Navigating Greenwashing in the Beauty Industry

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With a growing movement in support of environmental awareness and sustainability, the incentive for brands to focus their marketing and branding attempts on these domains has never been higher. However, despite the fact that eco-friendly practices are becoming more of a priority for most, not all brands in the beauty industry are hopping on the environmental bandwagon-- in an authentic way, that is. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for beauty companies to use unsubstantiated buzzwords in an effort to convince consumers they are doing more for the environment than is realistic. While this phenomenon, often called “greenwashing,” has some historical prevalence in other industries, it's becoming increasingly visible in the beauty industry because of a combination of shifting trends as well as concern among Millenials and GenZ regarding the ethicality of their purchases. This is specifically true amid the pandemic, as statistics show that young consumers have spent 26% more on clean beauty since its emergence. As a consumer, weeding out brands with true concern for the environment versus brands that use degradation as a tactic to increase revenue is difficult, but learning more about the issue is a vital first step to taking action.

The production of lip glosses, hand creams, and other beauty products requires a much more complex supply chain than consumers may think. As a result of this lack of attention paid to many aspects of production as well as brands’ motivation to keep costs low, many companies take the liberty of exaggerating their environmentally friendly motives and operations. By exploiting the lack of regulations and standards, companies can define potentially loaded terms based on their own, self-serving interpretations.

For example, the word ‘natural’ is often exploited to capitalize on consumer misconceptions. Because it has no legal meaning in the beauty world, brands can use it when even a small amount of their product comes from natural ingredients. Furthermore, just because something comes from nature does not mean that it was ethically sourced, like in the case of mica, a mineral composite used in many facial glitters that is dangerously harvested by child laborers in India.

Likewise, ‘organic’ lacks an FDA approved definition with regard to beauty products. According to the FDA, however, just because a product is organic does not mean it is necessarily safer or more ethical. Furthermore, because beauty products technically fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the “USDA Organic” seal of approval may appear on cosmetic items. While it may seem that this seal would increase transparency and help consumers to make smarter purchases, it actually creates more confusion and misinformation. This is because the seal can mean three different things: the product may be ‘100% organic,’ meaning all of its ingredients are on the USDA’s approved list, it may be ‘organic’, meaning 95% of ingredients are approved, or it may be ‘made with organic ingredients’, meaning 70% of components are approved. The classification of all three of these groups under one seal leads to exploitation of the discrepancy by many beauty companies, ultimately helping them trick consumers into believing they are environmentally friendly.

Many more subjectively defined terms fall into this trap, including ‘cruelty free’ and ‘chemical free’. With regard to animal cruelty, almost every beauty brand sells products in China, where animal testing is legally required. Since regulation on beauty industry labels touting they are ‘cruelty free’  is nonexistent, companies use strategic language, outsourcing, and loopholes to justify their use of the term despite their engagement with the practice. Moreover, ‘chemical free’ products are equally deceptive. This is because chemicals, which include water, are not always harmful. Brands that include this term as a cornerstone of their marketing tactics take advantage of consumers who may subscribe to the common misconception that chemicals are always toxic and dangerous, precisely demonstrating their ‘greenwashing’ strategy.

Aside from semantical tactics, visuals are also exploited by brands to achieve marketing goals: they are just as conducive to appealing to environmentally conscious consumers and convincing them of product ethicality. This can take the form of brands using neutral colors like browns and greens to showing images of nature in advertisements to even using bumpy packaging that appears recycled or more rugged. These strategies serve to trick consumers into associating environmentalism with the brand despite any actual connection.

In terms of the ingredients themselves, one component that is often overlooked is water. Beauty product manufacturing eats up thousands of liters, as many cosmetic or sanitary goods are primarily made of water: lotions are made of 90% and shampoos and shower gels are up to 95%. Considering the increasing evaporation of water due to global warming as well as the growing number of global droughts, the consumption of water by the beauty industry should not be ignored by consumers when searching for ethical products. Like water, beauty product packaging is also often ignored by both brands and shoppers. It is not uncommon for companies to use unnecessarily cumbersome containers to store their product. Brands may claim they are ‘clean’ yet fill a 4 oz bottle with only an ounce of cream or gel. Similarly, lots of products are shipped in toxic, environmentally unfriendly boxes that are needlessly stuffed with styrofoam packing peanuts or bubble wrap. While brands may pay attention to the optics of their products in order to appear eco-conscious, they often overlook details that have vast impacts.

As a consumer, navigating the beauty industry and deciphering invalid and exaggerated marketing claims from authentic goods is extremely challenging. The most important and helpful measure to weed out ‘greenwashed’ products is research and education. Doing something as simple as flipping the bottle around to read the ingredients on the label rather than the buzzwords can make a monumental difference in recognizing harmful components. Because ingredient names are often unfamiliar, taking the extra time to look into their origins, uses, and impacts can help determine the product’s overall ethicality. From there, consumers should look into the supply chains and production mechanisms for the companies they support with their purchases. This can be done using databases like “Leaping Bunny,” or even just a normal search engine. Beyond this research, buyers must recognize that there is no singular perfect brand that makes perfectly formulated natural, organic, non-toxic “paraben-free, petrochemical-free, no animal testing, mineral oil-free, alcohol-free, fragrance-free, and silicone-free,” products. This would be too costly and an almost insurmountable barrier to produce. Because of this, consumers must determine which issues are most important to them and then forefront supporting those causes when sorting through the sea of ‘greenwashed’ companies to find truly conscious, environmentally friendly choices.

More posts by Jessa Glassman.
Navigating Greenwashing in the Beauty Industry
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