Think about it: what percentage of the skincare and cosmetic products that you buy are used until they are empty? For me personally, that number is very small. With new ingredients getting discovered, new celebrities dropping beauty lines and constant improvements in formulations, there are new products being launched every single day. This is all very exciting because we all want the newest, the most high-tech; and the most effective products on the market in the pursuit of perfect skin – can you blame us?
However, our overconsumption of skincare and cosmetic products is creating detrimental, long-lasting environmental impacts. Organic Monitor, a London-based company specializing in research, consulting and training for ethical and sustainable industries, reported that the highest environmental impact of cosmetics is at the consumer level . This means that our consumption has an even greater environmental impact than the impact of raw materials and packaging. This same report emphasizes that re-formulating products with green ingredients, using fewer resources and eco-design are only part of the solution; where sustainable purchasing and responsible consumption at the consumer level is the real way forward .
The report also brought up some barriers associated with consumers opting for more sustainable options, including: lack of choices, high prices and the perceived lower quality of green cosmetics . Additionally, the prevalence of “greenwashing”, a technique used by companies to give the appearance of being eco-friendly and sustainable without actually being so, misleads consumers into thinking they’re making better choices.
However, on a positive note, the advances in social media allows for brands to engage with consumers; providing an opportunity for education and transparency. In this way, skincare and cosmetic brand are able to address some of these barriers to sustainable consumption through this 2-way dialogue.
So, why do we need to worry about this now? Well, apart from the fact that we have about 7 years to act before we reach an irreversible climate emergency, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the global middle class is expected to grow from 2 billion to 5 billion by 2030 . In this way, we are experiencing an emergence and growth of the middle class in developing countries, where large cosmetic corporations like Proctor & Gamble and L’Oreal are looking to expand into these regions . With greater purchasing power in these regions comes increased consumption, thus contributing to the over-consumption problem still persisting in the west.
What Can You Do to Help?
The best way to make yourself part of the solution is to reduce your skincare consumption. Rather than going out and buying all new eco-friendly and sustainable skincare, use what you have first. If you don’t like what you have (it’s irritating, does not work, etc.), then you don’t absolutely HAVE to use those products on your face. Instead, find a way to repurpose them such as: using witch hazel on your bruises rather than as a toner, using an ineffective or heavily fragranced cleanser as a body wash (patch test first), cleaning and re-using cosmetic jars; and/or using your old exfoliants as a body scrub rather than on your fact (I’m talking about you, St. Ives).
Sometimes, we can’t avoid not using a product because we don’t know how our skin will tolerate it, however finding alternate uses for skincare products can help prevent an ineffective or irritating product from going straight into the landfill. Further, if you do need to buy a product, opt for one that is eco-friendly and sustainable. If you don’t know which products or brands these are, do some research.
A good tip is to look for products that come in re-usable and minimal packaging, are free of environment-harming chemicals (parabens, sulfates, formaldehyde, propylene glycol, alcohols, phthalates and butylated compounds), free of microbeads and synthetic glitter; and have information available regarding the product’s or brand’s material sourcing and production . The general rule of thumb is, the more transparent a brand is, the better. Lastly, if you are buying a new product, do so mindfully. Put in some research before purchasing so know exactly what’s in the product; and have an idea about whether the product is the right fit for you. For example, if you know you’re sensitive to fragrance, look up the ingredients to ensure the product is free of fragrance before you buy. In this way, you avoid wasting the product and wasting your own money.
Above all, the biggest tip is to educate yourself on how to be an informed consumer. The products that companies produce are dictated by the laws of supply and demand. As long as we are purchasing products with excess packaging, environmentally toxic ingredients and unsustainably sourced raw materials, our consumer behaviour acts as positive reinforcement for these cosmetic brands to continue what they’re doing.
By shifting our support to more environmentally conscious and sustainable brands, that is our way of telling the cosmetic industry that these are now the types of products we want; and to start making more of them. Whether you perceive it as a good thing or a bad thing, companies speak in terms of dollars and cents. The good thing is that we, as consumers, have the power to dictate what it is that we want out of our products by choosing what brands we support. The bad thing is that, if we don’t put in the effort to make informed choices, we are giving up this power.
 Monitor, O. (2013, April 26). Environmental Impact of Cosmetics: Consumers Hold the Key. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/35541-Environmental-Impact-of-Cosmetics-Consumers-Hold-the-Key
 The Emerging Middle Class in Developing Countries. (2010). OECD Development Centre Working Papers. doi:10.1787/5kmmp8lncrns-en
 'Beauty is Pain': How the Environment Suffers From Cosmetic Waste. (2019, June 24). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://cirem.com/beauty-is-pain-how-the-environment-suffers-from-cosmetic-waste/