Clean for real: Beauty brands move away from greenwashing

Innisfree landed in hot water when a product labelled a paper bottle was found to be plastic wrapped in paper. An act like this, which makes a brand look cleaner than it really is, is known as greenwashing.
PHOTO: Innisfree

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For the past decade in beauty, words like clean, organic, natural and chemical-free have been marketed in such a way that they’ve lost all meaning.

While a handful of brands are making efforts to actually become more “green”, others are using these words to appear cleaner than they are – a phenomenon known as greenwashing.

In April 2021, Korean skincare brand Innisfree – known for its “beauty solutions powered by natural ingredients” approach – was exposed for the misleading labelling and marketing behind what it called its “eco-friendly paper bottle”.

One customer cut the bottle open to see how it looked inside and found, to her surprise, that the packaging was simply a plastic bottle wrapped in paper.

When questioned about it, the brand recognised it may have been misleading. “We used the term ‘paper bottle’ to explain the role of the paper label surrounding the bottle,” a representative said in an apology.

Was it really an act of naivety or did it try to take advantage of environment-friendly terminology to attract new customers?

There’s no official definition or regulation of what these words mean in the beauty realm. Any brand can advertise themselves as sustainable, which usually tricks people into thinking they’re making a healthy, smart choice.

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Being a clean, sustainable or ethical brand goes way beyond using plants in formulas and displaying trees in campaigns.

Today, consumers are more aware of that than ever before – they’re savvy, have questions and want answers before they choose what to spend their money on.

Newby Hands, luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter’s global beauty director, believes the production process behind a product and the wonders it can work for your skin are just as important, and customers are conscious of it.

“This has helped pave the way for more transparency in the industry, with certain ingredients no longer commonly used and production methods being examined,” she says.

As a result, customers have become savvy, inquisitive and eager to learn what’s behind a brand’s marketing to discover formulas that will help their skin struggles.

“They like to learn about the history of the brands, especially those with female founders, and the story behind the products, such as Dr Rose Ingleton from Rose MD Skin, Dr Barbara Sturm, Sarah Chapman and Joanna Czech,” Hands says.

Dr Barbara Sturm is part of Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain programme.
PHOTO: Dr Barbara Sturm

Thanks to this thirst for knowledge, databases such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep have become an essential tool for people to learn more about what’s inside their products and how they rate for toxicity.

EWG’s Skin Deep rates beauty products and their ingredients.
PHOTO: EWG

This pushes brands to be more transparent about what’s in their formulas and find ways to innovate while keeping things sustainable.

Not so long ago, sustainable or Earth-friendly brands mainly focused on how recyclable their packaging was and how non-toxic their formulas were.

Now there are dozens of approaches to sustainability and, while not all brands can become 100 per cent clean overnight, they’re helping to reduce waste and support the global need for a greener beauty market.

Some of those innovations have set a new tone for the industry in 2021, such as EcoTools’ BioBlender – 100 per cent cruelty-free, vegan and the world’s first biodegradable and compostable reusable make-up sponge – or Alleyoop, a make-up, skincare and body-care brand.

EcoTools’ BioBlender is 100 per cent cruelty-free, vegan and the world’s first biodegradable and compostable reusable make-up sponge.
PHOTO: EcoTools

Alleyoop is redefining efficiency and doing sustainability differently to many brands, by not just using recyclable materials and sustainable sourcing but also combining multiple products into one – which means less packaging and material.

Alleyoop products are multipurpose and have minimal packaging.
PHOTO: Alleyoop

“We are constantly evolving as a brand to find new ways to incorporate sustainable options in everything we do and every product we create,” says the founder and CEO of Alleyoop, Leila Kashani Manshoory.

“Most recently, we made it our mission to become plastic neutral. In partnership with Cleanhub, for every order you place with Alleyoop, we’re removing an equivalent amount of plastic waste that’s bound for the ocean,” she says.

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On the hair aisle, brands like Amika are cruelty-free, vegan-certified and sustainably source their main ingredients from a certified-organic farm in the Tibetan Plateau.

Eva NYC, a haircare brand that has pulled the plug on plastic packaging for good, uses aluminium containers for its products.

“We really feel our planet doesn’t have time to sit around and wait for years,” said Jane Moran, vice-president of Eva NYC, during an interview with website Green Matters.

“We can’t let the responsibility just rest on consumers, so companies can’t keep producing without thinking about the environmental impact … I think we’ve shown that it’s possible to do it in a very sustainable way.”

While Moran’s statements are undeniable and there’s clear intent from the beauty industry to do better for the environment, pricing (among other things) is hindering clean beauty’s progress from a trend to an actual market standard.

Sourcing ethically produced, organic ingredients, getting certifications, producing recyclable packaging and reducing the carbon footprint are all things that raise prices, which makes it harder for some to make the switch to clean beauty.

As in fashion, high-end brands set many of the trends in beauty, so much of the responsibility falls on corporations to offer alternatives for consumers.

Some luxury brands have already adopted cleaner practices, either by making their formulas greener, their packaging 100 per cent recyclable or promoting refillables.

Tata Harper, Dior, Augustinus Bader, YSL, Chanel, Emma Lewisham, Dermalogica, Susanne Kaufmann and Kjaer Weis are some of the high-end brands riding the sustainable wave.

Augustinus Bader is part of Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain programme.
PHOTO: Augustinus Bader
Augustinus Bader is part of Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain programme.
PHOTO: Augustinus Bader 

Retailers such as Net-a-Porter play a huge role too and they’re well aware of it – which is why, back in January 2020, Net-a-Porter launched a beauty section on Net Sustain, a curated platform offering high-quality fashion and beauty products that take into account human, animal and environmental welfare to support a more sustainable future.

Products from Net-a-Porter’s Net Sustain platform.
PHOTO: Net-a-Porter

“Every item featured within the Net Sustain edit has to meet one or more of nine key attributes,” Hands says – attributes that consider ingredients, craftsmanship and processes to reduce waste, and animal well-being and promote local manufacturing.

For the beauty industry to become more sustainable, many steps need to be taken – some by corporations, some by consumers and others by the marketing industry.

The bottom line is that the world doesn’t need a few people or brands to go from zero to clean in one giant leap – it needs billions of people taking small steps towards a cleaner future.

ALSO READ: Sustainability in Singapore: All-natural local beauty brands that are kind to the environment

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.