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The Case for Sustainability in Beauty

By: Amy P. Longsworth
Posted: June 3, 2010, from the June 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.
  • Channel partners are pushing brand owners to provide detailed information on how they have reduced carbon emissions.
  • A green jump-start plan that suits a specific business can be built in methodical stages.
  • The market and regulatory landscape call for greater responsibility and more transparency. Sharing a vision and a plan for addressing key impacts will allow brands to operate comfortably in this landscape.

Consumers are waking up to the idea that the products they use leave an eco-footprint. They’re learning it not from fringe environmental groups but from mainstream companies: Nokia, the Helsinki-based maker of mobile devices, asks customers to “pledge to unplug” their cell-phone chargers; IKEA provides no shopping bags at checkout; and Seventh Generation differentiates its laundry detergent on biodegradability. In 2010, growing numbers of people understand that every opportunity to use less energy, create less waste, or opt for down-the-drain ingredients that won’t harm the environment makes for a healthier world and saves money, besides.

The growing eco-awareness has big implications for the beauty industry. In the 2009 ImagePower Green Brands Survey* of greenest brands in the U.S., Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Procter & Gamble, and Dove all made the top ten. In two of the most powerful findings from the survey, those polled stated that they would spend more on green products in the future, and they want to buy from companies they believe are environmentally responsible. Consumers care first and foremost about their own health (which drives the safety emphasis stance of the industry). But increasingly, they say they also care about the impact these products have on the environment.

Consumers are not alone in demanding more green. Channel partners—most famously Wal-Mart, with its scorecard system—are pushing brand owners to provide detailed information on how they have reduced carbon emissions, waste and packaging. Research on beauty companies conducted by Esty Environmental Partners found that direct marketing and franchised distribution companies are also hearing from their sales reps and franchisees. The consistent message is, “What is our brand doing about the environment? What’s our green story?” Simultaneously, state regulators, in response to consumer demands, are pressing hard on ingredient disclosure, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to focus on the presence of specific chemicals (some used by the beauty industry) in products themselves and in freshwater systems.

For a number of reasons, including a lack of resources, small and medium brand owners—which constitute a large portion of the beauty industry—lag behind large players on most environmental sustainability best practices. They simply lack the time and resources to engage on a topic that may seem difficult to get organized around, and may appear to offer questionable return on the investment of time. Yet make no mistake, small companies face many of the same pressures as bigger companies, as well as the same opportunities. And, a green jump-start plan that suits a specific business can be built in methodical stages, starting with those that save the most money. (And don’t worry—you don’t begin with a “green product” launch.)

Adopting Green Business Practices