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December 01, 2019
April 22 is Earth Day–a time to celebrate our planet and bring awareness to our impact on it. As consumer consciousness expands and evolves, conscious buying power forces industries to follow suit. But what does it mean to be a conscious beauty shopper? Purchasing a skincare or beauty product may seem like a beginning to the buyer. In reality, it’s a latter stage of a long chain of events that get products to market and each link in the chain has its own impact on the Earth in one way or another.
In the United States, it’s primarily up to the consumer to vet cosmetic companies and their ingredients but greenwashing has caused buzzwords, like “natural,” “organic,” and “sustainable,” to lose their true meaning. Just because an ingredient is natural, doesn’t mean it isn’t having a negative impact on our Earth and its inhabitants. There are many things to consider when making a purchasing decision.
Here are some of the issues all conscious beauty shoppers should be aware of:
Palm oil has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. The trees from which palm oil is derived only grow in the tropics. Conventional palm cultivation practices cause rainforest habitat degradation and destruction through monocropping, species displacement, and extinction. It has also been linked to other negative impacts, such as mistreatment and displacement of local indigenous communities. Many people’s response has been to avoid products containing palm oil altogether. This may seem like an easy solution: boycott products containing palm oil to cripple the industry. However, it’s not that simple.
Many palm oil alternatives are actually more environmentally destructive. Palm oil is a high-yield crop, therefore a substitute, like sunflower or soybean, requires more cultivated land to glean the same amount of oil. Furthermore, the palm oil industry has forever altered the areas in which it is cultivated. For better or worse, many people from the local communities now work in the industry and depend on it for their livelihood. So being green is not about using palm oil, it’s about using the best palm oil and supporting enviro-ethical producers.
At Sumbody, we only use palm oil which is RSPO certified. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit with representation from the seven stakeholder sectors of the industry. Their certification process for palm oil producers considers the people, the planet, and prosperity. Knowing your sources is an important part of reducing your planetary impact. There are major players who claim to be producing sustainable palm oil when, in fact, it’s only a small subject of their company, with the rest coming from unsustainable practices.
Another controversial cosmetic ingredient is mica. It is primarily mined in India by young children because their small hands can fit into the crevices in the rocks where it’s often found. This disturbing issue of child labor has only recently received mainstream attention.
Ensuring that ingredients are sustainably produced is just one issue that impacts the beauty industry. It’s mind-boggling to think about the carbon footprint of just one product, such as a tube of lipstick. This is the ingredient list of an all-natural lipstick, which is much shorter than its chemical-containing counterparts:
Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Copernicia Cerifera (Carnauba) Wax, Citrus Aurantium (Orange Oil), Cymbopogon Citratus (Lemongrass) Oil, Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil, Zinc Stearate, Titanium Dioxide, Ultramarines, Mica, Iron Oxides.
All of those 11 ingredients have to be harvested, extracted, and manufactured into the form that the lipstick producer can utilize. After that initial manufacturing process, the ingredients are shipped to a company that then turns those components into lipstick. In addition to those ingredients, there is the lipstick container and its manufacturing process, the label components and printing process, and most companies use a box for secondary packaging and/or shrink wrapping. These are all manufactured and shipped to the company that produces the lipstick. The lipstick is then shipped to a distributor, then a broker, then an intermediate sales point or shipping agency or store where you see it on the shelf.
What’s next? You look at it, try it, fall in love with it, buy it, bring it home, put it in your drawer, never wear it, forget about it, and toss it in the trash. Let’s be honest, how often do we purchase an item, or get a freebie, and never use it? That’s a massive carbon footprint for something that, perhaps, doesn’t even get used.
Secondary packaging is a major problem in the cosmetic industry. When I started Sumbody 20+ years ago as one of the very first and few independent brands, stores told me that they couldn’t sell my items without a box because customers wouldn’t buy them. I still hear that from some retailers today. The truth is, packaging sells. Consumers love cute, often excessive packaging and it creates a lot of waste. Furthermore, the need to make this adorable packaging and still sell the item at a reasonable cost means producing in overseas factories, further contributing to the already-enormous carbon footprint of a product. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to sacrifice my commitment to the environment for success and shelf space so we use the least amount of packaging possible for all of our products.
What we can really do to show our planet some love is to own our responsibility as one of the major climate-change-promoting industries. And what can you do as a consumer? It may seem daunting, but here are a few simple steps to mindful purchasing:
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