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Sustainability in the beauty industry

|28/03, 2022

Sustainability in the beauty industry

A sustainable beauty industry: What are the challenges?


The beauty industry is a large and complex net of raw material suppliers, logistics, packaging manufacturers, product development and production, end users and post use processing - just to mention some steps in a beauty product’s life cycle. Each step has its own unique and complex sustainability challenges, and creating cosmetics and beauty products that are truly sustainable from raw ingredients to disposal after the consumer has used the product up is a process with many points to consider.

In order to address these concerns many companies are taking steps to ensure sustainability in the life cycle of their products. The reasoning is often two fold: sustainability ensures the company’s viability and continued existence, but research shows that there is a large and growing consumption and wish for products that are sustainably produced, so there is also an incentive to meet changing consumer demands.

According to Cosmetics Europe the sustainability challenges fall in five phases:

  • Sourcing

  • Manufacturing

    • Energy consumption and emissions

    • Waste from manufacturing

    • Water usage during production

    • Plastic marine litter

  • Distribution

  • Consumer use phase

  • Post-consumer phase

This blog post is meant to give you - the consumer - a feeling for the complexities within the beauty industry and why progress may not be happening as quickly as we’d like it to. A deep dive into the full product life cycle of a beauty product is out of the scope of this blog post, but we will offer a brief introduction to each of the challenges and some resources to read more, if you want to continue the reading! Sign up to our newsletter in the footer below, to stay up to date with new blog posts. 


Sustainable sourcing of raw materials

Raw materials are not only the ingredients in the beauty products, like oils, honey and pigments, but also the electricity used to power the production and materials for packaging. In order to create sustainability in the sourcing, transparency about the origin of materials and energy is vital. In a perfect scenario, all steps should be well documented and certified according to the standards of the business in question. 

Manufacturing

The manufacturing is a complex and energy consuming step of the life cycle of a beauty product. Sustainability concerns include energy and water used in the plants, emissions both through air and water, but also chemical waste from production, which can be complicated to dispose of in a responsible way. Another waste related concern is microplastics in wastewater. Sustainable production methods and facilities are often more costly and can also take longer. Even if many consumers are increasingly willing to help offset the cost of sustainable production through higher prices of products, getting environmental and economical sustainability to go hand in hand is a challenge in the industry. 


Distribution

With regards to distribution, the challenges are all about reducing the carbon footprint of the product. The transportation of goods and materials accounts for over 7% of the global CO2 emission and accounts for 30% of trade-related CO2 emission. Because the beauty industry relies on a multitude of different materials from all over the world, and most brands sell on the international market it is unlikely that distribution can be completely sustainable. 

What the industry is doing to increase sustainability is reducing unnecessary and bulky packaging, to make sure products are as light and compact as possible. This allows for more efficient shipping, with more products on the standard pallet. Choosing more sustainable transport solutions like rail transport and hybrid vehicles are also steps to increase the sustainability of distribution and shipping of products. As a consumer it is important to vote with your wallet, and choose products with less packaging and more sustainable material choices.


Consumer use phase

Once the product is in your bathroom or on your vanity, the consumer use phase starts. This step of a product's life can be very long, and it is an important one. When using shampoos, soaps, face wash and other common care products, we usually also use many litres of water and create water waste

While the end user has a responsibility when choosing what products to purchase and how to use them, there is also a responsibility with the brands, to educate their customers about how to use their products in a sustainable manner. Spreading knowledge about how much water to use while shampooing your hair or how to use a face toner without a cotton round are examples of what brands can do, to influence their customers to more sustainable beauty routines. 

Clear marking and instructions on how to recycle packaging and what to do with left-over unused product is also an important step in making sure the product remains sustainable while in the hands of the end user. Many beauty products like for example perfumes are supposed to be sorted as chemical waste, and can be highly toxic for the environment if poured down the drain. Ultimately the responsibility for recycling and correct disposal of the used product is with the end consumer. Make sure to follow local guidelines, instructions are usually provided on your local waste disposal’s website or with your local government.

The consumer use phase also brings in additional product types to be used alongside the beauty product. Cotton rounds, cotton swabs, washcloths, sponges and disposable wet wipes, to mention a few. The production of cotton is notorious for being unsustainable and many types of cloth and sponges shed microplastics into waste water when used and washed. A deep dive into this is a topic for another post, but there are great alternatives on the market that can limit your use of conventional cotton products. In the spirit of upcycling, the internet is brimming with great ideas to upcycle old clothing to reusable beauty wipes and cotton rounds. Trvst.world has a plethora of great ideas and recommendations for more sustainable living. 


Post-consumer phase

The last phase of a product's life is the post-consumer phase, what happens after the product is out of the consumer’s hands again. The product that has been washed off goes into the water treatment system or for products like sunscreen straight into the ocean or other natural water. The empty packaging goes into the waste system, that being in the best case a sophisticated recycling system and in the worst case a landfill. 

To ensure sustainability in this step, it is again very important that the consumer knows how to dispose of the used product and equally important that the product was created with this step in mind. Simple, minimal packaging helps ensure that the customer easily can tell what to sort as cardboard or plastic and what might be compostable. Sustainable thinking from the early stages of product development and manufacturing ensures that the post-consumer phase leaves as gentle an impact as possible.


Sustainability is a core value for everyone involved with Go Cirkulär, and we wish to spread as much knowledge as we can! If you want to read more, please check out our sources for this post. All you have to do is follow the links marked in the text. Follow this link to read about Go Cirkulär sustainability business model and share this blog post to spread the good word

Have a beautiful day! 

- Go Cirkulär