Decoding Clean Beauty Standards
Thanks to mobile technology, social media and the internet, consumers are now demanding more transparency in product selection and are themselves ushering in one of the personal care industry’s biggest shifts in consumer behaviour: the era of transparency and traceability.
"...as many as 87% of global consumers consider a company’s social and environmental stance before making a purchase choice. "
The modern consumer comes highly informed with specific demands pertaining to price, ingredient selection, delivery options, production methods, environmental concerns and welfare distribution and studies show that as many as 87% of global consumers consider a company’s social and environmental stance before making a purchase choice. Furthermore, a 2019 Retail and Sustainability survey conducted by CGS indicates that more than 45% of consumers are willing to pay more for products they know to be sustainable. Over 7 out of 10 consumers say that it is important that brands offer “clean” products (78%), are environmentally responsible (77%), support recycling (76%) or use natural ingredients ((72%). Such expectations of consumers in regard to corporate social responsibility show that sustainability is no longer an option. It is a necessity.
"Amid a lack of distinct regulation, retailers appear to have the power to decide which ingredients make the clean beauty cut – and increasingly, they are exercising it."
Many high profile companies have put sustainability practices into place to varying success, as the demand for consumer-led transparency grows. However, in a beauty industry full of slippery marketing concepts, communicating the concept of clean beauty may be one of the slipperiest. Amid a lack of distinct regulation, retailers appear to have the power to decide which ingredients make the clean beauty cut – and increasingly, they are exercising it.
Sephora has been under fire recently for the launch of its Clean Beauty Seal which attempts to separate ‘clean’ chemicals and those that will no longer be accepted into their retail stores. While Sephora’s Public Chemical Policy acknowledges that their ‘responsibility includes an increasing focus on product safety and sustainability’ and is based on identification of a list of high-priority chemicals for reduction and elimination from their personal care offering based on a unique Restricted Substances list, critics have been quick to counter that this policy causes customer confusion and exhibits a distinct lack of common sense.
According to Sephora, mineral oils (defined as carcinogenic) are not ok but polyethylene glycols and PEGs (known to cause genotoxicity and DNA replication damage) pass the clean test. Synthetic fragrances derived from petrochemicals under 1% are fine (even though they are widely known to be endocrine disruptors and carcinogens), but sulfates and parabens that also affect the hormonal cascade aren’t. While one must congratulate Sephora for attempting to tackle the murky world of clean beauty, the Clean Beauty Seal as it now stands has the potential to cause discord and confusion among both consumers and manufacturers.
Ingredient transparency is the foundation of successful chemical policy and the concept does raise some level of total consumer awareness, for which it must be applauded. Similarly, Sephora’s partnership with ChemForward, a non-profit collaboration working to accelerate safer chemicals to the marketplace is a step in the right direction, as is their collaboration with Novi Connect, in an attempt to provide suppliers with tools to help them identify safer alternatives for product ingredients. As the first global beauty retailer to create a public chemical policy and acknowledging their goal to replace high-priority chemicals with safer alternatives, Sephora has the power to enforce enormous change in an industry known for its questionable ‘clean and natural’ marketing strategies.
"Best practise would be to share formulation philosophy and let consumers decide if these philosophies align with their own..."
Currently, Sephora maintains that the Clean Beauty Seal was developed by industry experts, external consultants and its own sustainability team, and yet refuses to name such parties and their rationale for ingredient exclusion and acceptance, leaving them open to negative pushback from suppliers and consumers alike. Whilst Sephora boasts that this list increases transparency in the shopping process, it exhibits a distinct lack of transparency in the way it was reached, and so while a truly empowered customer shoulder be able to trust this list wholeheartedly, currently this proves difficult. Best practise would be to share formulation philosophy and let consumers decide if these philosophies align with their own; here in lies the tremendous marketing opportunity available to those companies with nothing to hide.
Go for Good is another unique sustainability offering that blends retail and social responsibility to interesting effect. A movement created by Galeries Lafayette, it is a collective and creative initiative that aims to focus corporate energy on the three distinct pillars of environmental preservation, social development and local production. In keeping with the Galeries Lafayette vision to be a responsible and ethical employer, a driver of ecological transition and a showcase for responsible fashion, Go for Good involves services and articles that are selected on the basis of environmental impact and social welfare, and invites responsible brands to be highlighted as sustainable in order to gain market share of the 60% of consumers who say they are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative impact to the environment and local society.
Go for Good displays utmost transparency on their own website in recognition of the concept’s limitation with regard to being solely product-based, rather than brand-based and freely admits that only a small percentage of the products sold by the Galeries Lafayette Group meet the strict Go for Good criteria. It also notes that a Go for Good product is not necessarily sustainable across all areas, so although one may be environmentally friendly, it may not be locally produced.
Lastly it clearly acknowledges that the criteria are not all-inclusive and notions of durability are not considered. Although the program is somewhat flawed, perhaps it is more important to look at the practices of Galeries Lafayette itself in determination of sustainable success. 100% of the electricity used in the retail stores comes from renewable sources, 3200 square metres of urban agriculture is cultivated on the roofs of stores, and many stores also host beehives on their rooftops to contribute to biodiversity preservation. Furthermore, in a move towards social responsibility, 5.3% of their employees have a form of disability and 65% of managers are female. Go for Good and Galeries Lafayette are consistently making small movements towards a sustainable future and perhaps in an obvious European/ US marketing comparison, unlike Sephora, they appear to be doing so in a quiet and responsive manner that relies less on marketing spin and more on implementation of change across a wide variety of platforms to best serve their community and society as a whole, yet it must be noted that with a goal of 25% of all products under the Go for Good banner by 2024, this is a small gesture rather than a defiant stand.
"REACH in particular places responsibility on industry to manage risks that chemicals or consumer articles may pose to public health and to the environment. "
Corporate sustainability critics note a distinct lack of regulation and legislation around chemical and environmental processes, dispute research regarding potential posed risks and question the validity of movements like Go for Good and the Clean Beauty Seal, filing them under the guise of ‘cleanwash’ marketing.
Organisations like REACH, a regulation of the European Union, aim to counter these arguments through establishment of procedures for collecting and assessing information on the properties and hazards of chemical substances, as they relate to personal use. REACH in particular places responsibility on industry to manage risks that chemicals or consumer articles may pose to public health and to the environment. Most REACH requirements apply directly to manufacturers and importers who must register substances by supplying data on properties of their chemicals, and downstream users like the personal care industry who rely and benefit from these chemicals in product formulation.
Manufacturers are also obliged under REACH to develop chemical safety assessments and implement risk management measures. Lastly, REACH supports the concept of data sharing to minimise animal testing in regard to chemical effects. This concept however remains controversial as the market appears reluctant to share data due to competition concerns. Furthermore, while REACH offers strong guidelines and processes for chemical manufacturing, it requires coordination between international supply chain members to bring its directives to full effect, a concept fraught with danger. Whether these kinds of organisations provide long-term synergistic benefit is yet to be determined, but at the very least, REACH provides a signpost for future regulation and collaboration that is much needed at an international level to enact definite change.
"The compromise of ethical responsibility and corporate capitalism has long been one of antagonism..."
The United Nations defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, and while most socially responsible individuals support this concept, the question remains: how can personal care companies leverage this era of sustainability as a platform for growth? The compromise of ethical responsibility and corporate capitalism has long been one of antagonism and yet for brands prepared to be transparent, fluid and self-aware in their inherent design and communication, this new era heralds an opportunity to separate themselves from antiquated companies with archaic attitudes towards consumer values in order to create long-lasting and confident moves towards sustainable success.