The Ugly Side Of Beauty: The Truth About Sustainability And The Cosmetics Industry - Part One

The Ugly Side Of Beauty: The Truth About Sustainability And The Cosmetics Industry - Part One

Almost everything we do carries a carbon footprint. Some of these are unavoidable, others are not. The fashion industry has faced severe criticism in the past few decades over the 92 million tons of textile waste it creates every year and I’ve been waiting for a while now for the beauty industry to be confronted with its own reckoning. After all, like fast fashion much of what the cosmetics industry is creating is unnecessary. 

The environmental impact of food, travel, energy and technology are difficult to address because they are all an integral part of modern life. Yet, overconsumption is a problem with a relatively simple solution - we all need to buy less.

Of course, this isn’t actually a simple solution at all because we’ve long been encouraged, sometimes aggressively, to enrich our experiences and lifestyles with various products and items and many of us are hooked - I know I am. Unlike the fashion industry, the beauty industry can’t really move to a more circular model since most products are single-use and there's a hygiene issue with sharing certain cosmetic products.

Yet, I think I can help you when it comes to making more environmentally-friendly decisions about the cosmetic products you buy and how you use them.

Now, the obvious solution is to buy from Olive and Joyce where much of what we produce is made to order, our packing is reused, there’s no palm oil anywhere in our collection and we source ingredients responsibly. But don’t worry, this isn’t a sales pitch (except that last bit). I want to help everyone wanting a more sustainable beauty routine.

You may have noticed that this is only part one and that’s because the issues are extensive. Part one of this article will therefore focus on resources and waste. In part two, we’ll be talking about chemical issues in beauty products and their effect on the environment.

So, let’s look first at some of the key issues surrounding sustainability in terms of waste and resources:

Cosmetics Packaging Waste

Packaging is a big problem in cosmetics. For hygiene reasons, certain packaging must be used to keep products fresh and uncontaminated. The most cost-effective way to do this is to use plastic. However, plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfill and, since 95% of cosmetic packing is thrown away, regardless of whether it can be recycled, recycling may not be the solution.

Many brands, including Olive & Joyce, have schemes for sending packaging back once used. Many of my customers do so and all of these jars are reused, having gone through processes to thoroughly clean them of course. I realise though that this can be a lot to ask of consumers.

That’s why our packaging has minimal plastic, only the pump in our oil clenesers is recyclable plastic since we have no alternative as yet. Glass is far less of a problem when it comes to recycling. It's more likely to be put in the recycling bin rather than the rubbish bin, because many people still assume plastic tubes and tubs cannot be recycled, and it is also far more likely to actually be recycled by waste management since glass is easier to process.

Packaging Waste On Beach Front

Single-Use Products

Many beauty products are single-use - face wipes, cotton balls, sheet masks and false eyelashes are just a few examples. Though some may be biodegradable, they still take energy to produce and this has to be done over and over again since the products are designed to be thrown away and replaced.

Most single-use products are also unnecessary. There are better alternatives and we survived for years with these. Flannels and face cloths for instance, if washed regularly, can be just as hygienic and effective as disposable wipes and cotton buds. Besides, they don’t contain any added chemicals.

Overuse Of Natural Resources And Use Of Palm Oil

This is such a tricky one. All Olive & Joyce products are entirely natural and made up of ingredients from the earth. I’ll be honest people, it’s not easy to manage a supply chain ethically. The last thing I want is to be taking the planet’s natural resources and putting the environment at risk as a result. Yet, this has been happening for years and some of it is the result of companies simply putting profit before the planet and some of it is a lack of knowledge. Thoroughly checking your sources and ensuring that you are not taking raw materials without replacing them is a difficult and involved process. For me, it’s one that's crucial but in all I do to ensure the sustainability practices of my production is not harming the environment, this is the most challenging. It takes time and every rock must be turned over twice (no pun intended) to ensure operations are unquestionably ethical.

As mentioned in my recent blog, Skincare Wisdom From Around The World, trees that produced argan oil were overharvested and in the 90s became almost extinct. Intervention from farmers and environmentalists helped to restore growth and put better regulations in place to protect these trees. However, this rescue project need not have had to happen if manufacturers had acted more responsibly and been more future-focused. It benefits no one to exploit the world’s resources. At least, not long-term. 

Yet, it’s not just about supporting the production of natural resources so we can use them. Interrupting the planet’s biodiverse nature impacts the whole ecosystem. It can lead to destroying homes for wildlife, depleting soil biodiversity and creating an imbalance in the environment. In some cases, it can affect our planet’s natural cooling system, especially in cases of deforestation. Because it’s not just about taking the products we need, it’s about what we destroy to farm the ingredients. This is why palm oil, which is used extensively in cosmetics, is such a divisive issue. 

In order to grow these oil-producing plants, rainforests are being culled and this leads to many environmental issues including loss of habitat for animals, displacement of indigenous people, and a huge drop in soil biodiversity. Crucially, in terms of human survival, they do not help to regulate oxygen-carbon balance as effectively as the rainforest does. Therefore, we are destroying the world’s best in-built protective shield against climate change.

Please, please, please, read my article The Truth About Palm Oil to find out more about why we need to be finding alternatives to palm oil in the cosmetics industry, and how you can be part of the solution.

Palm Oil Farming

Solutions To Unnecessary Waste In The Cosmetics Industry

Ok, enough of exploring the problems, let’s look at the solutions because they do exist! For example, technology and a more personal approach can help us to reduce waste in the cosmetics industry.

Much of the waste produced in cosmetics comes down to the brands filling shelves with products they won't even sell. Aesthetics is everything in the beauty industry and it looks better to have product dominance in drugstores. The reality though is many of these products get sent back to the manufacturer having not been sold or expiring. Don't worry, the cosmetics industry doesn't suffer for this. It's all calculated and added to the cost of the products sold, so the consumer pays for this expected and budgeted for waste. And so too does the planet! 

Shelves Stocked With Cosmetic Products

Overproduction for the sake of stocking shelves is a big issue and leads to the planet being burdened with the cost of unused items that end up in landfill and it's totally unnecessary.

Smaller businesses, like mine, can create products on more of a made-to-order basis. This can greatly reduce waste. Although batch-making can also bring down the carbon footprint so there is a balance to be struck. What smaller brands cannot usually afford to do though is throw away products. So, when you buy from independent sellers less likely to be showcased in high street shops, you're probably not funding a corporation that casually throws tons of unused products away every month without a second thought. 

Technology is also poised to tackle the issue of waste as it can enable personalised beauty solutions. For instance, AI may be able to use information regarding an individual’s skin type, budget and beauty routine to pose a skincare solution that will work for a specific person on a long-term basis. Not only will this reduce the amount of products we buy that don’t work for us, but it could even lead to a made-to-order system. We’ve seen this work with smaller sustainable clothing retailers where clothing is designed based on body type, fit and personal preferences and then the item is produced only after the order has been placed. However, this may come at a cost for manufacturers since it may not allow for bulk buying which is a common way of keeping costs down and the extra expense is likely to be passed onto consumers.

Subscriptions will play a part in this solution too but consumers may find this actually saves them money. Knowing your own personal skincare routine means that brands can send you products around the time when you are likely to be running low. This keeps things simple for the consumer and means manufacturers are not preoccupied with stocking shelves but are making products only when they are needed, but still with a reasonable amount of notice so they can manage stock.

Olive and Joyce offer subscriptions for skincare and we really want to encourage more customers to opt for this option, so we’re giving you a cost saving too. When you subscribe to be sent your face creams and face oils every few months (based on when you’re likely to run out) we give you a discount. Apart from it being better for the environment, it will also save you money.

Now, onto the issue of palm oil. Look, we encourage everybody to avoid palm oil in beauty products. There are alternatives available that work just as well to give products the longevity and consistency they need. Supporting policies seeking to restrict palm oil production and regulate the industry is something we can all do too. Unfortunately, there is not much being done to address the issue from the UK government. However, we endeavour to keep Olive & Joyce subscribers aware of any petitions they may get involved in. So don’t forget to subscribe - there is a link in the footer of this page.

Since very little recyclable packaging is actually recycled, buying plastic is still a big problem and recycling isn’t the solution. Some beauty brands have send-back-your-packaging schemes but unfortunately, much of this is greenwashing. Many of these tubes and bottles are being downcycled as opposed to reused. Although, I must emphasise that this is not the case when you send back Olive & Joyce jars. Ours get thoroughly cleaned and genuinely reused.

The best option, therefore, is to buy products with as little plastic packaging as possible. For example, shampoo bars instead of bottles. It may take a little time to find products that work as well for you but they do exist and they carry a much lower carbon footprint. There are some top tips in our blog Making Your Beauty Routine Eco-Friendly.

If you are buying products in plastic packaging then it’s best to go bigger - one very large bottle of body cream is better than two smaller ones in terms of plastic pollution. Better still, look for glass. Glass is very easily recycled and by far the best option for keeping products fresh within a more sustainable form of packaging. Besides, they look far nicer on the bathroom shelf. 

The absolute best thing you can do for the environment though is to buy less. Reduce your skincare routine to just a couple of products. Honestly, it’s all you need anyway because your skin craves simplicity. Beauty companies won’t tell you this because they want to sell you different creams for every time of day and night and every single part of your face. Honestly, most of these products have the same basic ingredients and these claims that 'you need this and you need that' are about adding to their collections, not about looking after your skin. Do yourself and the planet a favour and find a few products that work for you, stick to them and ignore all the noise trying to persuade you to buy the next best thing.

Want To Know More?

There are quite a few other issues when it comes to sustainability and the cosmetics industry. Next time, we’ll be looking at the products themselves, the chemicals they contain and how these can end up in our water and harm the ecosystem, as well as other issues. To stay in touch and be notified of the next article, as well as other sustainability news and campaigns, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter in the footer.

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