with its estimated 120 billion units of packaging annually (according to Forbes) is not essential. Beauty is accused of frivolity enough. The last thing the industry wants to deal with is a PR crisis around its wider existence when the truth is that the most sustainable and environmentally conscious thing a beauty brand can do is stop making products altogether.
I’m not recommending that.
If utility were the sole point of being alive, being alive would be far duller. As the Dutch philosopher Spinoza said, “Man is not a dominion within a dominion.” A root error in environmental approaches is the unchallenged premise that human beings exist as entities somehow outside nature, ruining it, rather than as part of it. While some people dismiss beauty as just another iteration of excessive consumerism, every person on earth who has washed themselves with a soap or shower gel has used beauty products, and every empty bottle has to be manufactured, and then go somewhere.
The result of brands’ awareness that they aren’t good for the planet is a lot of overblown campaigns hyping what they do for the environment and insulating that marketing inside the language of “natural”, “clean” and “sustainable” beauty. We like the idea of attributing these words to the products on our bathroom shelves, and to ourselves. Unfortunately, they mean nothing whatsoever, and tell you nothing about the product they refer to.
It isn’t all the brands’ fault. Many are doing their best to contribute, and only some make a big noise about it. Aveda, for example, manufactures 94 per cent of its products solely with wind power, and the brand doesn’t talk about it much. An environmentally conscious approach to beauty isn’t simple or easily translatable in marketing slogans. It’s dreadfully dull conversations about whether glass is actually better than plastic (not really), or whether shipping by air freight is worse than by sea (it is, but it’s much faster). It’s figuring out the distance between manufacturers and distribution centres, where and how ingredients are sourced, and trying to create packaging that people like and want to keep buying but that doesn’t feel flimsy while using less plastic.
Jennifer Rock, founder of Irish brand Skingredients, has spent the last two years happily making her working life a logistical nightmare. Rock believes that a genuine effort at becoming more environmentally considerate is a moral obligation.
So, she moved all her product manufacturing from the US to mainland Europe to reduce shipping and carbon emissions, scrapped planned new product ideas that she couldn't justify as sufficiently sustainable, found a new company to create the sort of refillable packaging she wanted after several companies told her it couldn't be done, changed the type and quantity of plastic used in her product packaging, and increased the volume of product inside.
For a smaller, newer brand such as Skingredients – which offers a curated collection of widely loved, scientifically formulated skincare, and which has a loyal customer base – this sort of massive contemporaneous change is a risk. Brands don’t do this. Rock is the first brand founder I’ve ever spoken with who told me: “I don’t say we’re a sustainable brand. We’re not an eco-brand. If I really wanted to be sustainable, I wouldn’t have created a skincare brand… but everything with sustainability is a compromise. So, I have to create plastic bottles, but I wanted to do it in a way that isn’t going to have such a negative impact.”
Consumers can be fickle too. We may want sustainable packaging in theory, but if you take our favourite moisturiser and put it in a new bottle with a pump that we don’t like, we’ll stop buying it.
Within that grey area, brands must figure out how to navigate their own contribution to those billions of waste packaging units every year. It’s no wonder most turn to optics and just focus on making money. It’s no wonder most consumers swallow the marketing lingo when honest information is so difficult to find (and often boring). And in an industry that likes their claims to be as luxurious as their products, realistic efforts around sustainability can get lost or look small. Mitigation is the best a brand can do, short of folding altogether and tossing their slice of a $532 billion global business, along with all those jobs and livelihoods, on the scrap heap.
Rock’s modest realism and major overhaul of Skingredients is a rare example of principle over profit. She did not need to do this now, though she says it’s the way the industry is going, and she’d rather do it sooner. She says that smaller brands have a nimbleness that behemoth legacy brands don’t, and consequently they can make a real impact. “I’m fortunate that I’m still the face of the brand, still the founder, still the dreamer, still the doer, still the majority holder. So, I have the autonomy to make this decision.”
She rejects the sense of inadequacy many feel in the face of an enormous problem and the temptation to virtue signal. “I think it’s too late to be perfect. It’s really about having the awareness to try and make an impact in what you can do. People are scared of the word ‘sustainability’ because they think it means you should be perfect. It means that you shouldn’t actually consume. You shouldn’t want to have clothing; you shouldn’t desire a new car. There’s so much talk of sustainability that it’s become a word people fear.”
Clearly, Rock isn’t easily overwhelmed. “I can’t change the world,” she says, “but I can have an impact on what I’m doing within the world.”