In this (packed!) blog post:
Here at Chemist Confessions, we don’t avoid complex or loaded topics. And there are few topics as complex and as loaded as sustainability. The difficulty in coming up with solutions for a global problem with so many moving parts and people involved is enough to boggle even the brightest minds.
Even if we were just addressing the skincare industry, there are so many aspects to consider: ingredient sourcing, product manufacturing, supply chain, consumer use, packaging manufacturing, and end of life product impact. Not to mention politics, local infrastructure, and corporate influence, all of which affect how a brand can reduce their environmental footprint. So… it’s complicated.
We aren’t going to be able to get into everything in one sitting, but let’s discuss three categories: ingredient sourcing, carbon footprint, and packaging.
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Ingredient Sourcing: Palm Oil
The easiest way to delve into the complexities of ingredient sourcing is to look at the process of trying to make a particular ingredient sustainable. In this case, one that is the source of much controversy in both food and cosmetics: palm oil and palm derivatives.
Palm-sourced ingredients in skincare are usually used for emollient and foaming properties. The vast majority of the world’s palm oil supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. The result of this intense farming/harvesting is nothing short of catastrophic rainforest deforestation and loss of animal habitats (most famously, the orangutans). Besides the environmental fallout, there are also issues of exploitation of local communities and Indigenous lands.
In response, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created. Its job is to oversee responsibly sourced palm. Its mission statement:
“We are a not-for-profit that unites stakeholders from the 7 sectors of the palm oil industry: oil palm producers, processors or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks/investors, and environmental and social non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.” (https://rspo.org/about)
According to the RSPO website, almost 20% of the world’s palm oil is RSPO certified. If the enormity of the issue hasn’t struck you yet, this is the progress made after 10-15 years of work.
And while it sounds like a good start, it has been met by criticism as well. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and other watch groups have been vocal about what they see as inadequate transparency, cooperation with Indigenous tribes, and murky interests by certain parties. Unfortunately, there isn’t any sort of overarching governing body to regulate the palm oil industry, so what we’re left with is a patchwork of organizations instead.
That sounds bad. What can we do?
As the biggest players in the industry, beauty empires like L’ Oréal, Estée Lauder, and Proctor & Gamble can move the needle of sustainability the most significantly. As global heavyweights, the sheer volume of products they produce means any change they make has a big impact. Some brands have taken significant strides in their commitment to sustainably-sourced palm oil. These involve a combination of forest protection, ethical treatment of workers, and transparency, mixed in with some more dubious “palm oil credits”.
What you can do as a consumer is to make sure that big brands know sustainability factors into your purchasing decision. Be aware, and be skeptical of labels. “Natural” doesn’t equal “sustainable” (many natural ingredients can be environmentally disastrous if they’re poorly managed). And don’t assume it’s as easy as boycotting a questionable ingredient. Sure, a product may be labeled “palm-free”, but what are they using instead? How do I know the alternative isn’t worse? Lastly, don’t forget the good old food industry. It’s the largest consumer of palm, so if you really want to cut down on palm ingredients, you definitely need to read your food labels.
A Brand’s Carbon Footprint
This is going to be a short-ish discussion, because the sad truth is that a lot of brands aren’t able to do much about this. Most brands work with cosmetic manufacturers (CMs), and they don’t have a lot (if any) control over how the CM works. Indie brands that do small batches don’t have the influence to demand changes from their manufacturers, though big name brands have more options.
Need some uplifting news? Global brands have teams dedicated to working on reducing their carbon footprint, and it involves a lot of people. From solar farms, improved supply chain packaging, reduction of weight in transit, to formula production, there’s really good work being done to lessen the impact on the environment.
Where to begin? We should preface this section with a disclaimer: there’s no clear answer at present, and there are pros and cons to each type of material. Even though we haven’t found the solution yet, there are strong efforts being made to reduce the impact of packaging.
The issue with plastic, besides the obvious (leaching toxins, microplastics etc), is that a lot of skincare formulations (hello actives) can eat right through plastic. So containing them requires plastic blends, like PP, PET, PETG, and HDPE plastics (among others). These all have distinct chemical structures, which unfortunately means they can’t be recycled. Another reason skincare is often packaged in plastic is because it’s robust enough to withstand the rough handling it may get in a fill line and in transportation.
So what are some other plastic options that are being explored?
- Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic (PCR): The pros? It’s the most realistic option we have right Packages can be anywhere from 15 to 100% PCR. The cons? PCR packaging isn’t cosmetically as pretty — it can contain imperfections that some brands will reject for aesthetic reasons. The other big issue is that it costs more, and someone has to eat that extra cost, whether it’s the supplier, manufacturer or consumer.
- Refillable Packaging: Yes, there is definitely less plastic in a refill. However, not everything can be contained in a refill for exactly this reason — they’re just not very The other thing to consider is consumer use. Refillable packaging for something like detergent makes sense, but the odds that someone is going to continue to purchase the exact same skincare product for years is much less likely. Where does this make sense? Hotel products. Hotels use the same brands and products for years, so refills are a great way to eliminate all those tiny plastic bottles.
- Mono material: We’re not going to lie… one could argue this is a sideways step? Mono plastic is a non-blended plastic package that is all the same material so it’s less complicated to recycle. We understand the thought behind this because recycling packaging is not as simple as most people think. All the individual components have to be separated for it to work. Mono material gives a package the highest chance of getting properly recycled. There are definitely questions here, like whether it would be better for consumers to actually think about what they recycle, and whether we should be promoting more plastic at all.
Ah, glass. It’s pretty, and makes a great Insta pic. It’s also 100% recyclable and strong. But like all things, there are downsides to those trendy apothecary bottles. For one, glass is 100% non- biodegradable. So if it ends up in a landfill, it stays… forever. It also adds a lot of weight in shipment, so requires additional fuel to transport. Lastly, it’s breakable. And that makes it notoriously difficult to handle throughout the recycling process. Breaking a glass container in a bag of recycling usually results in the whole thing being dumped in the landfill because it would be dangerous for workers to handle.
We like the idea of aluminum. It’s largely recyclable, light, and fairly strong. Some aluminum tubes contain layers of plastic in them, so check before putting them in your recycling. The issue with aluminum tubes is that manufacturers just don’t like making them. They’re hard to work with and there’s a higher level of faulty products in manufacturing, creating more waste.
A Note on Recycling
That glass dropper in your serum bottle? Yes, it’s recyclable. But only if you remove it from the squeeze part, and dispose of that separately. The pump on your recyclable bottle? It likely contains a metal spring and several types of plastic, making it only fit for the garbage. Recycling was loudly praised in the 90’s, but the rose-colored glasses have come off these days. It’s still preferable to non-recyclable materials, but recycling requires a huge amount of infrastructure, energy and sometimes water. The best thing you can do is recycle carefully. Your efforts are useless if things aren’t correctly separated. To find out how to recycle a product, check directly with the brand.
We wish there was one solution, but there isn’t. The number of steps and people involved in any industry means there is a lot of work to be done. On the bright side, the cosmetic industry seems to be spearheading a lot of this work. Other industries (ahem, textiles) could benefit from their example.
Watch for too-good-to-be-true claims. They probably are. Labels like “sustainable”, “green”, “eco- friendly” and “natural” are self-defined, and therefore mean whatever the brand wants it to mean.
Make sure you only put the proper materials into your recycling so you don’t contaminate the whole batch. Check with your municipality so you know what they allow.
Be aware, be intentional. The best thing you can do is to push brands to do better, and reduce your personal waste. Don’t purchase products unless you need them, and only get as much as you need.
RSPO website: https://rspo.org
EIA website: https://eia-international.org
Environmental Investigation Agency. (2018, November 16) RSPO adopts higher palm oil standard, but will there be any buyers? EIA-International. https://eia-international.org/news/rspo-adopts- higher-palm-oil-standard-but-will-there-be-any-buyers/
Environmental Investigation Agency. (2019, November 18) RSPO gives commitment to investigate palm oil ‘sustainability con’ allegations. EIA-International. https://eia-international.org/news/ rspo-gives-commitment-to-investigate-palm-oil-sustainability-con-allegations/
Estée Lauder Commitment on Palm Oil