Thought Leadership

Hey beauty, it’s time to lift the lid on ingredients and impact

Published on
February 4, 2021
Jessi Baker

For decades, the beauty industry has offered wonder products and secret formulas – but when it comes to ingredients and impact, mystery is no longer an option.

It’s time to break the last beauty taboo: the impact your business has on people and the planet.

Until now, breaking a beauty taboo has broadly meant embracing your natural flaws – an idea popularised by Dove’s revolutionary 2004 Real Women campaign. To tackle beauty’s impact, we need an equally revolutionary approach.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the World Economic Forum is calling the years ahead of us ‘The Great Reset’. Today, I’m calling on the beauty industry to play its part in this global effort to build back better, and to drive change by opening up about the sourcing and impact of products and ingredients.

The global beauty industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year. It’s responsible for the 14,000 tons of sunscreen that collect annually in the world’s reefs. And according to recent research, the perfumes, hairsprays and deodorants that it produces are polluting the environment just as much as car emissions.

The need for action is clear. It’s time for beauty to go beyond skin-deep once again.

Beauty shoppers are asking about ingredient supply chains

The British Beauty Council’s report, Courage to Change 2020, was unequivocal: “The industry must play its part in bringing about bold, urgent change. Consumers are keen to see this happen. They are looking to the industry to take a lead.”

Citizens are looking to us as business leaders to create real change. Some 88% of consumers want brands to help them live sustainably. But when it comes to the beauty industry, 1 in 5 people don’t know how to check a product’s sustainability credentials. Shoppers are demanding more ingredient and supply chain information, creating a clear opportunity for beauty to help customers live out their values by opening up about impact.

Ingredients common in sunscreen are devastating coral reefs around the world (Credit: Vardhan Patankar)

Your customer wants to know if the synthetic ingredients you use are wreaking havoc on our river and ocean systems. They want to know if your sunscreen contains the chemicals which are decimating coral reefs worldwide. They want to know if the natural ingredients you proudly advertise are in fact unsustainably produced. And, of course, they want to know the carbon impact: Unilever estimates that 46% of its carbon footprint arises from the fossil-fuel derived ingredients in its products.

There may be beauty brand managers reading this who are unsure if these issues are affecting their own supply chains. If that’s you, the first step is to start the conversation and set up a meeting with your CEO or product development team.

Brands must communicate with integrity

To lift the lid on what’s in their products, beauty brands need to stop clouding the truth with vague or misleading language.

Take the word ‘clean’. A quick search for #cleanbeauty returns a cool 3.5m posts on Instagram. But is there any consensus on what it actually means? The industry’s obsession with ‘clean’ was perhaps inevitable, given how little insight we really have into what’s inside those little containers of product.

We also need brands to communicate with integrity when it comes to terms like ‘organic’. Sadly, regulation only requires 10% of a product to be organic for marketers to claim that it’s ‘made with organic ingredients’. I believe customers deserve better than that. A few years ago, when certifiers drafted a common organic standard, COSMOS Organic, they set this threshold at 95%. Today, it’s on brands to work with these certifiers to communicate the impact and origin of their ingredients with integrity.

More than 90% of UK customers think companies should be clearer about the language they use on their packaging. If brands don’t give more clarity on ingredients, they risk losing customer trust.

And it’s not just consumers that are calling for change. Regulators are beginning to flex their muscles.

In November, the Competition and Markets Authority named beauty products as a strategic focus in its fight against greenwashing. The regulator warned it would call out “use of complex or jargon-heavy language” and any “exaggeration of the positive environmental impact of a product or service”.

Words like ‘clean’ have no standard definition and could threaten integrity (Credit: Kelly Sikkema)

Aim for progress, not perfection

The good news for businesses is that customers aren’t looking for perfection. What they do expect is credible evidence of progress, and honesty. This is particularly the case for Gen Z, the ‘Honest Generation’.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sali Hughes, Sarah Creal and Alexia Inge for a Cult Beauty webinar on sustainability in beauty. Each of us acknowledged that for big businesses tackling sustainability, there are compromises to be made. But wherever you are in your sustainability journey, honesty is imperative.

It was refreshing to hear Sarah – CEO & Co-Founder at Victoria Beckham Beauty – openly aiming for progress over perfection: “We talk about the fact that we’re not perfect, but we’ve got the vision. Trying is where it starts.“

Another great example of this in action is the work of Beauty Counter, who are openly tackling the issue of using irresponsibly-sourced mica in cosmetics. Shocking reports of child labour have surrounded the sourcing of mica, with five year-olds reportedly working in deadly conditions in Madasgascar.

Beauty Counter aren’t afraid to tackle this issue head on. They publicly acknowledge that “this mica journey is complicated, messy and we don’t always have all the answers.” But that hasn’t stopped them starting an honest conversation, and creating practical tools for consumers and brands to help tackle the issue.

Break the last beauty taboo with impact proof

To enable shoppers to ‘purchase positively’, brands need to give them clear and trusted information about the products they are buying.

For beauty and wellness, this means showing verified proof that your ingredients are safe and effective for the user. It means proving that you don’t test on animals – it’s the 21st century after all – and that your packaging has a limited impact on people and the planet.

But it extends far beyond the final, physical product. You can also prove the positive social impact of your supply chains, as well as the causes you support and the way you empower your employees.

Technology offers the beauty industry a golden opportunity to provide clear and trusted impact information on each of these issues. It enables marketing teams to engage a growing number of conscious customers, who are already voting with their wallets to support brands that match their values.

Beauty brands must communicate their impact to reach values-led shoppers. (Credit: Curology)

Speed up to meet accelerated shopper expectations

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us more aware of our impact on the earth, and it’s rapidly changing the way we shop. On the Create Tomorrow podcast, WGSN’s Director of Insight Andrea Bell has described how trends that were forecast for the next two or three years are in fast-forward thanks to the pandemic.

This is especially the case with beauty. Last week, Cult Beauty’s Alexia Inge spoke of how the pandemic has “galvanised a new customer group – the ‘values shopper’ – that buys by ethos, and understands that spending their money is a vote for brands ethics.” Sali Hughes also described how customer demands are driving sustainability initiatives in beauty; as she sees it, “consumers have redefined what luxury is and brands are going to have to catch up.“

In the beauty world, I often hear talk of ‘empowering’ customers. In 2021, that means enabling them to ‘purchase positively’ for the benefit of people and the planet. And no beauty brand can do this unless they’re fully transparent on the impact of their supply chain.

It won’t be easy. Sustainability and supply chain transparency are complex issues, and they might not be on your suppliers’ agendas. But I believe brands have a duty to deliver for people and planet, and those who step up will reap the rewards.

To learn about how Provenance’s Transparency Framework is helping beauty brands communicate progress around product impact, click here.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

Jessi Baker

Jessi Baker, MBE, is the founder and CEO of, the global leader in sustainability marketing technology. She is an Art and Science hybrid, with a Master’s in Engineering from Cambridge University and Design from the Royal College of Art. Across the US and Europe, she has worked with many brands on technology and digital design strategy including Cult Beauty, Unilever, GANNI and Princes.

The Provenance Team

Provenance powers sustainability claims you can trust. The global leader in sustainability marketing technology, Provenance helps brands and retailers share credible, compelling and fact-checked social and environmental impact information at the point of sale. Provenance’s technology is already increasing conversion rates, brand value and market share for customers including Cult Beauty, Douglas, GANNI, Napolina, Arla and Unilever

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