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What is Sustainable Beauty? Our Criteria Explained

by Suzana Rose

Jun 28, 2021

We just published our list of sustainable beauty brands, which includes stand-out brands such as Youth to the People, OSEA Malibu, and ILIA. These brands are making great efforts in terms of packaging, ingredients, and company policies in order to become more sustainable in every aspect of their business.

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In order to vet the brands as sustainable, we researched the topic of sustainability in depth to come up with our own set of criteria. It's a complicated topic with many different aspects to consider, from the raw materials which are harvested and processed, to the manufacturing of the products and the packaging, to the product reaching the end consumer.

Since sustainability in beauty is at its infancy, and because of the nature of consumerism itself, no brand can be perfectly sustainable. However, we believe that consumption can be done consciously, and we believe in the future of ethical businesses that are bringing positive change instead of living for their sake of their shareholders' pockets.

Sustainable beauty as we define it in this article is crucial in 2021. The brands that are fulfilling our sustainability criteria are setting an example within the beauty industry, and we strongly urge all mainstream beauty brands to take notes and consider changing their own policies to move in a more sustainable direction.

The List of Sustainable Brands

If you haven't yet seen the list, you can click here to view it. We have a main list which you can filter, plus a smaller list of brands that aren't completely fulfilling our criteria, however they're making considerable efforts as well.

Defining Sustainability

To vet sustainable brands, we must first define the term. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) summarizes sustainability as such:

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.  Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the food, feed, and fiber needs of our country and the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

EPA

Sustainability In Beauty

We can all agree that the beauty industry, in its current state, does not consider sustainability as a core principle. Focused on producing cheaply-packaged, single-use goods, and launching new product after new product, it's nowhere near "environmentally-friendly".

The numbers are alarming. Approximately 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging are manufactured every year globally, and the vast majority of this packaging is not recyclable. This plastic waste is not biodegradable, and scientists suggest that by 2050, there will be about 12,000 metric tons of it in our landfills.

We need the beauty industry to move toward sustainability. As consumers, we have the power to steer brands in this direction based on the choices we make. We can either give our money to ethical brands who have our planet's interest in mind, or to those that are actively destroying it.

The Problem Of Greenwashing

Beauty and personal care brands know that we, as consumers, care about this planet. We're asking for products that are eco-friendly, and they're listening. The problem arises when these giant companies are claiming that their products are greener and more sustainable, when they're not.

Greenwashing is when companies use false marketing to sell us products that are not truly eco-friendly. At Cruelty-Free Kitty, we've big advocates for true transparency from brands, and we're critical of all the brands we vet. Just like we don't allow bunnywashing on list of cruelty-free brands, there's no room for greenwashing brands on our sustainable list.

Our Criteria: Ingredients, Packaging, Policies

Sustainability often takes a holistic approach, meaning brands need to instore policies around many different areas of their business. We've broken these down into 3 different areas: the ingredients and formulations, the packagings -- which includes primary, secondary, and shipping packaging -- and the company initiatives.

To vet the brands, we've looked at all 3 areas. Brands that received the Sustainable label have shown significant efforts in every single one of those areas. For example, if a brand only shows commitment in terms of packaging, yet has no guidelines when it comes to ingredients or overall company policies, we do not classify it as Sustainable.

Important Note

The brand as a whole must fulfill our criteria for the 3 pillars above. We do not consider brands who come out with a "sustainable" collection, or only offer a few sustainable products while the bulk or their products are not at all sustainable, or while their company policies are anything but sustainable.

Our Stance On Plastic

We believe that plastic is not a sustainable option. However, after careful consideration, we concluded that some brands which use plastic can reasonably be labeled as Sustainable IF they're making considerable efforts in all 3 areas above, and IF they're using plastic that is either bioplastic or made from recycled plastic.

If a brand is moving towards "recyclable plastic", we do not consider this step to be a sustainable one. This is because plastic more often than not will not be recycled, and even when it's recycled, it can only be recycled for a limited number of times.

When it comes to recycled plastic and bioplastic, these are much more sustainable alternatives. We believe that ignoring such efforts would be detrimental to the road towards sustainability in the beauty industry. We want to encourage companies to keep improving their policies, and to keep innovating in terms of packaging and materials.

Our Sustainability Criteria, In-Depth

Let's take a deeper look at the 3 areas -- packaging, ingredients, and policies.

Sustainable Packaging

What constitutes sustainable packaging according to our criteria?

The brand's primary packaging materials must show considerable efforts towards sustainability, specifically in terms of closing the loop.

The brand uses refillable packaging, paper and cardboard, bamboo, glass, and aluminum whenever possible. If plastic is used, the brand must be working towards 100% recycled plastic or bioplastic.

We ranked primary beauty and personal care packaging from best to worst, as shown below. The most sustainable packaging is refillable or made from paper. Next, we have bamboo, which is practical and biodegradable. Following this, we have easily recyclable materials such as glass and metal. Then, there's recycled plastic and bioplastic. Finally, at the very bottom we have virgin plastic which may or may not be recyclable.

We believe that creating virgin plastic is the least sustainable option in terms of packaging, even if the plastic can theoretically be recycled.

The best options for primary packaging for beauty brands are:

  • Glass
  • Paper/Cardboard
  • Aluminum
  • Bamboo
  • Refillable packaging

These materials are either easier to recycle for a longer life cycle, like it's the case with glass and aluminum, or biodegradable, like it's the case with paper and bamboo. You can even compost bamboo.

Materials that fulfill our criteria as long as the brand is working towards sustainability are:

  • Recycled plastic
  • Bioplastic

Once again, we do not consider plastic to be a sustainable material even if it's recyclable or made from recycled plastic. This is because plastic has a limited life span, does not biodegrade, and is often not recycled at all.

Note: Most packaging is not 100% plastic-free. If a brand uses sustainable materials as a main choice, yet uses plastic elements such as lids or pumps, this brand may still be sustainable depending on their overall practices.

Ingredients

These are the aspects we've considered when it comes to ingredients and formulations.

Conscious Ingredients

Sustainable beauty brands do not use ingredients that are known to be toxic to our environment. These ingredients include but are not limited to chemical sunscreens, siloxanes, or microplastics. All brands we classify as Sustainable use conscious ingredients (commonly referred to as "clean") meaning they are generally considered to be safer for humans and our environment.

Biodegradable Ingredients

If brands use conscious ingredients, they are most often biodegradable, meaning they will not cause harm to the environment when washed down the drain. Some brands were able to confirm that the ingredients they use are biodegradable.

Sustainable Sourcing

In the beauty and personal care industry, it can be hard to trace where raw materials come from, and how they were acquired. Some brands were also able to confirm that their ingredients are sustainably-sourced, though there currently isn't an all-encompassing certification.

Palm Oil

When dealing with sustainability in the cosmetics industry, we can't ignore palm oil. Palm oil is linked to mass deforestation, as it's a prime example of unsustainable sourcing. We specifically asked brands about their use of palm oil. To be considered sustainable, brands must either not use palm oil or any palm oil derivatives, or they must certify that their palm oil is sourced sustainably.

We believe that a company's policy on palm oil speaks volumes. If a brand is careful about their use of palm oil, they are more likely to be careful about sustainable sourcing overall.

Every company on our sustainable list either does not use palm oil (or any of its derivates) or ensures that their palm oil is sustainably-sourced.

Policies

In addition to their packaging and ingredients, company policies are extremely telling when it comes to how seriously a brand takes their environmental impact.

Company policies we consider include being carbon neutral, using renewable energy such as solar or wind in their factories or offices, having general sustainable practices such as going paperless, planting trees, ensuring that shipping materials are biodegradable, and so on.

Final Criteria

As a recap, this is a summary of our sustainability criteria:

The brand's primary product packaging must be made from sustainable materials and be free from virgin plastic, OR the brands must be in the process of moving towards 100% sustainable packaging.

The brand does not use ingredients that are known to be harmful to our environment and their ingredients are sustainably-sourced. They do not use ingredients derived from palm oil, unless they are sustainably-sourced.

The brand has other company policies in place that relate to sustainability.

All products from the brand fulfill the criteria above -- not only a few products under their umbrella.

Which brands made the cut?

If you'd like to see which brands fulfill the criteria above, please go to our list of sustainable beauty brands.

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Suzana Rose

Suzana Rose

I created Cruelty-Free Kitty because animal testing has no place in the 21st century. My mission is to tackle ethical issues in the beauty industry one by one and find solutions for a better future.

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