MARIE CLAIRE - Eco-Friendly Beauty

Original title of this article: "Ethical Beauty".

By Stephanie Dychiu

In a world besieged by issues like climate change, poverty, war, debt, and AIDS, can vanity and social responsibility coexist?

“Green is in” is a slogan more commonly associated with hybrid cars, ethanol-blended gas, wildlife conservation, and reusable shopping bags, while social responsibility is equated more with volunteering on weekends or donating regularly to charitable causes. Outside these apparent manifestations of social and ecological awareness, however, are the small everyday choices we make that add up over time to have a significant impact on the world. Among these choices are the products we patronize for looking good.

The beauty industry is a multi-billion-dollar force in the world whose immense influence over advertising and media has shaped society’s attitudes toward race, gender, morality, and economic class. It supports a complex network of corporations, distributors, suppliers, laborers, and customers that collectively can do great harm or good to the world. The late founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick, once said that business is more powerful than politics, because governments are in the pockets of big business. Who exerts control over big business? According to Roddick, the “vigilante consumer” does.

Roddick, through the company she founded, proved how the efforts of one person can change an entire industry. In the 1980’s, disturbing facts about animal testing in the cosmetics industry came under public scrutiny through Roddick’s tireless campaigns. As the movement gained ground, bigger multinational players in the beauty industry put an end to the practice of testing on animals, beginning with Avon, which announced a permanent end to animal testing in all its laboratories in 1989. The campaign against animal testing achieved a significant milestone when the European Union passed legislation to ban all animal testing by 2009. Given that Europe is the world’s biggest market for cosmetics, this landmark move prompted the largest beauty manufacturers in the world to fast-track the development of alternatives to animal testing before the ban takes effect.

In 2006, a year before she passed away, Anita Roddick came under fire from animal rights activists when she sold The Body Shop to the L’Oreal Group, a company that many perceived to have a record of testing products on animals. Roddick, however, chose to see the positive side of things, declaring that the acquisition by L’Oreal could help the bigger company learn more about the ethical practices of The Body Shop and adopt these practices so that it will be better equipped to meet the more stringent regulatory requirements of the future.

The path to becoming a vigilante beauty consumer begins with a basic understanding of what makes beauty products ethical. In your next purchase, try to evaluate the product based on five aspects of ethical beauty: ingredients, product origin, packaging, production process, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) of the manufacturer.

When a product contains mostly natural, organic, or chemical-free ingredients, not only is it most likely good for you, there is also a great chance it is good for the world in general. Beauty products may not be ingested orally, but bear in mind, anything that is placed on the skin gets absorbed inside the body. Burt’s Bees, which first gained popularity locally for its winning line of lip balm, is a company that uses 99% all-natural ingredients. The company also has “Setting the Natural Standard” as one of its main advocacies, to promote more truthful use of the term “natural” among beauty products (currently, there are no official guidelines governing usage of the word). For Burt’s Bees, a product can only be considered natural if: at least 95% of it is made from truly natural ingredients; it has no ingredients that have any potential human health risks; it did not undergo any processes that altered the purity of the natural ingredients; and the ingredients came from renewable resources.

One such ingredient that comes from renewable resources is the breakthrough anti-aging molecule, Pro-Xylane, which was developed by L’Oreal and won the first prize for research given out by the international jury of the 2007 Marie Claire Prix d’Excellence de la Beaute. Pro-Xylane is synthesized from a natural sugar using an environmentally friendly process. This ingredient is present in a number of L’Oreal products, such as the Absolue Eye Cream by Lancome.

Product origin
Natural ingredients need to be sourced through some kind of supply chain before reaching their intended use. Here, another aspect of ethical beauty comes into consideration—how these natural ingredients are obtained needs to be kosher as well. Aveda, the Minnesota-based company best known for plant-based hair and beauty care products, as well as a world-famous chain of salons and spas, has a long-standing partnership with the Yawanawa indigenous group in Brazil that produce the Urucum seeds used in various Aveda products. Revenues generated by Aveda’s purchases of the seeds, which are used as colorants for various makeup and hair products, are used to support the Yawanawa community. Aveda also contributes to the community by supporting education, health care, and power projects, as well as by providing assistance on issues involving land rights of the indigenous group.

The Body Shop has similar sourcing agreements with communities in Africa. These agreements are based on fair trade practices. Fair trade is a movement that upholds the welfare of disadvantaged producers, by ensuring they are paid a fair price for their goods, have humane working conditions, and meet social and environmental standards. Under its Community Trade program, the Body Shop is able to deliver economic sustenance to communities in the developing world by providing stable demand for their goods. This system of ethical trading is a win-win on all sides—the retailer has access to a steady supply of ingredients, customers can enjoy high-quality products, and disadvantaged communities are able to fund various social projects such as education and sanitation.

Packaging material is one of the biggest causes of environmental pollution in the world. Vanguards in the beauty industry, such as Kiehl’s, have tried to mitigate this problem by leading the charge to use biodegradable or recyclable materials for packaging. Kiehl’s also uses soy-based ink for printing its collaterals, labels, and boxes. It encourages customers to return plastic “empties” for recycling, and produces an eco-friendly biodegradable makeup bag. The makeup brand Cargo produces biodegradable boxes that can actually be planted on soil. It also uses a corn polymer as a biodegradable plastic substitute for the packaging of lipsticks.

Many companies have adopted the practice of offering refills to reduce packaging waste. Among these are M.A.C. and Stila. In the US, M.A.C. has given out free lipsticks for every five or so empty M.A.C. product containers returned.

Production process
The manufacturing process that a beauty product undergoes is another aspect that determines whether it can be considered ethical or not. Aveda is one company that has gone a step further aside from using equitably sourced natural ingredients. In January 2007, it made a deeper commitment to the environment by switching to one hundred percent wind energy to power its corporate office and main production facility in Minnesota. By its own estimates, this helps Aveda keep 7.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is aiming to have zero waste and a fully sustainable manufacturing process in the future.

One pioneer in sustainable production in the beauty industry is Dr. Hauschka, which has been producing holistic skin care products since 1967 using natural ingredients grown through a process called biodynamics. Biodynamics, as defined by Dr. Hauschka is “a holistic, sustainable form of agriculture that dates all the way back to the 1920's. It takes into account everything from the cycles of the moon and stars to the soil, plants, animals and people, with the ultimate goal of making each garden or farm a healthy self-sustaining ecosystem.” Dr. Hauschka maintains networks of cooperative farms in developing countries made up of growers using the biodynamic approach to produce the ingredients it needs for its skin preparations.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
Finally, one major way that a company can promote ethical beauty is by supporting worthwhile causes that may not necessarily have a direct role in the production of its products, but have a special relevance to society. Several major beauty companies around the world have seen that doing good is good business. Cancer research is a pet cause of companies like Avon and Estee Lauder, while the Yves Rocher foundation gives out the Terre de Femmes awards annually for women who have major achievements in environmental protection. Other brands, such as Dove, have made attempts to integrate CSR into their advertising campaigns. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, which promoted beauty of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages, strove to give women more realistic and more diverse standards for beauty.

Next time you step into a beauty store, don’t buy something simply to make yourself look good. Buy something to believe in. Vanity and social responsibility can and should coexist.

Not all certification labels are created equal. Some are issued by government, others by independent trade associations. In many countries, the commercial use of the terms “organic” and “natural” is not even regulated.

Organic. For products manufactured in the United States or the European Union, a product has to be made with at least 95% organic ingredients for the term “organic” to be legally used. If a product contains less than 95% but more than 70% organic ingredients, it can only be referred to as “made with organic ingredients”. A product with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot advertise itself as organic.

Natural. There is no formal legislation on the use of the term “natural” on product labels of personal care products, even in the United States. It is good to remember that an ingredient is not necessarily harm-free simply because it is a naturally occurring substance. When in doubt, do a patch test, or talk to people who have used the product before.

(This article originally appeared in Marie Claire, April 2008.)