Skin Deep: Evaluating the Cosmetics Industry for Sustainability

The global cosmetics industry nets about $20 billion in sales annually, and its pull is far-reaching around the world.  In the United States the industry is a huge part of the popular culture, funding profitable magazines and popular shows like Project Runway.  In Seoul, Korea, cosmetic stores are usually the first to open and last to close, and many subway stations boast a small outlet.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for his political survival as a scandal involving Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oréal fortune and by most accounts the wealthiest woman in France, keeps making front page news there and abroad.

The cosmetics industry has a more personal influence in our lives, too.  Debates about its social consequences rage, and now cosmetics’ effects on health and even our planet are increasingly drawing consumers’ attention.  The industry is responding in kind; more companies tout the “green” and “natural” virtues of their products, and everything that is supposed to be good for you such as green tea and yuzu purport promises everything from shaving off years to “revitalizing” (what does that mean?) to obliterating crows’ feet (what do the crows have to say about that insult?).

One issue with evaluating cosmetics in the US and other countries is that regulators do not focus on their health effects to the degree they zero in on food and pharmaceuticals.  In the US, a food processing firm that slaps a dubious “organic” label on its packages risks a nasty-gram from the from the Food and Drug Administration; such a label on a US$100 ramekin of night crème may raise doubts, but the industry is largely unregulated, enjoying free reign when disclosing manufacturing practices or ingredients.  Many ingredients in cosmetics, including sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, and those from petrochemicals, are at a minimum, nauseating, and at most, could have damaging consequences in the long term.  Then there is that ubiquitous ingredient, “fragrance,” which manufacturers rarely describe, but somehow, comprises a greater proportion of that lotion, body wash, or hair tonic than that “natural ingredient” such as white tea, almond extract, or grapeseed oil.  Of course, there is the time-worn disclosure that the product was not tested on animals, which often means that the company did not have to because someone else already completed that dirty deed.

The chances of a complete transformation in the industry are fairly low – cosmetic companies are highly profitable but at the same time, spend a tidy sum on research and development.  It is easier to get upset over something that one eats instead of what is dabbed under one’s eye.  Recent acquisitions such as Clorox’s purchase of the iconic natural brand Burt’s Bees and Johnson & Johnson’s licensing agreement with Korres, a Greek manufacturer of natural beauty products, gives such companies a distribution channel that did not exist before.  Greater reach could create more consumer interest and demand for safer products.  In the meantime, however, the Environmental Working Group has a safety guide and database of information that the EWG’s researchers have vetted.  The desire to look good has existed for millennia, is not a bad thing, and will not go away; but increased consumer awareness and more transparency from companies as to what they are slipping into their products could help make the industry more trustworthy and their products, safer.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

Leave a Reply