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What Do Ethical and Sustainable Meant to Today's Beauty Consumer?

Imogen Matthews,

Increased media focus on sustainability, provenance and the environment is striking a chord with consumers of all types of products; cosmetics and toiletries is no exception. The trend for organic and natural food has spilled over into beauty as consumers start to question what they are putting on their bodies. “The upward trend in the natural personal care market has been carried from natural food products,” affirms Carrie Mellage, director of personal care products for U.S. research company Kline*. “Natural personal brands are considered to be more trustworthy and do not harm the skin.”

Not only does this mean taking a stance on natural/organic ingredients, but also reflecting on whether it is ethical to use a product that has been flown thousands of miles across the world or includes ingredients that may endanger the environment and people’s livelihoods. “It’s great to have exotic ingredients, but not if they are destroying rain forests,” maintains Nica Lewis, head consultant for GNPD Cosmetic Research, Mintel*.

Recently, Greenpeace published a report titled Cooking the Climate that implicates personal care companies, including large multinationals, in the purchase of palm oil from suppliers who are actively engaged in burning forests and draining peat lands in Indonesia to satisfy Western demand for consumer products.

As the media draws attention to environmental and sustainability issues, consumers are questioning the ethics of companies that may mislead in their “green” or “fair trade” positioning. As consumers become more knowledgeable and critical about these issues, they are increasingly sensitive to issues or claims that can be considered “greenwashing,” a term used to describe unfounded or irrelevant environmental claims.

However, few beauty companies are moving quickly to address consumers’ growing questions on sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. “The production facilities of some natural manufacturers have shifted to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, but so far, very few companies are doing this,” says Mellage. “Some marketers are looking to source their ingredients via more renewable and environmentally friendly methods.” The brands she cites includes The Body Shop, Dr Hauschka, L’Occitane, Aveda, Weleda, Lavera and Primavera.

Is it Fairly Traded?

It was Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, who first introduced “community trade ingredients” to global personal care by setting up local projects with Third World communities to purchase ingredients, such as Brazil nut oil and shea butter. Today, the company is owned by L’Oréal and adheres to the brand’s original principles by sourcing approximately 25 natural ingredients from community trade projects. For example, its makeup range includes marula oil, and affords Namibian women, who produce the oil, the opportunity to earn an above-average price for the oil. The Body Shop can also claim to use the world’s first fair trade aloe vera sourced from Guatemala, which is used in its skin and body care range. Proceeds from the purchase of this ingredient is funding the source community’s efforts to provide local schools with the latest educational resources.

Organic Monitor’s* Fair Trade Cosmetics & Ingredients report reveals that France is the largest market for fair trade personal care products. The report states that the naturals and organics market has been concentrated in Europe, but North America is catching up quickly. However, the number of fair trade certified ingredients is limited, which could hamper growth of fair trade beauty products.

Ticking the Green Box

Weleda is one of the forerunners of natural and ethically sourced personal care products, with a company history dating back to the early 1920s. The company developed from the work of Rudolph Steiner and Ita Wegman, who explored how man’s soul and spiritual nature relates to the health and function of the physical body. Today, 50% of Weleda’s fair trade partners currently employ biodynamic methods, and the company is working toward a target of 100%. Where wild ingredients are required, ethical sourcing is assured. When some crops have to be outsourced to fair trade farmers, all must produce ingredients of pharmaceutical quality.

U.K. organic skin care brand Organic Apoteke* takes an integrative approach, believing that beauty does not have to come at the expense of health, the environment or lives of animals. Its touchstone is “first do no harm,” one of the principal precepts all medical students are taught. For Organic Apoteke, this means testing raw ingredients for heavy metals and environmental toxins, minimizing impact on the environment by using recycled paper and sustainable energy for its manufacturing plant, supporting organic farming and testing products on human volunteers.

Nude, a U.K. natural skin care brand, strives to make responsible decisions to reduce materials, pollution and waste. Much of its packaging is made from recycled and corn-biodegradable materials, and the company is working to make 100% of its packaging from post-consumer recycled or biodegradable materials. In terms of formulations, some, but not all, ingredients are organic, fair trade and community traded.

U.S. natural personal care brand Burt’s Bees has published its first corporate social responsibility report on its Web site. The Greater Good Social and Environmental Progress Report: 2008 and Before documents its commitment to sustainable business practices. This follows Burt’s Bees’ own natural standard, set up to help consumers understand and identify truly natural products.

Operating in a completely ethical and sustainable manner means a lot more than including natural or organic ingredients in a formulation. It may not be easy to tick all the boxes, but those companies seen to behave in an ethical and transparent manner are likely to win over today’s skeptical consumers.

*Kline, Mintel, Organic Monitor and Organic Apoteke are participants in the marketing trends presentations at the April 21–23, 2009, In-cosmetics show in Munich, Germany. For further information, visit

Imogen Matthews is a consultant to In-cosmetics. For more information, contact