In My Opinion: The Language of Sustainability

I was at the grocery store recently and couldn’t help but notice just how many products are labeled “light.” What does “light” mean, I wondered. By strange coincidence, I overheard a child say, “Look, Mommy. Light ice cream.” “That doesn’t mean anything,” the mother replied as she walked on.

Today, we are bombarded with words like “green” and “all natural” and “sustainable,” all attempting to influence our buying behavior. But what do those words really mean? Crude oil is a naturally occurring substance, but it takes millions of years to form. By definition, crude oil is “natural,” but the use of crude oil is not sustainable. Similarly, extracting ingredients from plants may provide “natural” raw materials, but if rain forests need to be cleared to make room for those plants, the process is not sustainable.
Sustainability is the important concept for the truly green-minded individual to consider, and while complicated, consumers must be educated about sustainability if real environmental improvements are to be made.

The term sustainability addresses the entire process of bringing products to market. Are the raw materials derived from sustainable plant sources? If so, they are renewable. How much energy is required to extract and purify a plant-sourced raw material? If consumers knew that some natural products consumed more total energy to produce than their petroleum-based counterparts, would they make the same purchasing decisions?

Sustainability also recognizes that “biodegradable” and “recyclable” are both good, but we must differentiate the concepts. Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily recyclable, nor are recyclable plastics necessarily biodegradable. Both concepts are sustainable, however, and each has an important part to play in industries’ efforts to decrease our carbon footprints and affect lasting sustainable change.

The HallStar Company recently introduced an ingredient line called HallGreen for skin and hair care. Our goal was to start with plant-derived materials, preferably those that required minimal energy inputs and were sustainable. We wanted productive yields in order to limit the amount of necessary raw ingredients. We also needed to ensure against generated by-products that could contaminate the air, water or land.

We quickly saw that our line was both green and natural, but more importantly it was sustainable, and having addressed these sustainability issues would be good for business. Improving yield meant lower raw material costs. Less energy consumption meant lower energy costs. These savings have allowed us to offer competitive prices to our customers while maintaining our margin objectives. Eliminating problematic by-products has protected our personnel, as well as our customers and end users, and has allowed us to comply with local, state and federal environmental guidelines.

So when HallGreen ingredients are advertised as being built on a sustainable platform, we’re trying to convey all those considerations in a single concept. Now you can see why I care about the language of sustainability. I do not want it to become the equivalent of the word “light.”

I admire the leadership that the personal care industry has brought to the topic of sustainability. New strategies, methodologies and reporting systems seem to surface weekly. Company after company is reporting that sustainability initiatives deliver quantifiable benefits for the business and the end user.

Sunscreens have shown us the importance of conveying consumer-friendly information in packaging and marketing communications. SPF has entered the global lexicon, conveying critical information to consumers about the level of protection each product provides. I hope we can take the concept of sustainability to that level of understanding—that the word can be used to tell consumers how a product was manufactured so they can make educated buying decisions. It is in our own best interest as an industry to reach out and define the benefits of the concept to consumers as they make their choices. None of us want to have consumers say, “That doesn’t mean anything,” when they refer to our products or our claims.

In the end, I believe nomenclature that defines sustainability in a clear, concise way will help us improve product differentiation, enhance brands and images, and reorient our corporate and global cultures. Sustainability is the right way to think about environmentalism and it is good for business.

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