Thinking Outloud: Fostering True Sustainable Development

In a time of economic uncertainty, when the corporate world is cautious about new trends and doubtful investments, the trend for natural and organic products seem to be, more than ever, the path that beauty companies have chosen to follow as part of their plan to be more sustainably responsible.

The current climate hit all the players in the cosmetic market at the end of 2008, and from the cosmetic ingredients manufacturers’ perspective, the biggest threats to business were the possibility of clients cutting ongoing development projects or postponing or aborting pre-scheduled new product launches. But, two months into 2009, these worries seem to have, for the most part, not come to fruition for suppliers of natural ingredients—thanks, in part, to the ongoing attraction of natural and organic cosmetics for consumers. Cosmetic consumers attach a high value to products formulated by environmentally friendly and social responsible companies, and have increasingly been making natural and organic cosmetics their choice—despite the economic conditions and the higher relative costs of many of these products. So, what is the impact of this consumer behavior on us as an industry? In short, more and more companies offering what the marketplace requests.

What worries me—and, I imagine, all the companies that are essentially committed to sustainable practices and natural products—is that so many ingredient manufacturers claim to offer sustainable products when this is not always a true fact. In some cases, it simply takes advantage of the increasing likelihood that consumers will purchase products positioned as “greener,” natural and organic.

The terms “green wash” and “green sheen” are being used more often as more companies with no background in natural, organic and clean chemistry try to surf the green wave without truly offering products that fit the criteria. A big part of the problem is that companies truly committed to sustainability and naturals and those that are not sometimes look very similar through the customer’s eyes, due often to very convincing marketing strategies. Consumers, more often than not, are confused. And this, along with the growth potential of cynicism for label claims (legitimate or not), is potentially damaging to credibility and business.

Beyond Business to Stewardship

Nowadays, companies in almost every industry are making a move toward greener, cleaner and more sustainable practices. But is the planet’s health the primary goal? Cost cuts or attempts to alter an image are common, ulterior motives. Oil, automotive and energy corporations are among those that are most scrutinized for embarking on sustainable practices for the sake of these goals. But what about the beauty industry? The story, unfortunately, does not seem to be that different. There are still practices, processes and products that can be harmful downstream.

So, what can we, as an industry, do? “Clean up your act, not your image,” prompts Greenpeace on its “Stop Green Wash” Web site ( Try to get to know your suppliers better, and ask them what their sustainability practices are. Organic certification may be a good indicator of their overall sustainability practices, as the most globally respected organic certifiers also include sustainable practices in their frequent audits—in addition to assuring that no chemicals or genetically modified organisms were used in the harvesting of the ingredient.

Taking the Extra Step

There are suppliers and marketers that go deeper into the sustainability concept. In Brazil, for example, there are companies working to lower the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest and changing its local communities’ life by the sustainable harvesting of non-timber goods—in addition to reducing their carbon emissions or recycling waste.

And it sometimes comes down to making very simple decisions and taking those actions. A cosmetic formulation that includes ingredients from the Amazon rain forest, for instance, can contribute to preserving the forest while maintaining the economic development of the local population. How? Sourcing vegetable oil from the region offers a population a method to both care for and profit from its natural resources. The oil is efficacious and does not require the destruction of the source. It is an economic environment that is symbiotic with the natural environment with far greater and longer lasting positive implications. “On a social scale, 100 liters of Andiroba oil have greater impact than the sales of cell phones and cars in Brazil,” Eduardo Braga, governor of Amazon State, once said.

When the local population understands that sustainable harvesting means keeping the native forest vertical instead of horizontal, no trees forested, it creates income and ongoing potential that can be passed along to their children and grandchildren—and they become the real guardians of the world’s largest biodiversity source. It is true sustainable development, and serves as an apt and applicable model for every region or market.

Daniel Sabará is chief executive, health and personal care division, Beraca Ingredients.

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