How Clean Beauty Can Drive Sustainability in the Beauty Industry

There was a time when sustainability and beauty were helpless together. In fact, the two completely contradicted each other. 


The beauty industry has a reputation for being one of the least environmentally friendly industries because of its heavy reliance on single-use products and plastic packaging. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a third of landfill waste is from the beauty industry, 120 billion units of packaging a year comes from beauty products, and its shipping contributes more than 1 billion tons of CO2 a year.  

But with consumers becoming more and more environmentally conscious and seeking out brands that align with their values, beauty companies must make a real effort to cut back on their ecological footprint. Although the term “clean beauty” has been around as early as the 1970s, the movement has taken on a whole new meaning within the past few years and continues to gain major traction in the industry. According to a study from Teen Vogue, clean beauty was believed to be worth $11 billion in 2016 and is predicted to be worth more than twice that by 2025. COVID-19 has only amplified the demand for clean products. The pandemic caused consumers to re-evaluate and simplify their beauty routines while also seeking out brands actively working to limit their environmental impact. 

What Does Clean Beauty Mean Today? 

The two main components of clean beauty today are sustainable packaging and clean ingredients. Both are difficult to achieve due to the time and money it takes to access ethical ingredients, packaging materials, and eco-label certification. Because of this, the start-to-finish process of becoming more sustainable may take more energy, and therefore, leave an even bigger ecological footprint than before.  

The end products tend to be more expensive as well, which is not ideal for consumers. Emerging studies state that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, but there are other factors that go into purchasing decisions too. One factor is “temptainability”, which is the balance between desirability and sustainability. In order to connect consumer beliefs and purchasing behaviors, brands have to be innovative to make sustainable products desirable.  

Packaging Solutions 

Being creative is especially important with packaging as it is difficult to find sustainable solutions for beauty products. One creative trend to solve this problem is refillable products. With this method, durable packaging made out of wood, glass, or metal is kept and simply refilled when product runs out. Although this packaging may cost more upfront, it pays off for the customer long-term, as they only must pay for the product from then on. It is also an easier sell if the packaging looks nice, so the customer will want to keep it for longer. L’Occitane was one of the first to adopt this concept in 2008 and has saved more than 170 tons of plastic a year. Therefore, the results are worth the work it takes to create this product.  

Waterless products are a newer, rising trend that affects packaging as well. The term originates from South Korea and means that the product itself contains no water, so it is in a solid form. Therefore, it requires less plastic because solid products are easier to package in a box or tin container compared to liquids. The product is also generally smaller because it is concentrated, reducing the amount of packaging material needed.  

It is important to keep in mind though, that like many of these packaging solutions, there is a balance between innovation and maintaining the original goal of sustainability. Even if a product claims to have no water in its ingredients, it is likely that between harvesting ingredients, packaging, and shipping, the product requires water in some form. It is the brand’s responsibility to decide which packaging method is best for their products and sustainability efforts. 

Easily recyclable packaging materials is also a route many companies have taken into consideration and put into action. As stated in a Packaging Gateway article, L’Oreal has cut its reliance on non-renewable sources by 39 percent and is moving towards all sustainably sourced paper, cardboard, and wood-fiber packaging. Other non-plastic replacements being explored in this industry include corn, seaweed, bamboo, and mushrooms.  

Even the smallest details such as the color and mixed materials of packaging can affect the way it is recycled. For example, black plastic is hard to detect in the recycling process, so companies should be conscious of the coloring they are using. Mixed materials are another obstacle faced in the recycling process, so using single types of materials and easily separated components are important to make the recycling process easier. Mirrors, magnets, pumps, brushes, applicators, and anything flexible or squeezable are all difficult to recycle due to having a film, coating, or multiple layers. These parts in specific are a major focus area of improvement for beauty companies today. 

Clean Ingredients 

Minimalism is a key component not only in sustainable packaging but in the push for clean ingredients too. Minimalism in this case refers to products containing only 2-4 ingredients. Similar to how consumers look for readable ingredients lists when grocery shopping, the same applies to cosmetics. People are becoming aware not only of what is good for the earth but what is good for their health and body. Brands such as “Ingredients” and Codex use their simplified ingredients lists to their advantage by disclosing the list on the front of the package.  

“Green” cosmetics is another term used to describe products with natural ingredients such as natural oils, agricultural plants, and bacteria. Natural and organic are both labeling buzzwords, but it is important for consumers to do their research. Labels can be misleading, and the beauty industry has very little regulation.  

Upcycling has replaced recycling as the goal for a lot of companies today, especially when it comes to ingredients. It’s no longer “How do I dispose of this?” but rather “How do I give this product new life?” Some examples of re-used product ingredients include coffee grounds, apricot stones, argan shells, and other leftovers from the food and wood industries.  

Vegan formulas are on the rise as well. Consumers must be cautious of trusting vegan labels though, as some ingredients may not be sourced ethically. Wood-derived ingredients can be illegally traded or not grown sustainably. Mica, which is the ingredient that adds shimmer to makeup, is another commonly unethically sourced ingredient. As stated in an Aedit article, 30 percent of the world’s mica comes from child labor. Āether Beauty avoids this issue by using synthetic mica which looks almost exactly the same.  

Although big name beauty brands are working to do their part to reduce their ecological impact in a variety of ways, other brands appear exclusively in the clean beauty space. A few notable brands are The Detox Market, Ayla, BLK+GRN, Credo, Native, Burts Bees, RMS Beauty, Blissoma, and Drunk Elephant. These companies are positioned in the market as completely sustainable and their entire mission and brand image revolves around being “clean.” This makes them very successful at targeting today’s eco-conscious audience.  

Company Transparency and Consumer Accountability 

In an industry with very little FDA regulation, labeling loopholes, and overall inconsistency, companies must take the initiative to be better and set their own sustainability standards. Many companies fail to do this and fold under the intense pressures and demands for immediate change from consumers. Often, companies resort to greenwashing, disguising poor environmental practices through marketing campaigns and manipulated statistics. 

With 57 percent of consumers interested in transparency though, these tactics have the potential to ruin entire companies if caught in a lie. It is much more worthwhile to build trust by being honest. It is okay to admit that sustainability is an area in need of improvement as long as there is a plan in place with clear steps to reach the end goal.  

Open communication is also essential in building brand loyalty. Many brands understand this and are becoming more transparent than ever. Unilever now discloses fragrance ingredients in its beauty brands like Dove, Axe, and Suave, and Johnson & Johnson is doing the same for its baby care products. 

Consumers must set their own standards as well and hold themselves accountable. There is no room to blame companies and expect them to do all the work to become more sustainable. Consumers have the choice to blindly follow a company’s word or to put in the effort to research ways they can be doing their part. Many consumers say they want to become more sustainable, but very few act.  

A big part of taking action is recycling. There are many programs available where consumers can take action, such as donating mascara wands for use in wildlife rescue efforts, mail-in recycling programs for hair heat tools, and programs that specialize in recycling beauty brushes. There are opportunities already out there, but it’s the individual’s responsibility to look for them.  

Finding a Balance 

There is no simple answer to this ongoing sustainability issue in the beauty industry, and many solutions simply take time. It is often overlooked how difficult a process it is to convert to completely sustainable practices, especially with well-established beauty brands that are inherently not eco-friendly by nature. 

Not only is there the struggle of finding a sustainable ingredient or innovating a packaging solution, but implementation is another clear challenge. Clean ingredients do not necessarily mean the labor practices or supply chain are sustainable. Every company is going to have an ecological footprint. The focus should then be on how to counteract their environmental impact and find the balance between sustainable thinking and realistic actions.