in-cosmetics Global brought together leading minds from the cosmetic and personal care sector, as well as eminent sustainability and regulatory experts for the first ever ‘Co-Lab’ event held at White City House, London. The event focused on untangling sustainability complexities and fostering discussions on confusing and varying interpretations of practices.
Presentations emphasised the significance of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) in supporting cosmetic brands and unveiled regulatory insights set to transform the landscape of sustainable industry practices. Group brainstorms also played a crucial role throughout the day, providing attendees with the chance to share their own insights, address key sector challenges, and collaboratively explore innovative, sustainable solutions.
The world of cosmetics is undergoing rapid change, with sustainability shifting from a trend to a necessity. But what is really driving momentum in the cosmetic and personal care sector and how is it being implemented?
According to McKinsey and Company, over the last five years, products that make environmental, social and governance (ESG)-related claims have grown disproportionately, accounting for over half (56%) of all market growth.
However, this isn’t the whole story. Throughout the session’s presentations and group discussions, the professionals were unanimous that despite consumers consistently reporting favouring sustainable products, they are unwilling to compromise on performance and quality. Of course, this can pose several challenges when it comes to formulation: Industry professionals detailed the complexities of adapting and reformulating an existing product in a more sustainable way, without impacting the finished product. They also discussed this can take significant time and cost, which – they caution – some smaller firms may not be able to shoulder. Many agreed that green chemistry methods can enable cosmetics formulators to combine naturally derived ingredients and sustainable practices while maximising cosmetic performance.
Confusion in the market
Consumer mistrust in sustainability claims is indeed a significant issue, and studies like the one by the European Commission highlight this. According to the study, 53.3% of environmental claims in the EU were found to be vague, misleading, or unfounded, while 40% were unsubstantiated.
One of the big issues is the host of different environmental and ethical claims that beauty brands can make about their products. Claims vary hugely and can include anything from animal welfare and social responsibility (fair wages for workers) to plant-based/vegan, organic positioning, and sustainable packaging. Therefore, it’s understandable that consumers can be left confused and may have simplistic views of what sustainable beauty products truly are.
To make matters more complex, regulatory mandates can vary hugely from one market to another. For brands operating in multiple regions, the lack of a consistent, cross-regional approach to regulations means they can be extremely difficult to address.
Additionally, the physical practice of adding sustainability credentials to cosmetics packaging can be tricky. As brands look to reduce the size of their packaging – to remove empty space, use fewer resources, and produce less waste, or remove packaging altogether – the opportunity to market and communicate certain credentials and messaging diminishes.
Today, many savvy consumers are seeking the opportunity to be educated on what’s really behind the cosmetics they are purchasing. Therefore, if we are to see growth in the industry it is important that cosmetics brands are working hard to boost consumer trust and improve transparency.
To improve their sustainability credentials, brands need to be as comprehensive and holistic as possible in their approach. For example, if brands cherry-pick which elements they want to focus on – such as focusing on sustainable packaging but failing to acknowledge carbon emissions – credentials can lose their meaning.
While many cosmetics brands do have some form of sustainable practices in place, there currently isn’t a standardised approach for measuring and documenting credentials. Businesses can employ various approaches, including certifications, which come in three degrees: self-certification, second-party, and third-party. Common examples of third-party frameworks include the COSMOS-standard, NATRUE standard, and the RSB framework.
Scores on the doors
As part of her session, Dr. Barbara Olioso, Managing Director of The Green Chemist Consultancy, focused on the concept that if sustainability can be measured, then “a scoring system for sustainable products should be feasible.” Olioso described how The EcoBeautyScore Consortium has developed an industry-wide environmental impact assessment and scoring system for cosmetics products. The collective currently has over 70 stakeholders, including big players such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal.
When discussing the Eco Beauty Scores, the professionals described what they considered to be some of the key challenges of implementing the system. Primarily, it can be difficult to identify the criteria for a score, as there are so many potential factors to take into account. According to the professionals, the system has everything it needs to succeed, but stakeholders “need to find a way to simplify it”.
Another increasingly popular option for cosmetic brands is to commission a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCAs provide brands with a holistic overview of how eco-friendly their products are, with a complete breakdown of the emissions at each stage and how they can be reduced. The assessments examine every stage of the product lifecycle – from cradle to grave. Starting with the raw material extraction, then looking at the manufacturing processes, distribution, how the product is used by the consumer, whether it can be recycled, and ultimately, disposal.
LCAs can be a useful tool for brands, however, some of our professionals shared some of their concerns. Not only can LCAs be considered costly and time-consuming, but they also described how the system could potentially be branded as greenwashing. For context, an LCA only covers the areas of a product that the business requests and often targets “low-hanging fruit”; exploring the areas which can be addressed quickly and easily.
Lack of resources – both time and cost – is one of the biggest roadblocks for sustainability in the cosmetics industry. The experts discussed how many brands don’t have a sustainability department and as such, it can be difficult to put the resources in place.
For many businesses, it may not be financially viable to set up a sustainability team or make new hires to pick up the work. Therefore, it’s often an add-on to existing departments, stretching resources thin. While a third-party certification, assessment, or another metric, can lighten the internal workload, it can also be costly.
As an industry, it’s essential to rethink the way that we develop and manufacture new ingredients and finished products. However, it’s not going to be an easy task. With government regulations evolving, the session concluded that it is essential that formulators consider the resilience of the ingredients and processes being used and how they will fare in the future.
When it comes to understanding their beauty ingredients and products, the professionals highlighted the notion that consumers often want black and white concepts and rules. But, in reality, the cosmetics landscape is grey. The professionals agreed that variety is (and will be) what leads to better sustainability overall.
Though some form of standardised metrics certainly needs to be implemented, a balance is essential. In order to create high-performing, innovative products, which are also able to stand up from a sustainability perspective, formulators need some flexibility to operate within parameters.
To drive genuine, positive change in the industry, collaboration and unification will be key in combatting the challenges that lie ahead.
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