Beyond Skin Deep: Beauty, Sustainability, and a New Environmentalism
Words by Stephanie Gill, photo by Agata Wolanska
A few weeks ago, Lissome co-hosted “The Beauty Impact” with sustainable beauty magazine Untainted and Amazingy, a Berlin-based clean beauty supply e-commerce. This think tank-inspired night of intimate conversations was designed to focus on a few key issues surrounding beauty and sustainability: What’s the current state of beauty, and where is it headed? Can switching to clean cosmetics make a significant impact on the sustainability of our health and the environment, while still meeting our expectations? Where can the beauty industry grow, and what questions should we be asking as environmentally-conscious consumers?
However, our discussions soon became much more expansive than beauty – or even sustainability – and wove themselves into larger themes that many of us grapple with: How do we know if we’re making the right decisions about the things we purchase? How much power do we really have as individuals? How can we harness our collective power to find solutions?
I’ve included a few notes from the evening, as well as my additional reflections inspired by these conversations. Many thanks to Khandiz Joni for her engaging and informative talk; and to Amazingy for providing welcoming space to learn and ask questions.
Looking Beyond the Label
Our featured guest of the night was London-based hair & makeup artist Khandiz Joni, who uses clean and ethical products exclusively. She is also the founder and editor of Untainted Magazine, an online platform that challenges preconceived ideas about natural beauty as much as it promotes clean products. Joni is refreshingly candid (in person and in her writing) about the problems she has with the misleading and unfounded marketing by brands that claim to be more environmentally-conscious than they are. While the number of “natural,” “non-toxic,” “organic,” “clean”, and supposedly “chemical-free” products is growing rapidly, the lack of a consistent and world-wide regulation of the beauty industry means that companies can make these claims without much oversight.
Joni has explored a range of topics on Untainted, from decoding the sometimes overwhelming lists of ingredients in cosmetics, to the possible dangers of DIY, to the occasional need for compromise when choosing products. Her fundamental message? We have to ask questions. Lots of questions.
Of course, it’s essential to examine product ingredients, as well as the package itself. But it’s more complicated than simply choosing something natural, vegan, or non-synthetic. We have to look beyond the label because there are plenty of natural (and even vegan) ingredients that are linked to deforestation and human rights abuses, from unsustainably sourced palm oil, shea butter, mica, vanilla, and carnauba and candelilla wax (popular vegan alternatives to beeswax). We can’t make blind assumptions about packaging, either. For instance, biodegradable plastic has to be in a landfill before it biodegrades, and glass may not be manageable for certain lifestyles (take Joni, for instance, who commutes across London car-free with her goods in tow).
With so much information (and misinformation) to be aware of, it’s no wonder that consumers feel a bit lost. While a few “Beauty Impact” visitors said that the abundance of online information made it easier to research brands and ingredients, others talked about how exasperated they felt trying to wade through so many facts and claims. And they’re not alone: according to a recent study conducted by J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 86 % of 2,001 polled participants from four countries (the UK, the US, China, and Australia) believe there isn’t enough information listed on products for consumers to judge how sustainable they really are.
In her talk, Joni stressed her point that brands have the responsibility to be transparent about their ingredients, as well as how they are sourced. She also offered a solution to navigate the information overload and explained that starting with one specifically-defined core belief can make it easier to find cosmetics that will fit our lifestyle without compromising principles. For example, “I care first and foremost about finding products that are (ethically sourced, nut/gluten free, vegan, non-synthetic, etc.).” When we make it a point to be aware of and state our values succinctly, we can ask more thoughtful questions and avoid potential doubts or regrets.
Buying with our Beliefs
Value-driven purchases are on the rise, and not just in the beauty industry. Increasingly more consumers are modifying their purchases to align with their core beliefs, and 79 % of the participants in the JWT study claimed that they are “increasingly conscious of their personal impact on the planet.” In fact, another recent study reveals that approximately 64% of 8,000 people polled made the decision to “switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on social or political issues,” and 53% actually believed that brands were better able to solve societal problems than government.
This “voting with our dollar” mentality can make us feel more empowered, and research suggests that when we feel anticipated pride about our environmental behaviours (rather than anticipated guilt), we actually make better choices. As rising mental health issues are being linked to the effects of climate change, this reframing of our mindset from guilt to pride could be one important step in avoiding burnout or apathy.
Is Purchasing Power Enough?
And yet, the idea that our individual choices and purchases alone can halt the effects of climate change only reinforces the very framework that has gotten us to this point in history. As the world increases its risks of becoming uninhabitable for many within decades, it’s easy for us to blame ourselves as individuals or chalk it up to “human nature”. But in doing so, we miss the point entirely, because it’s not “human nature” that got us here; it’s deregulated, free market capitalism. A mere 100 companies have reportedly been responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, with 25 companies having produced over half of emissions. And while these corporations continue to pollute the environment through the extrapolation of fossil fuels, we are told to simply recycle the plastic made from said fossil fuels, buy different products, choose alternative modes of transportation, and adopt a vegan lifestyle. While these are no doubt significantly helpful measures, the intentional ploy to divert responsibility from corporations to individuals distracts us from the larger powers at play. It also presupposes that our lifestyles are inextricably linked to our consumption, thus keeping us rooted in consumerism.
Even the most ethical and forward-thinking brands won’t save us, and although we should vote with our wallets (in the ways we’re financially able to), we can’t stop there. In the US, an estimated 10.1 million environmentalists didn’t vote in the 2016 election, and a whopping 15.78 million didn’t vote in the 2014 midterm elections. The Environmental Voter Project, which conducted this research, concludes that “the reason environmental issues poll so poorly among voters is in large part because most environmentalists don’t vote. We have a turnout problem, not a persuasion problem.” In other words, it’s time to show up.
No More Armies of One
For environmentalism to work, it can’t just be a lifestyle choice. It has to be civically engaged, intersectional, inclusive, and based on solutions (not shame). We need to seek out and uplift the voices of activists who are witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand, as well as the innovators who are fighting against it by creating models of sustainability. It’s not up to each of us to start our own revolutions, but it is our responsibility to listen, learn, and seek connections with our respective and global communities.
“Human nature” is not an objective truth, and humanity is not solely comprised of greedy, self-serving individuals. We know this because while groups of humans in power have employed systems of violence and oppression (and continue to do so), there are communities of humans all over the world living within the bounds of their natural environment, fighting oppression and injustice, and using their spheres of influence to demand justice on multiple fronts. Now, more than ever, we have the power to choose what kind of humans we want to be. And therein lies another kind of beauty.
A big thank you to all of you who joined us for “The Beauty Impact”. We’re excited to share some pictures with you from the event!