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The general shopping economy has made major shifts as society pushes towards a more sustainable future amidst an ominous climate crisis. As both physical retail and eCommerce move forward, they now have to prioritize sustainability in their planning, as this buzzword has become a crucial factor in consumer purchasing decisions. 

Enter a newer phenomenon known as “Clean Beauty”. 

What is “Clean Beauty”?

According to research by Southern Marin Dermatology, “What once originated as “green beauty”, “clean beauty” is broadly defined as products that do good by people and the planet; with a focus on transparency and sustainability, but above all, avoiding “toxic” materials perceived to be potential endocrine disruptors, potential carcinogens, or irritants/allergens to ensure safety for consumers. While green beauty is tied to the provenance of ingredients and consumer health concerns, clean beauty evolved from the trust in natural and organic, as well as a lack of industry governance, to emphasize efficacy and safety.”

While harsh chemicals and contaminants linked to cancer can be found in everyday consumables, no sector of products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and wellness products. Although many of the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products pose little risk, exposure to some has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer. As this information was made more aware to the public, beauty influencers became ingredient-critical, and consumers were almost “scared straight” into seeking out more “clean” options. 

With the beauty industry rapidly expanding, the need for “clean beauty” products adds even more manufacturing to an already massive market. According to Forbes, the beauty market is a $532 billion sector of the economy and is experiencing rapid growth, with projections reaching over $390 billion globally by 2024.

But there’s a bit of a conundrum. 

Which Brands are Spearheading the Movement? 

The clean beauty phenomenon was kick-started by major celebrity influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow, the founder of Goop, and Jessica Alba, the founder of The Honest Company, who’ve both praised clean living through their lifestyle brands. The former stresses clean beauty in the pseudo-science type of way, while the latter emphasizes both the sustainability aspect and the science of clean beauty. 

In Paltrow’s 2016 book Goop Clean Beauty, she wrote, “At GOOP, we find it ironic that many of the U.S.’s biggest beauty companies use ingredients that are known to be harmful and then set up foundations and charities to support breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer research. To do our part, we fill the shelves … with products from companies that are doing better by all of us.” 

The influence that A-listers like Paltrow and Alba possess greatly impacted how beauty products are sold in both retail and eCommerce. 

Big names in the retail world like Target and Walmart are working hard to make clean products accessible to any consumer. In 2019, Target launched its clean beauty collection Versed. Versed is clean in the way of being vegan and cruelty-free, some of the many factors that fall under the “clean beauty” umbrella. Items in the collection, which include everything from facial cleansers to moisturizers, range from $5 to about $25. Walmart also has its own skincare brand called Earth to Skin, which is also available online, and at stores and products are $10 or less.

Sephora set stakes even higher when they introduced the Clean at Sephora initiative. As part of the campaign, the company marked over 2,000 products as “clean,” according to lifestyle media company Mind Body Green. Christine Chang, co-founder, and co-CEO of newly popular skincare company Glow Recipe said, “Sephora is seen as a leader in identifying clean beauty brands and products. Clean beauty has been around for a while, and every brand and retailer has a different definition of it, but Sephora definitely made it more official.” 

But the faulty information presented by heavy-hitters like Goop, and many of the companies Sephora has flagged, has been parroted by other A-listers and regular influencers alike. Unfortunately, the facts of the matter don’t fully support the fear-mongering sentiment. 

The Issues With “Clean Beauty” 

The main issue with clean beauty is that it’s not necessarily scientifically backed in any way. The word clean creates a false narrative, implying that all products that are not clean, aren’t just not clean- but toxic and harmful. It’s clear how this marketing can become detrimental. Demonizing certain ingredients out of the context of formulations is deceiving to well-meaning consumers. 

There isn’t even an existing regulatory agreement as to what exactly “clean beauty” really is. This means that any beauty company can slap a “clean” label on anything, without clearly defining the word clean. Is it environmentally clean? Are the product’s ingredients clean? Who’s to say? The FDA has yet to define exactly what clean or natural or green is. The kicker is that they aren’t required to test cosmetics and their ingredients, except color additives. As a result, brands, retailers, influencers, and celebrities have defined it for themselves, creating an environment filled with fear-mongering and misinformation. 

Clean beauty advocates point out that the FDA has banned only 11 substances from cosmetics, while the European Union has banned over 1300 ingredients. This dichotomy contributes to the mistrust and confusion here in the states. But if you take a closer look at the EU list of prohibited ingredients, many of the substances aren’t even used in most cosmetic products. Clean beauty through the ingredient lens is sketchy. However, when it comes to being environmentally clean, that’s a different story.

The Environmental Side of Clean Beauty

Since the lines are blurred between what’s really clean beauty and what isn’t, many consumers aren’t sure what angle they’re supporting; environmentally sustainable beauty, or health-conscious beauty. 

On the environmentally clean side, it’s no secret that sustainability drives sales. According to the latest reports from Zero Waste Week, beauty packaging amounts to roughly 120 billion units every year. That includes plastic, paper, glass, and metals, all of which will end up polluting the environment. 

Although consumers can help by separating recyclable pieces themselves, it is not convenient or realistic to expect consumers to take this responsibility. Furthermore, 8 million tons of plastic find their way into the ocean each year, and cosmetic containers overwhelmingly contribute to this. Plastic pollution has devastating consequences and the UN Environmental Program has warned that if the waste trend continues, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.

With sustainability’s insurmountable influence on consumers’ purchasing decisions, beauty brands had to rethink their approaches to their product launches. The Global Sustainability Study 2021, conducted by global strategy and pricing consultancy Simon-Kucher & Partners surveyed 10,000 people across 17 countries. The study showed that globally, 85 percent of consumers have shifted their purchase behavior towards being more sustainable in the past five years. Generational disparities play a huge role here. When looking at both Baby Boomers and Generation X, 24 percent across each have significantly changed their behavior towards being more sustainable. This jumps to 32 percent for Millennials. One-third of Millennials will choose a sustainable alternative when available, whereas older generations are less likely to choose sustainable alternatives actively.

The study also points out that globally, willingness to pay for sustainable products or services reaches its peak in the United States, (42 percent). And across industries, the urge to pay a premium for sustainable products is primarily seen in Consumer goods (38 percent), and the lowest for Energy/utilities (31 percent). 

This supports the fact that most marketing strategies surrounding clean beauty are clearly targeting younger, affluent audiences, as older generations typically stick to brands and labels they know and love, like Clinique or Lancome. 

The millennial-geared clientele has been pushing towards carving out their own sustainable habits and brands. As Harper’s Bazaar points out, shopping for beauty products in a sustainable way isn’t an easy task, especially due to the greenwashing taking the industry by storm. Greenwashing refers to providing false or misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally friendly.

For example, a glass container is more environmentally friendly than plastic packaging, but if it has been produced and imported from overseas, the air miles cut those sustainability efforts. There’s also the unspoken truth that what society puts in the recycling bin may not ever make it to its proper destination. Only 9 percent of harmful plastics produced worldwide are recycled.

But, have no fear. Beauty brands like Pacifica, The Body Shop, Lush, and others have made conscious efforts to be clean not only in their ingredients but its environmental footprint. Measures like vegan-friendly formulas, carbon-neutral packaging, refillable containers, and innovative alternative packaging have all been put in place by huge brands to reduce the adverse effects on our planet, and our skin. It’s going to take a very long time to reverse (or even begin to reverse) the effects of the beauty industry on the environment and the consumers negatively affected by greenwashing.