An A-to-Z List of Sustainability Terms to Know in the Beauty Industry

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An A-to-Z List of Sustainability Terms to Know in the Beauty Industry featured image
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This article first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe


Ericka Rodriguez founded her sustainable cosmetics brand Axiology—her zero-waste balmies are a fan favorite—after discovering animal testing still existed in the beauty industry. “I’ve been an animal welfare activist since I was a little girl, but I never knew that animal testing and animal-derived ingredients could be found in my makeup! I recommend looking for the Leaping Bunny logo on your beauty products, as it is the global gold standard for cruelty-free cosmetics.”


There are now more than 100 beauty companies with B Corp certification, including The Body Shop, Davines and Sunday Riley. “B Corporations are businesses that live the highest social and environmental standards for people and the planet,” explains Hilary Lloyd, vice president of marketing and corporate responsibility for North America at The Body Shop. “As one of the world’s largest B Corps, we meet the highest externally verified standard of environmental performance, accountability and transparency.”


Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo Beauty, says a “carbon footprint” refers to the total greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that a person, company or government puts into the atmosphere as a result of their actions. “For a beauty brand, this includes emissions from growing, extracting and refining ingredients used in products and for packaging, as well as emissions from shipping.”


Davis says products like sheet masks and wipes that are labeled “biodegradable” don’t actually decompose in landfills, but nonetheless, many brands use the term for marketing purposes to appear eco-friendly. “For an object to disintegrate, it has to be done under the right conditions, and this is rarely the case. It’s yet another example of greenwashing [more on that below].”


Eco-conscious brands also closely monitor their energy consumption during product manufacturing. “At Biossance, our products are developed in a facility certified by My Green Lab, which is the gold standard for laboratory sustainability practices for responsible usage of energy, waste and water,” says Catherine Gore, brand president.


If you see the “FSC-certified” label on a product, it means the product comes from responsibly managed forests. “The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) creates and upholds responsible forest management principles,” says Jina Kim, founder of skin-care brand Circumference, who says this certification was a non-negotiable for her to show the brand’s commitment to sustainability. “For a company to be certified, each link in the supply chain must also have certifications to manage traceability.”


You may have heard the term “greenwashing,” which, as Davis explains, is meant to overstate the “eco-friendliness” of a product. “For example, to use recycling arrows on a product that is not recyclable. Or, imagery on product packaging to evoke ‘naturalness’ that may not be present within the formula. Credo is working to end greenwashing by clearly defining these terms and requiring that brands obtain documentation on ingredient source and processing.”

If you see the “FSCcertified” label on a product, it means the product comes from responsibly managed forests.


Kim says it’s important for beauty brands to adhere to responsible harvesting techniques because many desirable botanicals are at risk. “At Circumference, we source plants from their native areas so that we’re able to trace each of our ingredients to their origins and ensure they are harvested to our high standards. Going even a step further, we’ve developed a sourcing initiative called WasteNot, as we believe it’s the company that should shoulder the environmental responsibility, not the consumers.”


“Ingredient transparency is one key way the beauty industry can become more sustainable, from brands knowing every single step in the supply chain, to using ingredients that are proven safe for people and the planet,” says Elena Severin, senior director of merchandising for The Detox Market. “Palm oil is an example of the social and environmental impacts a single ingredient can have, from the deforestation that is contributing to global warming, to the harm done to the surrounding indigenous c-ommunities.”


Plastic has long been the first choice for beauty product packaging, but the tides are changing, as glass jars and bottles offer a much more sustainable option due to their 100-percent recyclability—they’re mostly made from sustainable materials like sand and limestone, too. “Other lower-waste packaging options include products that come package-free, like shampoo bars, or those housed in aluminum or paper,” Severin adds.


The packaging products are shipped in matters, too. “At MARA, our compact, no-fuss recycled kraft boxes with recycled kraft crinkle paper came out of the resentment I had toward receiving massive mailers,” says founder Allison McNamara. “Let’s be real, the recipient literally opens the mailer and throws out the box.”

Upcycling is essential to create a circular economy.


According to Zero Waste Week, more than 120 billion units of beauty product packaging are produced globally every year, and researchers estimate that close to 70 percent of it ends up in landfills.


“Typically, beauty packaging has more than one material in its composition, whether it’s two or more types of plastic, or plastic with metal attached,” explains MOB Beauty cofounder Victor Casale. “The mixing of materials makes it almost impossible to sort and recycle this type of packaging efficiently, and therefore it has to be disposed of in a landfill or incinerated. At MOB, our PCR PET packaging is made from the same material throughout, making it much more likely that it will be recycled efficiently. We are also testing compostable packaging.”


To divert hard-to-recycle beauty products from landfills, nonprofit organizations like Pact Collective and How2Recycle make it easier for consumers to get their empties into the right hands. Pact, which was cofounded by Credo, helps beauty companies move toward a more circular mission; How2Recycle creates smart packaging labels for products that clearly communicate the recycling instructions.


Brands such as Biossance, REN Clean Skincare and One Ocean Beauty share a dedicated mission to support—not disturb—the ocean’s critical ecosystem. “At Biossance, our commitment to the ocean runs deep—from shark-saving ingredient innovation to sustainable, ocean-friendly packaging,” says Gore. “We also partner with Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation.”

Mitchell Pettigrew/Getty Images


“PCR stands for Post-Consumer Recycled, and PCR plastics have a lower carbon footprint than virgin plastics, making them one tool in reducing the amount of plastic the beauty industry generates,” says Severin. “At Detox Market, we are continuing to inspire change in the industry by doing things like setting a goal to be plastic-neutral by 2023.”


Don’t be afraid to ask questions, whether it be to your local government about recycling programs, or your favorite beauty brands about their sustainability efforts and goals. Some brands, including LUSH, bareMinerals and Origins, even offer product rewards for recycling.


Severin says refillable packaging is important because it’s another way to reduce plastic waste. “I always recommend starting with products you use every day and repurchase regularly, like shampoo, conditioner and supplements. Two brands that stand out are Kjaer Weis, which was one of the first to make refillable makeup chic and functional, and Kora Organics, which offers a capsule refill for its Turmeric Glow Moisturizer that comes in a really pretty vessel.”


“Single-use beauty products include sheet masks, wipes and similar one-and-done beauty products that are only used for a few minutes and cannot be recycled,” says Davis. “Even though this type of product is super convenient, the undesirable ‘end-of-life’ scenario led us to take action, which is why we eliminated all single-use products at Credo as of June 2021.”


More beauty brands—Necessaire, Garnier and Noble Panacea, to name a few—are teaming up with a company called TerraCycle to help recycle beauty products that won’t make the cut in the standard blue bin. Nordstrom also launched a program called BeautyCycle in tandem with the nonprofit: Look for a bin in the beauty department and drop off your empties during your next shopping trip.


A big trend in beauty, upcycling involves using materials and ingredients that would otherwise become waste to create new products and formulas. “Upcycling is essential to create a circular economy, which is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems,” says Irene Forte, founder of the eponymous skin-care brand, who uses upcycled ingredients like olive seed oil and red grape skin—utilizing all parts of the fruits—in her line. “This is the only way to have a sustainable future.”


Many beauty product labels are printed with traditional petroleumbased ink, but there’s an ecofriendly alternative: “At MARA, we use soy- and vegetable-based inks to print our unit cartons,” says McNamara. “Vegetable-based ink is made with vegetable oil, which can include soybean oil, as a substitute for petroleum. It also significantly reduces the amount of VOCs—volatile organic compounds—that get released into the air during printing.”


“While not the largest user of water, the beauty industry is a growing contributor to water waste,” says Dr. Conny Wittke, cofounder of SUPERZERO, a waterless hair-care brand. “Water is ubiquitous in beauty formulas and one of the first ingredients listed on bottled products. Liquid shampoo, for example, usually contains 80 to 90-percent water, which doesn’t make much sense given that we have water in the shower. Additionally, water is the reason why beauty products have to be packaged in plastic bottles.”


In recycling, dark plastic refers to near-black plastics that cannot be verified on a high-speed sorting process by methods like optical scanning and X-ray fluorescence (XRF). “In most Municipal Recycling Facilities, if the scanner cannot identify a material, it does not have a chance to be recycled,” Casale notes. “At MOB, we use Ampacet REC-NIR Black, an additive that allows our black PCR material to be recognized.”


“Almost all recycling facilities in the U.S. cannot sort materials smaller than a yogurt cup,” says Casale, noting that this greatly impacts how smaller products get recycled. “The process typically uses large conveyor belts, and small items fall through into a bin and do not get sorted. Instead, they’re either sent to a landfill or incinerated.”


To Rodriguez, “zero-waste” means transitioning from our existing linear economy (make thing, use thing, put thing in trash) into a circular economy (make thing with recycled materials, use thing, put what you didn’t use in a compost or recycling bin). “The goal is to make sure nothing ends up in landfills, the ocean or incinerators, and can be reused in some fashion.”

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