Environmentalists and scientists have long struggled with getting people to see climate change as something that impacts their everyday lives, rather than a distant threat. With sales of cosmetic and personal care products marketed as ‘anti-pollution’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘natural’ rocketing in recent years, it would seem that, on the surface, the beauty industry has cracked this particular conundrum.
But given the beauty industry is itself a large polluter, are the companies selling products that promise to protect our skin and hair from pollution doing enough to address their role in creating it? Or are they simply cashing in on climate change?
“The problem with ‘anti-pollution’ beauty products is that they are intervening at the wrong place in the system,” says Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
“At best, individual consumer products that claim to protect us from pollution may mislead us with marketing claims; at worst they may actually deter the real solutions when consumers feel like they have protected themselves, so are less inspired to work with others for the regulatory and business solutions that could protect everyone,” she says.
Looking at the cycle of water through the beauty supply chain illustrates this issue well. Water – or aqua, as it is often listed – is the main ingredient in a lot of beauty products. Large quantities of it are required to manufacture many of the synthetic chemicals used in them and deal with waste by-products. Because most beauty products are liquid chemicals, they need packaging that doesn’t disintegrate, such as plastic, which is also water- and energy-intensive to make. After manufacturing, the products are shipped to retailers, meaning more energy is used to transport what is mostly water.
THE PROBLEM WITH ‘ANTI-POLLUTION’ BEAUTY PRODUCTS IS THAT THEY ARE INTERVENING AT THE WRONG PLACE IN THE SYSTEMANNIE LEONARD, GREENPEACE USA
Once in the home, products like shampoo and face wash need more water to rinse them off. The waste chemicals from these products – some of which are toxic – end up going down the drain and into our waterways. Then, even more water is required to wash the packaging so it can be recycled (although the majority of bathroom waste doesn’t even get recycled). Unrecycled plastic packaging that doesn’t end up in landfill finds its way into our seas and litters our beaches, harming marine life and getting into food chains.
Several beauty brands are already making progress in reducing their water footprint, with ‘waterless beauty’ – which includes pastes, powders and no-rinse cleansers – set to be a big beauty trend. For example, Pits and Bits has created a ‘towel off’ shampoo that doesn’t require rinsing, while Korean beauty brand Whamisa has brought out a range that uses botanical extracts instead of water.