Tackling sustainability has become a growing concern for beauty brands. In 2020, clean retailer Credo committed to eliminating single-use masks and wipes and requiring brand partners to use 50% post-consumer recycled plastic or other sustainable materials by June 2023. In the last 12 months, take-back programs for empties have also become more prevalent, including through Sephora’s partnership with non-profit organization Pact.
But communicating sustainability without greenwashing continues to be a challenge. In a new report from Provenance, a sustainability marketing platform, and research company London Research, 83% of British beauty shoppers said the beauty industry should be more transparent about the impact of its products. Only 16% said beauty brands’ sustainability claims are very trustworthy.
Much like the phrases “clean,” non-toxic,” “organic” and “cruelty-free,” brands’ green claims are being questioned by consumers. Definitions can vary from company to company, making it difficult for consumers to quantify and understand claims not vetted by third-party organizations. As it pertains to clean certifications, the Environmental Working Group’s stamp of approval (EWG) remains the gold standard in Europe.
Jayn Sterland, managing director at Weleda U.K. and chair of the U.K. Sustainable Beauty Coalition, said beauty brands need to provide more clarity to consumers. “Buzzwords such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘net zero’ can be interpreted in different ways, so brands need to define terms clearly so shoppers can make informed choices,” she said.
According to London Research and Provenance, 85% of 1,500 U.S. and U.K. respondents said they trust an independent verifier when shopping for sustainably-focused products. Shoppers are nearly three times as likely to describe independent verification as “very trustworthy,” compared to social media influencers, bloggers or advertising.
Tech platforms like Provenance, Compare Ethics and Green Story aggregate sustainability data and certifications to better educate customers. Provenance, one of the only platforms that collects data from beauty brands, provides consumer-legible data from certifications like FairTrade and B Corp. It also checks data on an annual basis to make sure the claims are accurate and up to date. Sustainability platform Compare Ethics, which primarily works with smaller brands like Mashu and Origin, also factors in third-party verifications like B Corp. However, it uses its own 10-category algorithm to determine where brands fall across a number of sustainability categories, including workers’ rights and manufacturing. For its part, the Green Story sustainability platform, which works with fashion brands Pangaia and ThredUp, does a Life Cycle Assessment, rating products from their material sourcing to their production, usage and disposal.
Ben Grace, founder of plastic-free solid skin-care brand SBTRCT spent 10 years at U.K. men’s skin-care brand Bulldog before launching SBTRCT in 2020. “At Bulldog in 2007, the focus was more on whether the ingredients were natural or organic. Up until recently, with premium beauty, some people were almost leaving their ethics in the bathroom door,” he said. “Now, the focus is not just on the environment, but it’s also about the supply chain and the workers. That means a really broad set of certifications and accreditations is needed.”
“Third-party verification, such as B Corp certification for ethical or sustainable business practices is now essential for businesses wanting to distinguish themselves amid so much greenwash[ing],” said Sterland. At a time when verification frameworks like the Higg Index used by H&M are under review for greenwashing, third-party verification needs to be more robust than ever.
Cult Beauty was one of the first U.K. e-commerce retailers to focus on sustainability across its product range, beginning in 2019. Although Cult Beauty was founded in 2007, the retailer’s only sustainability partnership prior to Provenance was with packaging company Robinson. The latter worked with the retailer to remove plastic packaging from its supply chain.
Cult Beauty is using Provenance on its e-commerce product pages to show verified badges, or proof points, across a number of categories. That includes vegan, Black-owned and carbon neutral. “Fifty percent of our products now have a proof point of some description,” said Alicia Hickey, head of sustainability and social causes at Cult Beauty. “We’re targeting even higher numbers by 2024. Vegan is a growing category; Hourglass had been on a huge program to remove carmine out of their red lipstick, as carmine comes from crushed beetles, and brands like Jo Loves are carbon neutral.”
The retailer is planning to roll out a more in-depth integration with Provenance after seeing 1.7x higher sales for its conscious beauty edit. It’s also seen a 27% increase in products added to cart after consumers clicked on a proof point.
One-hundred-year-old Weleda has taken active steps toward sustainability. It backs an annual sustainability report and comprehensive corporate sustainability strategies, like biodynamic agriculture. Plus it has certification from UEBT and practices true cost accounting. The latter calculates a compant’s costs like raw materials and labour, as well as its effects on the natural and social environment. At a product level, Weleda cosmetics are all Natrue-certified, meaning all ingredients are natural and organic. It started working with Provenance in October 2021.
“Provenance proof points, either at a product level or a brand level, help consumers see at a glance that these credentials have been third-party verified and are not unsubstantiated marketing claims, and this increases customer confidence,” said Sterland.