Earth Day 2018: The Environmental Impact of the Cosmetics Industry

This Earth day, with the launch of Acala just around the corner, I wanted to spend some time looking at the environmental impact of the cosmetics industry. As consumers, we are becoming increasingly aware of the health dangers posed by cosmetics and personal care products, but the environmental impacts of these products are less well documented.

While 90% of us recycle kitchen waste, 50% of Brits don’t recycle bathroom waste such as shampoo, conditioner and shower gel bottles simply because it’s inconvenient. This means 2.7 billion plastic bottles hit landfill every year. 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. The cardboard that envelops perfumes, serums and moisturisers contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year.

If this level of consumption continues, by 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills, the equivalent to 35,000 Empire State Buildings. The UN has declared our current situation a ‘planetary crisis’ and no industry is exempt from scrutiny, including beauty.

The environmental impact

 ‘Natural’ is in and beauty brands are cashing in on it, but are their products what they seem? In reality, many beauty brands are adding a few natural ingredients to their products, but still using the same chemicals and toxic ingredients as well.

The natural beauty trend has also increased demand on natural ingredients. The challenge with this is that when large companies source these natural ingredients, they are looking to do so as quickly and as cheaply as possible, leading to unsustainable production. More pesticides in use and more human rights issues, we only need look back at the Mica scandal to see this. When produced mindlessly, the use of natural ingredients in cosmetics on a large scale, such as mining of minerals and of petroleum based products, disrupts ecosystems and depletes non-renewable natural resources.  

There are also the non- natural ingredients to consider. Most large beauty brands are using chemical components in their products, whether they claim to be natural or not. This is because chemicals give the products their long shelf life and allow for the various textures and feels you find in traditional cosmetics. The challenge with these chemical components is that they don’t break down and instead accumulate in our ecosystems. Traditional cosmetics and toiletries do the most damage to the environment once they are washed away down our sinks. From our sinks the chemicals are released into our lakes, streams, rivers and public water systems, damaging wildlife and flora and fauna.

It is not just aquatic life that is impacted. Water from our lakes and seas vaporises in our atmosphere and accumulates in clouds, returning to our soil as rain. Chemicals related to cosmetics have been found in agricultural soil and household dust particles.

It is also important to consider the packaging element of the cosmetics we buy. Concerns about plastic waste and marine pollution have skyrocketed, especially after China announced its ban on imports of foreign waste from January 2018. The bottles that hold shampoos, moisturisers and other skincare products must be created in a way that means they are not degraded by the products that they have been designed to hold. This means that they are also not easily degradable or recyclable after use, leading to the plastic we hear about that pollutes our seas and causing harm to wildlife.

Of course, all packaging has its environmental impact and it’s true that packaging that is inherently seen as eco-friendly, such as glass, card and aluminium has drawbacks. A paper bag for example, if not produced sustainably can produce higher CO2 emissions than a plastic bag and yes, glass does take more energy to produce. However, they also have many pro’s that, in my opinion, mean they are the preferable option. In the UK, glass, aluminium and paper have much higher recycling rates than plastic. For example, card/paper has an 82% recycling rate in the UK, whereas plastic just 45%. Also, glass, card and aluminium can be recycled indefinitely, plastic cannot as it degrades with each round of recycling.

What we can do about it

Sticking with the packaging debate for a moment, ultimately when it comes to cosmetics packaging, less is more. The principles of reduce, reuse and recycle apply 100%, in that order. Fancy packaging is unnecessary and often only a marketing ploy to make us view a product as more luxurious and elite. Did you know that lipstick cases are weighed down so that they feel expensive but become un-recyclable? As consumers, I believe it is our duty to seek out brands and packaging that doesn’t follow this trend. We must also become steadfast recyclers and re-users of packaging. Unlike plastic, there is no confusion about how glass, card and metals are recycled. They are all recycled and most of us in the UK now have recycling bins and points that separate these materials out for us.

Back to the chemical and natural resources debate, another way that we can mitigate the environmental impact of the cosmetics we use is to buy from smaller suppliers.  The benefit of buying 100% natural products from a smaller company means that the ingredients are more likely sourced sustainably as supply chain are shorter. It is also much easier to contact the business to ask questions about their products making doing your due diligence a lot easier. 

I have no doubt that the cosmetics industry is heading in the right direction and as smaller brands lead the charge with regards to both sustainable products and packaging I am sure other larger players will follow suit. To make a successful transition however towards a sustainable and low-carbon circular economy companies need to carefully assess the supply and demand of all new materials they choose to use using a set of economic (i.e. commodity prices) and environmental indicators related to inputs (i.e. material, energy, water) and outputs (i.e. emissions, waste) to identify potential risks and impacts within the supply chain. The impact of the materials at all stages; manufacture, distribution and storage, needs to be assessed.