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The Cosmetic Industry’s Hidden Waste- How You Can Make a Difference

April 20, 2021

The Cosmetic Industry’s Hidden Waste- How You Can Make a Difference

Excess waste, global warming, environmental impact and reducing toxic chemicals have become a point of awareness that is growing among the population. Unfortunately, the cosmetic industry has historically been one of the major contributors to environmental damage and the spread of toxins. Beauty is one of the largest global industries - worth $80 billion and growing -  with a huge and far-reaching impact, but this impact is far from positive. We have what I like to call a ‘triple threat’ - first we expose the environment and our workers to toxins in chemical manufacturing, second we expose ourselves by applying the product, and third we expose the environment again with packaging waste and chemicals going down our drains.

While all this may sound daunting, overwhelming and something that you personally cannot tackle, this could not be further from the truth. We all feel like ‘just one person’ but put us together and we are a movement. There are so many simple ways that we can reduce the burden on ourselves and the planet. This industry and our usage of these products is so vast but if we each made very simple changes in our life the impact would be undeniable. We recycle, use cloth instead of paper towels, bring our own bags to the grocery store and save every salsa jar we buy - this can be another powerful way to make simple choices with great impact.

Packaging
This is a biggie! More packaging is more waste, period. It’s very difficult to make a stand against exterior boxes in the cosmetic industry, the box is very important real estate to talk about your product. Outer boxes utilize text large enough to read, looks more professional on the shelf, and is an undeniable marketing benefit, but there is no way around the fact that it is still excessive waste. At Sumbody we have never had exterior boxes and have lost many opportunities because of this.

There has been a lot of recent movement towards making products more ‘environmentally friendly’, often touting recycled cardboard packaging - but there’s more to it than what you see. Not all cardboard can be recycled! For example, pizza boxes have both food and oil residue, and should be discarded in the trash, not recycled. The food and oil contaminate other cardboard in your recycling bin, compromising the recycling process by making it difficult to separate from the paper fibers.

While less trees are used to create recycled cardboard, it is not without waste and using precious resources. Collection and transportation of used cardboard, sorting it once collected, the pulping stage (which uses an excessive amount of water, and many recycling centers used chemicals to speed up the process) all require extra energy and resources. Once the cardboard has returned to pulp, fresh wood pulp is added make a superior quality finished product.

In addition, chemicals are used during the pulping process in order to remove any ink, glue, tape or other contaminants. After this process is completed it goes through a drying machine, using energy and resources.

There are definitely pros to recyclable packaging, for example it uses less trees and saves landfill space. Having said this, if the cardboard isn’t used in the first place, it needs to be recycled, perpetuating the cycle. The best option is just to say no to secondary packaging and reduce your cardboard usage at home. Instead of recycling boxes when you move, consider donating them to someone who will use them. Reusing original boxes and using less to begin with is the best method of conservation.

Anhydrous products and water waste
These are products that do not contain any water such as dry shampoo, powdered masks, face oils, bath fizzers/salts and body powders. Anhydrous products are not only more potent but they also conserve water - with less fillers, the focus is on the active ingredients themselves.

The cosmetic industry uses excessive amounts of water during both the manufacturing of products and the cleaning of tanks or equipment used in the process. Small batch products may be popular, but they also increase the amount of water used to clean equipment. At Sumbody we have the luxury of manufacturing our own products so we can make small batches effectively without waste. For example, we can make the base for our body scrubs in large quantities and then make small batches of each flavor/scent. If we were to clean equipment between each different type of scrub the amount of water waste would be incredible!

Other products that can help you reduce water waste are hard lotion bars, soap bars, and shampoo and conditioner bars. This format uses significantly less amounts of water to produce than their traditional counterparts.

Ingredients
There’s so many ways in which ingredients impact waste. Manufactured chemicals are not only toxic to the environment but can also be toxic to our health. Using ingredients that nature provided or are non-toxic is key to reducing waste. There are many elements to consider when sourcing ingredients, including how far that ingredient had to travel, its sustainability, if it is endangered or harming the environment via bad harvesting practices. Using natural, minimally processed ingredients takes toxins out of the process and the end product.

Sourcing
Where ingredients come from can make a huge difference! Companies that source locally can reduce their carbon footprint. Unfortunately it would be extremely difficult to make every single product using local ingredients, but there certainly is enough local variety to increase the percentage and even sometimes use 100 percent locally sourced ingredients. Working locally means producers can ensure the quality of their ingredients and support the sustainability of small production as well.

Using less
Using less is one of our most powerful allies in reducing our carbon footprint and helping to stop the cosmetic giant from increasing waste. This not only means looking at how many different lipsticks, eyeshadows, hair conditioners and other products you have, but also focuses on multitasking. A good bar of soap can do double duty as a shaving cream, or a lip balm as a cuticle conditioner. Reducing the amount of different products will benefit the planet and simplify your routine, which can also help you decide what products actually work, and what doesn’t. I’m not suggesting that you eliminate self care, there are ways to stay pampered and reduce your carbon footprint. Simple swaps like using pure sea salt in your bath, pure olive or avocado oil as a moisturizer and makeup remover, or honey and oatmeal to cleanse your face can all have a vast impact. Not only are these items sold in larger quantities so they reduce small cosmetic packaging, there are no chemicals or secondary packaging. There is a multitude of items in your pantry that are just as beneficial, and much lower impact than the usual suspects.

From A to Z
To give an idea of how much waste goes into one simple product in the cosmetic industry, lets go through the step-by-step process of creating and distributing a face cream.

First, the ingredients are sourced all over the world (most packaging comes from China) and sent to the manufacturer. In this one simple product there can be over 40 different ingredients, all coming from different locations. After production, the item receives packaging, which can have up to 5 different components, an exterior box, and sometimes plastic over that. All of these items come from different places, get shipped to their distributors and then to the cosmetic manufacturer. Sometimes there is even a warehouse between the materials manufacturer and the cosmetic manufacturer. The cosmetic manufacturer then sends the finished face cream to a warehouse, the warehouse to a distributor, distributor to a store, and finally the store to your home. This little face cream has a huge impact before it even touches your bathroom counter.

Keep Going!
Every little step we take has an impact! Take a moment to look at what your bathroom cabinet holds, in many cases there are easy changes that will help decrease the impact our beauty choices make on the planet. For a deeper dive, my first book ‘Look Great Live Green’ written in 2009 tackles the subject of green beauty, sustainability, and choosing a greener beauty lifestyle.