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Damning new study shows top beauty brands are not doing enough to tackle climate change

The “green beauty” industry is worth billions of pounds

The world’s 10 largest beauty brands are not making credible commitments to sustainability and combating climate change, a new report suggests.

A report by the Carbon Trust analysing the green credentials of the top 10 beauty and skincare companies, including L’Oréal, Unilever, P&G, Estée Lauder, Shiseido, Beiersdorf, LVMH, Kao, Johnson & Johnson, and Coty, has found a lack of demonstrable climate action.

Overall, the study found the beauty sector was failing to take clear and decisive action on greenhouse gas emissions. That’s despite the ‘green beauty’ industry being worth billions of pounds.

The majority of the beauty industry’s emissions come from the sourcing of their products’ raw materials and the hot water and energy use involved when consumers use their products, it said.

Around 40 per cent of (indirect) emissions come from the hot water and energy used for rinse-off products, such as shampoo and shaving foam.

At least 30 per cent of the beauty brands’ emissions come from sourcing of raw materials, such as synthetic ingredients made from fossil fuels, extracted minerals such as mica, and palm oil and wood pulp, both of which can lead to deforestation. 

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Deforestation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and also leads to the loss of habitat and biodiversity, which nearly 200 countries committed to protecting by 2030 during Cop15

Only three of the top 10 companies have clear targets to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, but the report does not state which ones.

And to make matters worse, some beauty and skincare companies show their emissions are increasing despite previously committing to achieving net zero. 

The emissions from consumer use are only of concern to two of the companies analysed by the Carbon Trust, with the report stating “commitment to tackling these emissions is limited”.

It added: “More action is needed from the sector to educate consumers on the environmental impact of their beauty and personal care routines and to innovate products that minimise the need for hot water.”

But, the Carbon Trust suggests there is rising demand for sustainable and eco-friendly beauty products as research shows the green beauty industry will be worth USD$22bn – about £17.8bn – in the next five years.

“This makes climate and business sense for the beauty industry,” the report said.

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Nicole Whittle, a vegan beauty blogger who is passionate about ethical, affordable, and sustainable products, agrees there is a need for sustainability and waste reduction.

She told The Big Issue: “Obviously, we’re in a climate crisis, so it’s important that every industry kind of connects to that. The beauty industry has a responsibility to make things better and unfortunately, they’re just not doing that.”

She believes that, at the moment, sustainability in the beauty industry is very much consumer-led – and while we have some power, there needs to be commitment and support from companies too.

40 per cent of emissions comes from the energy and hot water needed to use their products. (Image: Victoria Priessnitz/Unsplash)

Dr Lubna Khan-Salim, founder of skincare clinic Time to Bloom, says “brands have a corporate social responsibility to put people and the planet before profit”. She herself is looking at her suppliers’ sustainability credentials as she only wants to use brands that are “tackling the issue seriously”.

“I feel a real sense of disappointment at the lack of progress the industry is making. The sustainable beauty movement has a long way to go,” Khan-Salim said.

Whittle said many brands brag about having recyclable packaging or some other kind of sustainable practice, but this isn’t enough: “We’re expecting more than that.”

Even with some brands using recyclable packaging, around 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging is produced annually. Most of it cannot be recycled and therefore usually ends up in landfills – but this could be changed if there was strong commitment to reusable packaging and bottles.

Whittle said: “There are small improvements but they are improvements we needed 20 years ago, rather than big changes we need now. There’s a juxtaposition between companies claiming to be environmental and yet still trying to profit from selling more and more products.”

She believes consumers need to put more pressure on the industry to commit to climate action and sustainability, the same way people pressured brands to be cruelty-free 10  years ago.

People need to be more aware of what brands are doing and simply ask the right questions of what they’re buying and using.

girl holding eyeshadow brush and eyeshadow palette
30 per cent of emissions in the beauty industry come from sourcing raw materials. (Image: Laura Chouette/Unsplash)

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Companies also should be punished for ‘greenwashing’, which is where brands make claims about their sustainable products and practices to dupe climate-conscious consumers into purchasing their products as a result, Whittle added.

“There should definitely be harsher consequences for it and it’s something that I like to call out when I see it. It can be really frustrating to see people fall for brands that say they are eco-friendly when they’re not,” she said, suggesting a traffic light system that independently reviews products and alerts consumers to what they’re buying.

In fact, Tory MP for Kingswood Chris Skidmore’s net zero review recommended the government pursue a similar practice of “ecolabelling to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions” and prevent further greenwashing.

The review said people have “a lack of confidence about whether green claims made on products are authentic” and the same is likely true for beauty products. 

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