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Summit Highlights Key Sustainable Development Areas in Latin America

Posted: October 9, 2012

The Latin American edition of Organic Monitor's Sustainable Cosmetics Summit came to a successful close last week, bringing together more than 160 executives from the cosmetic and related industries. The summit highlighted key areas for sustainable development in the regional cosmetic industry—translating high awareness of green issues into demand for sustainable products, addressing social impacts, and overcoming legal obstacles.

Taking place in São Paulo from September 24–26, the summit comprised a two-day conference preceded by two interactive workshops. The opening session on sustainability initiatives had papers from leading cosmetic companies in the region. Natura Brasil stated the difficulties of combining social and environmental aspects into its sustainable sourcing programs. It has achieved considerable success however; Ekos, its second biggest cosmetics line, directly benefits 1,714 Amazonian families involved in the collection of raw materials. Grupo Boticário is focusing on nature conservation via its Fundação Grupo Boticário. Set up in 1990, the foundation has sponsored 1,306 nature reserve projects, leading to the discovery of 43 new plant and animal species. A key point raised in the panel discussion was the preoccupation of cosmetic companies with environmental aspects of sustainability. One panelist stated a major reason was “the special skills required to address social aspects … unlike technical skills, these cannot be taught at university.”

A major highlight of the second session, which discussed biodiversity and ethical sourcing, was the detailed account of the Brazilian biodiversity legislation. A lawyer explained how the legislation was introduced to protect genetic assets of the country, but was now stifling innovation. The existing legal framework penalizes Brazilian companies that don’t obtain approval when developing novel ingredients; however it has not yet been enforced to foreign companies. Varying interpretations of the biodiversity legislation has created uncertainty, with companies like L’Oreal taking a cautious approach when sourcing raw materials from the country.

Organic regulation is another contentious issue in the cosmetic industry. Brazilian legislation prevents cosmetic companies to make organic claims on their products unless they meet national standards; however the country has yet to introduce a standard for organic cosmetics. Additionally, international organic cosmetic brands are therefore forced to market their products as “natural” in the Brazilian market.

Findings from the Union for Ethical Biodiversity's barometer revealed Brazilian consumers are the most aware of biodiversity in the world. Its 2012 survey showed 97% of Brazilians are aware of biodiversity and 38% can give a proper definition. In the third session, on marketing best practices, many participants asked why this high awareness is not translating into sales of natural, organic and fair trade products. Considering Brazil has a burgeoning middle class, high awareness of green issues, yet the market for eco-labeled cosmetic products remains insignificant. A paper by Market Analysis suggested marketing is the solution, since few companies are successfully communicating sustainable values to consumers.

The complexity of measuring environmental footprints of cosmetic products was demonstrated in the final session, which covered sustainable ingredients. Amyris is using cane sugar as sustainable feedstock to produce cosmetic ingredients. The ingredients have lower carbon footprints then synthetic counterparts; however the move to agricultural feedstock raises other questions related to competing land area to food crops, possible use of genetically modified organisms, water footprints, and soil fertility.

Using candeia as a case study, Citroleo and Atina Natural Assets stated the importance of sustainable cultivation and forestry management in raw material sourcing. Atina Naturals explained how greenwashing was not just common to finished cosmetic products. The growing number of ingredients marketed as “natural” or “Ecocert-approved” was creating confusion with “certified organic” materials. In a lively panel discussion, key speakers reiterated how innovation remains a key driver of sustainable ingredients in the cosmetics industry.

Discussions about sustainable development in the cosmetics industry will continue in the upcoming Asia-Pacific (Hong Kong, November 12–13) and European (Paris, November 21–23) editions of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit.