Sustainable cosmetics: stop talking and start taking action!

© Yayoi Kusama - Pumpkin, 1994, Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan

© Yayoi Kusama - Pumpkin, 1994, Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan

Our Instagram feeds, Facebook walls and TV screens are now full of images of plastic in the ocean and beaches covered with packaging. Pollution, alongside climate change, has now become part of the public debate and sometimes public policies. But practically speaking, a lot of this is greenwashing, and very little is changing: just take a walk down the aisles of your regular store, even in hipster neighbourhoods…

It is comforting to hear about initiatives to clean up the mess we have made for ourselves and for future generations. However, scientists agree on one thing: it is critical that we stop pouring these toxic materials into our environment, as we will never manage to clean them up fast enough. A few decades of plastic waste have started to decompose in the oceans and soil, and the much smaller particles are often now invisible and impossible to retrieve (but highly toxic) – so it is effectively a race against the clock, and everything is now accelerating.

Are a good deal of eco-responsible consumers ready to stop consuming altogether, make their own detergents at home and stop using shampoo? We doubt it, so we must find better ways to deal with the problem.

Like yin and yang, form and substance, we must take a holistic approach to cosmetics: thinking about both formula and packaging together.

1/ Formula

There are basically two sources of the substances you put on your skin: petroleum and plants. In conventional cosmetics, the vast majority of the non-water ingredients may be derived from petroleum. In truly responsible cosmetics, there are no petroleum-derived products whatsoever. On top of their benefits for your skin, plant-based cosmetics are by definition 100% biodegradable.
True to botanical principles, they use natural ingredients like shea butter and vegetable oils as the core of their textures. These natural formulas are even more respectful of the planet if they are organic (made of ingredients grown with limited impact on the environment, e.g. without pesticides or draining water resources), are from sustainable sources, and, if possible, use sustainable processes.

2/ Packaging

The choice is, unfortunately, limited. It is impossible to use paper or cardboard with water-rich or liquid products. We are left with plastic, glass, aluminium, some hybrid of these materials or new technologies.

  • Plastic is our planet’s worst enemy, even when labelled “recyclable”, as less than 10% ends up being recycled. The rest is burnt, buried or lost, none of which are satisfactory outcomes. Its weakness is its intrinsic toxicity. Its other weakness (from an environmental perspective) is its very low cost, an irrefutable argument in the eyes of organisations only driven by profit.

  • Aluminium requires a lot of energy to produce but is both light and infinitely recyclable. About 50% is currently recycled. Its main advantage is that it is non-toxic for the environment. 

  • Glass requires energy to produce and transport, but it is recyclable and non-toxic. Think about a glass jar lost in the ocean; it literally becomes a shelter for marine life. Unfortunately, glass is expensive.

  • As for hybrid packaging, as soon as it contains plastic (e.g. a plastic/aluminium hybrid), it becomes toxic for the environment and difficult and expensive to recycle – so should be avoided.

  • We are seeing a new generation of “eco-plastic” or “plant-plastic” materials – although they sound like oxymorons – which still require validation. Plant-based materials seem to be unable to stay in contact with creams and other liquids for long enough. Do they really and completely decompose in standard environments? Are they just offered to ease ethical consumers’ consciences?

If you have started avoiding using petroleum-derived products on your skin as you don’t want petroleum to enter your body, why tolerate it infiltrating and polluting the oceans and soil? Organic is not good enough. Sustainability is the objective.

Consumers hold the only key to change these appalling pollution levels: their purchasing power.

Ethical, truly eco-responsible brands are, unfortunately, a small minority and often have limited financial strength and low brand awareness. You can recognise them by the attention they pay to offering both environmentally friendly formulas and packaging. 

You will also notice that all these efforts to respect the environment have resulted in these brands finding very efficient solutions for your skin too.