Green Beauty Business Owners Question How “Eco” You Can Really Be if You Make New Products at All
At MMT, we think a lot about whether it’s even possible to be “sustainable” if you’re in the business of creating new products for consumers. We worry about the tradeoffs we make; the ideas about eco-friendliness that we sell ourselves in order to keep doing what we’re doing.
When you consider that the average plastic beauty container takes 1,000 years to decompose and that more than 120 billion units of packaging are consumed each year… the situation seems dire and producing ANYTHING AT ALL (even if your packaging is biodegradable) seems destructive.
This might sound bleak, but since the planet is in peril, it consumes a lot of our attention. Are we hypocrites? Do our efforts matter? How can we work harder and better to change our industry from the inside out?
The green beauty industry is projected to hit 22 billion dollars by 2024, comprising an ever-growing portion of the industry over all. But what does that really mean for the environment?
We talked to a few colleagues to get their insight on green beauty and sustainability. The biggest thing we heard (and we wholeheartedly agree) is that green beauty will be sustainable only when the entire cycle of production—growing, sourcing, handling, packaging, shipping—is also sustainable for the planet and for people, and when green beauty becomes affordable for all.
We have a long way to go.
THE SUPPLY CHAIN GOES FROM “BAD TO VERY BAD”
Here’s what we know: the closer you can get to the raw ingredients you are using for a product and how they were produced and packaged, the better your odds are of making a sustainable final product. But even with this concept in mind, the supply chain is seriously swayed toward cheap and environmentally harmful products that are soured unethically. Buying sustainable materials can present an immense hurdle for small businesses with limitations on their time and finances.
Austin Katz from SheaBrand commented that “unless you are directly investing in new technologies, as a small business, you are restrained by the confines of existing infrastructure and supply chain practices ranging from bad to very bad.”
Still, all of our colleagues underscored the importance of sourcing. Laurel Schaffer, of the eponymous brand Laurel Skin, said she believes “that we can make our biggest impact in sustainability with our sourcing,” and in “sharing the importance of sourcing with others.” Laurel advocates for direct-to-farmer relationships as a way to ensure sustainability and ethical growing practices.
Sarah Buscho from Earth Tu Face told us she “concentrates on ingredients that are sustainable in the sense that they can be easily replenished and don’t hurt the environment they come from, like vetiver, which yields plentiful essential oils, has a long shelf life, and regenerates the soil it grows in.”
Our colleagues also worry about how climate change will affect their plant sources. Laurel said “I am concerned about resource-depletion on a large scale, as well as the lack of regulation and oversight for organic ingredients and wild-crafted ingredients, globally.”
Ericka Rodriguez from Axiology told us about the pitfalls of trying to launch a new product, while adhering to strict sustainability standards: “We tried to launch lip liners but it turns out all the manufacturers who make pencils out of wood don't allow changes in their formulations and every formulation had palm oil in it (a no-no for us). Then, we tried to launch lip oils. But we realized that the product wasn't that great or exciting. We are very careful about not launching anything just for the sake of launching something. We want to launch things that people actually want and need and that will make animals and the planet happy.”
Sustainable packaging has to be a part of making any product sustainable, and it often comes at the expense of profit, which is why so many “conventional” beauty companies just default to cheap plastic. Sarah from Earth Tu Face echoed something we’ve felt for so long: “It’s very expensive to be sustainable as a small brand, and we don’t always have the buying power to use the best packaging solutions.”
When we launched our biodegradable tubes in 2016, we realized that to price our deodorant at a comparable price-point to the rest of our brand, we had to make less profit on them. We chose to charge less money for the deodorant tubes in the hope that, long term, we’ll be able to grow the demand for the product. Increased consumer demand will give us the buying power to purchase the packaging at higher quantities, which will lower our production costs.
Josh Rosebrook comments: “For companies to prioritize sustainability and environmental impact, the packaging industry needs to continue innovating and offering more environmentally friendly packaging materials at accessible prices for brands. If certain sustainable, eco-friendly options are out of reach financially for a small business, the company should focus on goal-setting. Brands should talk about what they are doing and where they want to go regarding eco-initiatives and vision, so it inspires other brands to do better as well, as they work to reach their goals.”
We like this approach, because it’s not about being perfect or even having the solution—it’s about striving and working toward better packaging, while building a company that (hopefully) will sway the market by increasing consumer demand.
Krystal Vaquerano from SheaBrand told us she believes that consumer education plays a huge role in the demand for sustainable packaging solutions and sustainable products in general: “As a business owner who cares about our environment and the impact we as individuals make, it is important to educate consumers to care about what items they are picking up. Making them more aware of the efforts in the beauty industry will allow consumers to think about that effort in other realms of their life—household products, food, and hopefully their own political beliefs. These industry efforts help drive the conversation on what being sustainable actually means and helps push legislation that way.”
We have seen how retailers can also have a huge impact on what types of packaging a consumer will buy. If a store shows a customer how to put on cream deodorant in a glass jar, for example, the customer is empowered and buys it again—maybe they even refill it, and so the only glass jar they will ever need to buy is that first one. If the consumer isn’t educated, they might not try something new (like applying deo with their fingers) or they might have a negative experience and give up.
BUT WHO IS GREEN BEAUTY FOR?
All of the things we value—sustainable packaging, materials that have been sourced with care on organic farms, handmade goods that produce less waste, fair wages for people across the supply chain—drive the price of “green beauty” way up, excluding a lot of people from buying products in the green beauty category.
At MMT, we underprice some of our products below recommended margins, because we really really really want our goods to be accessible to more than just rich people. (It’s also why we’re in Target.) But it’s a struggle.
Laurel puts it so well: “Unfortunately, it appears to me that the more we spend on ingredients, the more sustainable and ethical the source. I can see how things like organic ingredients and supporting small farmers—and even ethical labor standards—can actually make something less accessible to all income brackets. This is actually heart breaking, and I don't have the answer.”
Josh notes that “Most people really care about being a part of the solution. Though many people will pay more to be a part of an environmentally conscious solution, there are still many people where a higher cost for a product, because it’s contained in innovative eco-friendly packaging, is a deal-breaker.”
Krystal at SheaBrand talked about competing against a $2 lip balm packaged in plastic when SheaBrand’s paper-packaged version is $13. Why would you buy the more expensive version if there is something that seems similar on the shelf at your local drugstore? Most people won’t, or can’t, and we have to be willing to understand why, even as we try to sway consumers toward sustainable choices. Packaging and ingredient costs have to come down so we can compete with the $2 lip balm—so that we can be for everyone.
Krystal notes that education plays a huge role, and that we need to broaden access to education (i.e., we can’t just keep preaching to our own choirs): “I think the main thing is educating for the sake of us ALL, not just for those who already believe in the climate crisis or have the resources available to make those choices.”
Information about veganism, being cruelty-free, what palm oil is doing to the rainforest, who is profiting from deforestation—that’s all free. The challenge is getting that information into the hands of more people (not just wealthy people!), making it matter in the context of their own buying habits, and finding ways to empower everyone to act.
And just being a part of the conversation is tough. Consider the strength of the fossil fuel lobbies—they outspend clean energy advocates to such an enormous extent that for years they have been able to dominate the public conversation on climate change and discredit proven climate science.
SUSTAINABLE IN PRACTICE
Despite the myriad challenges, the brands we spoke to are all plugging away at becoming even more sustainable, ethical, regenerative, and harm-free.
Axiology’s boxes are made from hand-collected trash in Bali that is then recycled into paper. Laurel has done something unconventional and amazing, which is to stop sending free product to beauty editors for the sake of company PR. She says “The thought of products-upon-products sent to editors only to be trashed seems incredibly wasteful. I have drawn a line in the sand.” Both SheaBrand and Earth Tu Face use the same biodegradable tubes for their skin balms that we use (hey, push-pop buds!). As for us at Meow Meow Tweet, we’re really proud of our Bulk Refill Program, which creates a packaging loop for reusing containers over and over and over.
ARE OUR EFFORTS ENOUGH?
Everyone we spoke to felt that there is hope in the work we’re doing, but that none of our individual efforts are enough. What’s needed is broader systemic change. A lot of this comes down to the supply chain. We’re all working inside of a system that values money more than people or animals, and profit more than the environment. Plastic is cheap, biodegradable tubes are not. But it’s not a reason to stop working either, and we are all making a difference, even if it’s small and even if the changes are slow.
Josh sent us this wish for the planet, and it seems a perfect note to end on:
“I wish the industry would chill out a bit and prioritize people and the environment over profit. I pray daily for the lives of animals on this planet. I pray that they are protected from harm and abuse by humans and retain their habitats. Animals have no voice and we must fight for them and protect them. Animal abuse on factory farms all over the world needs to stop. I also pray for underprivileged children and LGBTQIA youth to have the support and opportunities they need to succeed in life as well as wishing that all people on this planet have a home to live in and all people have access to mental health care.”
HERE ARE A FEW ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE RIGHT NOW
- Vote for people who are willing to stand up against lobbyists for the sake of the planet.
- Donate to (or volunteer time with) organizations that support Indigenous sovereignty, regenerative agriculture, reforestation, and rewilding: Rainforest Alliance, Sustainable Harvest International, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Utah Diné Bikéyah.
- Shop locally and support small companies that are trying to make a difference and that use low-waste or biodegradable packaging. Increasing demand for sustainable packaging will drive the cost of that packaging down, making it more widespread.
- Love the things you have more and for longer (basically, stop buying new stuff unless you really need it). As Jeff says: “One would inherently consume less if they appreciated their consumables more.”
Written by Vera Kachouh, writer at Meow Meow Tweet, Interviews by Tara Pelletier, co-founder, Meow Meow Tweet