Sustainable Innovation in Cosmetics

By Kelly Airola Published on Nov. 01, 2018

As society shifts more and more towards integrated sustainability, few areas have remained untouched. The cosmetics industry has the capacity to affect both consumers and the environment positively or negatively, depending on the company's decision to take part in environmentally proactive innovation.

There are multiple cosmetic companies already implementing sustainable practices into their supply chain, packaging, and ingredients. These choices will all have a lasting impact on the mission to end deforestation, animal extinctions, and the consumer's increased desire for transparency about product ingredients. Many new technologies are being created to assist in sustainability practices - some of the most impactful being RFID and innovative new ingredients. 

Sustainability in Cosmetics

sustainability in cosmetics

Today, consumers and companies alike are demanding more from their products. Not only exceptional quality, but a greater transparency of the origin and the residual impact a product has had on the environment. This trend is good news for companies who have a core belief in environmental sustainability and puts pressure on companies who have previously prioritized the bottom line over global wellbeing.

Luckily, technological advances such as better supply chain management via RFID and recyclable packaging increases the ease of implementing sustainable practices into a company to better prevent environmental distress. Another rising issue surrounding sustainability in cosmetics concerns chemicals that have historically been found in beauty products. An emerging market trend of green chemistry is increasing the consumer’s awareness of what they are putting on their skin as a supplement to full health and wellness.

These two sides of practical sustainability measures, environmental thought, and green chemistry are growing rapidly and have the ability to disrupt the cosmetic sector. A company who takes aggressive advantage of this opportunity can gain a new following and decrease the bottom line.

Sustainability Regulations in Cosmetics

cosmetics regulation

Currently, most official certifications regarding sustainable cosmetics center around natural and organic labels; however, the number of ethical labels will continue to rise, with more gluten-free and non-GMO claims, as well as the traditional paraben-free, silicone-free, SLS-free claims. 

An annual Sustainable Cosmetics Summit organized by Ecovia Intelligence has been addressing the future of sustainable cosmetics for over six years, and cosmetic companies leading the transition into sustainability include L’Oreal and Unilever. In 2015, L’Oreal began its journey toward sustainability and launched a global program committing itself to Zero-deforestation by 2020 and already sources 100 percent of its palm oil derivatives from sources certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

As a leader in climate change action and management, L’Oréal can boast of all 21 US manufacturing and distribution facilities operating with 100 percent renewable energy. Seventeen large-scale solar and wind energy projects make it possible that as of today, L’Oreal has reduced its carbon emissions by 64 percent from the 2005 baseline year. This change is just an example of how one companies dedication to sustainable change will have lasting impacts on the environment.

Why go sustainable in cosmetics?

why go sustainable in cosmetics

While sustainability may easily be dismissed as a passing fad, its urgency has stemmed from the undeniable evidence of environmental damage. Some people may think of cosmetics as a vain sector consisting of makeup products, but it expands beyond to include lotions, acne medications, and other basic human care products. This large range shows the environmental, customer, and financial impact a company can have when integrating sustainable practices.

The most detrimental impact of the cosmetics industry is deforestation, primarily an effect of palm oil production. As one of the cheapest vegetable oils to be produced, palm oil is widely used and can be found in anything from snacks to fuel to cosmetics. Another devastating effect of the industry is high animal extinction rates - species such as tigers, elephants, bears, rhinos, and orangutans are all endangered largely in part of cosmetics production.

Another finding that has affected the cosmetics industry is the gross CO2 emissions that are a byproduct of their facilities and deforestation. By 2020,  palm oil production is set to release more than 558 million metric tons of carbon into the environment, an amount greater than all of Canada’s current fossil fuel emissions. Water is also a large concern for the cosmetics industry because it is a rapidly depleting resource -- palm oil production contributes to high Co2 levels, warmer temperatures in water, as well as adverse quality of freshwater sources.

In addition to these four effects, the increased desire for transparency and understanding of product ingredients among consumers prove that transitioning to sustainable practices is a smart step for companies. People are becoming educated on the side effects caused by chemical infused products, and companies are taking notice as well. The research being done on potentially harmful products has sparked companies like ThinkDirty and GoodGuide to provide alternative brands for concerned customers. provides some factual evidence of the danger even if we are not ingesting products directly. 

The transition to sustainable practices is not only is an attempt to end these practices, but also to contribute positively to the environment, or lead the way for societal changes. Companies who embrace and differentiate their products toward a ‘greener’ consumer may also find a niche of profitability from sustainability.

While many industries have been affected in the societal turn to sustainability the cosmetic industry is under particular scope due to the increased demand for transparency of personal care items, and the widespread detrimental effects they can have on the environment. With these facts, it is clear that transforming the cosmetics industry to be sustainable is a vital task for the betterment of society.

A large concern when considering sustainable practices for a company is the viability and financial repercussion. However, as Patagonia and DuPont can attest, sustainability is not just better for the consumer and the supply chain, but it can also lead to cost-efficient practices and increased sales. Patagonia has found heavy success by leaning into the ethically and environmentally sustainable practices and has gained a loyal customers base from its core mission and product. DuPont found financial success by committing itself to a 65% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the 10 years prior to 2010. These examples prove the payoff of switching to more sustainable practices, and how it can positively impact your brand.

The Green Consumer

green consumer

One reason that companies choose to aggressively implement sustainability practices is their desire to attract a new consumer. This demographic can vary greatly, depending on the sector of sustainability used; however, many similar attributes are common in the new consumer. Dubbed the "Green Consumer", this group has specific characteristics that will win them over as customers. Attributes of these customers include paying premium pricing for organic and natural products while valuing quality over intrinsic characteristics.

For them, the most important value is the environmental impact of production and consumption in accordance with environmental preservation. They also favor products with biodegradable, recyclable or returnable simple packaging, made with few materials. Other attributes of the green consumer are their concern about safety; they believe that natural products are safer and more effective and always prefer to shop organically. One of the most important attributes of the green consumer is their loyalty toward socially and environmentally responsible companies.

Not only are “Green Consumers” seeking sustainability when purchasing, but the general majority of the shopper population is slowly shifting mindsets. We have reached a turning point at which green natural and sustainable products are no longer expected to be weak or inefficient among consumers. Companies seeking to better their global footprint and increase their environmental reputation should implement sustainable manufacturing, product innovation, sourcing and a strong certification policy.

Sustainable Technologies in Cosmetics

cosmetics technology

Today’s technologies allow sustainable to become measurable and reportable, letting consumers and companies alike to have greater confidence in the ethical life cycle of their products. RFID is an example of a device that companies implement to increase sustainability and track their processes from start to finish. The current use of RFID in retail has proven that products can be tracked and tagged in a variety of ways, often times saving money for the company and bettering the customer experience.

Some of the advantages that RFID can bring to a company is the elimination of unnecessary waste, management and disposal of assets, transportation efficiency and carbon footprint reduction. RFIDs are able to deliver almost real-time data to reduce common types of manufacturing waste such as defected materials, waiting, overproduction, movement, inventory, complexity, and unused creativity.

The biggest positive of RFID technology is it fulfills the customer desire for transparency and validates a company's claims of sustainability. It lets customers know the origin of their products and ensure that it is not a counterfeit. By utilizing RFID technology, companies will build a better reputation, and increase customer brand trust.

Integrating RFID is highly beneficial for improving the customer experience, through engagement, decreased operational costs and efficiencies. A current issue facing cosmetic companies is the prevalence of fake products, which are being sold as original through online sites. In the future, RFID will play a large role in order to verify true cosmetics against the many counterfeit options, and preserve the brand reputation.

What is the future of sustainable cosmetics?

future sustainable cosmetics

In the future, consumers and companies alike can look forward to a completely revolutionized beauty industry. Not only will the supply chain be efficiently organized and tracked through RFID processes, but sustainability will be woven throughout the industry from the packaging to the ingredients. One group working toward this goal, is SPICE. Founded by L'Oreal and Quantis, the organization includes top industry companies with the goal to develop and publish business-oriented methodologies and data to support resilient decision making to improve the environmental performance of the entire packaging value chain.

Another area of advancement for cosmetic companies is the move toward personalization, which equates to less waste and happier customers. Augmented reality tools, VR, and other technologies will begin making their way into the beauty industry, and natural ingredient- filled cosmetics will likely see large jumps of popularity. Sustainability may be just making its way into the beauty industry, but it will not be leaving soon.


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About the Author:

A member of Plug and Play's Brand and Retail Team, Kelly Airola graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BS in Business Administration and Management, and a minor in Marketing from California Baptist University. Here she has been witness firsthand to the magic that is the Silicon Valley and has been enjoying the fast pace of the tech and startup industry. 

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