How Sustainable Are Your Sustainable Beauty Products?

How Sustainable Are Your Sustainable Beauty Products?

Find out if the products you’ve been sold in the name of sustainability are genuinely sustainable.

You browse the latest cosmetics online, traverse through your favourite beauty store aisles, or check a beauty blogger recommending the latest cosmetics. A common sight today in all these situations is—sustainable beauty has become the talk of the town. They’re all taking the sustainability route from homegrown brands to established brands.

There’s no denying that this industry is growing at an exponential rate. And, you’ll be surprised to know that according to the Indian Retailer company’s report, the organic beauty industry is estimated to reach a whopping $25.11 billion in 2025.

Though these numbers reconfirm the boom of sustainable cosmetic products, it also raises an important question.

What does sustainability mean in the beauty industry?

Sustainability is a subjective term.

For some, sustainability may mean chemical-free, while for others, it could be using gentler products on the skin/hair and the environment. It could mean ethical pay to the labourers or using products with a minimal carbon footprint.

Every brand and customer out there holds a unique understanding of this term.

Overall, sustainability boils down to identifying factors that are non-negotiable to you as a customer or a brand. And it also involves identifying factors that you are willing to forego when using/providing a product/service. So, for example, ethical pay to labourers wouldn’t be a matter of concern for one consumer. But for the same consumer, sustainably-procured raw materials could be non-negotiable. This perception reveals that sustainability doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all interpretation. 

Unfortunately, sustainability has become beauty brands’ latest marketing ploy—just another tactic to cage a customer’s attention and lure them into making the purchase.

Even so, the irony is:

A brand may claim to be the most sustainable but may cause massive damage to the environment. E.g., a brand that swears by only using organic raw materials but doesn’t mind using single-use plastic packaging. Or a brand takes pride in using refillable bottles but then uses toxic chemicals in formulations.

Is that brand wholly sustainable, then?

Since we’re talking packaging here, allow me to shed light on yet another burning question:

Is green packaging the only factor that makes for a sustainable brand?

According to ZeroWaste, about 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging are produced globally in a year. Unfortunately, 90% of this packaging is plastic. Think about all the lipsticks, lotions, sunscreen tubes, eyeliner sticks, and face compact cases—all of these are packaged in plastic. Unfortunately, only 9% of this plastic is recycled, and the rest is dumped into landfills. Nevertheless, consumers rapidly wake up to its menace and demand sustainable packaging alternatives due to much talk about plastic pollution.

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Chanel, and Augustinus Bader, paid heed to their customers’ demands. And switched to earth-friendly packaging in the form of:

  • recyclable aluminium tins
  • boxes made from renewable plant fibres
  • refillable glass container with caps made from Camellia husks

Kudos to these brands for being the first movers on the road to sustainability. However, is packaging the only factor that makes a product sustainable?

If the brand’s USP is responsible packaging but:

  • uses toxic raw materials
  • practices unethical ingredient sourcing
  • employs convenient but damage-causing production techniques

Then it’s nothing but a strategy to mask greenwashing.

Are sustainable/natural raw materials always conducive to the good health of the environment?

The moment most of us read labels saying ‘Made with handpicked, organic raw materials’, we instantly assume this: ‘Excellent for my and the planet’s well being’.

Still, let’s dig deeper and put these raw materials through a sustainability test.

Palm Oil

About 70% of organic beauty products use this oil and its derivatives. Approximately 200 + ingredients used in skin and hair care products are derived from this oil. For example, lipsticks, lotions, and compacts have a high percentage of palm oil.

Often companies hide palm oil in the ingredient list under many different names, such as:

  • Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate/Sulphate or Hydrated Palm Glycerides
  • Ethyl Palmitate
  • Octyl Palmitate
  • Palmityl Alcohol

This dubious behaviour by such companies shows that palm oil isn’t the most sustainable alternative but is it that harmful?

Palm oil is safe and natural. But the way it is grown is not. Corporations (private and public alike) clear out extensive areas of rainforest land to cultivate oil palms. This cutting down of precious forest land has caused an unfortunate loss of endangered species like tigers, elephants, and rhinos. What’s even worse is—that once the oil palms are harvested, the land is burnt down to cultivate more oil palms. However, this land takes a long time to become fertile again.

Thankfully, many companies worldwide have realised the dire consequences caused by unsustainable palm oil production. To combat this, many companies and NGOs have come together to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This establishment has committed to jointly tackling environmental issues caused due to unsustainable palm oil production. Furthermore, they’ve pledged to procure palm oil only from sources that use sustainable means.

While these are excellent measures to patrol unsustainable palm oil production, rampant palm oil production is still taking place.

Sandalwood

Sandalwood is a staple ingredient in organic beauty products. Moreover, it is best known for its healing properties and treating various skin problems.

This wood is among the ones with the highest commercial value globally. And to match up the supply with its skyrocketing demand, it is overharvested—almost to the level of extinction.

This staggering demand has birthed a black market in states of India, leading to smuggling chains. Although the government has laid out stringent rules for the sustainable production and harvest of sandalwood, the malpractices continue.

One more factor that has impacted the growth of sandalwood trees is climate change. This tree needs specific soil composition and weather conditions to survive. But the extreme climates have made it difficult for these trees to sustain.

Candelilla Wax

Candelilla wax is widely used in lip balms and lotion bars. Though it is considered a sustainable raw material, it is true otherwise.

Candelilla wax is extracted from a desert plant, Euphorbia Cerifera and this plant is native to the deserts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Since this wax is extracted from plants, it’s considered vegan & environmentally safe.

In the last many years, this plant has gained popularity and has been harvested recklessly to fulfill the demands. Unfortunately, due to this, its yield has declined.

Citizen Sustainable published an article sharing that workers travel on burros 100s of miles to harvest the plant. And these pitiful animals carry 150+ pounds of plants on their backs.

Even worse, sulfuric acid is used to process Candelilla wax. Even with protective gear, this acid can cause severe consequences to the workers. We can only imagine the plight of workers who are not given any protective aid.

How can we as consumers identify if a brand is truly sustainable?

  • As a buyer, you can look out for the Leaping Bunny logo. This globally recognised logo implies that the product wasn’t tested on animals. Remember, sustainability doesn’t only have to mean natural; it also has to ensure that no other creature was harmed during the development of a product.
  • The second logo that can help you decide if the product is truly sustainable is the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance logo. A brand can print this logo on its products only if it is sustainable on three levels: social, environmental and economic.
  • Exercise your research skills. Please read up on the brand policy, mission, and vision. There is so much you can decipher by analysing their online presence.

The road to including authentic, sustainable products may seem overwhelming. However, you don’t have to look for the end of the tunnel. Instead, take the first step and start with what you can.

But take that step. It’s healthy not just for you but also for our planet.

Credits

Authored by Disha Shah; strategised and edited by Deepa Sai (founder of ecoHQ)

Disha Shah is a freelance content writer for brands in the organic beauty, fitness, and sustainability space. She specialises in writing detailed blogs and engaging social media posts. Apart from writing, she has a very strong spiritual bent and is a thorough practitioner of meditation and breathwork.

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