Implementing the Principles of Sustainability in a Natural Cosmetic Ingredient

Sustainability is an issue that all businesses need to address, regardless of the nature of their business or size.1 All human activity has an impact on the environment and consumes finite resources. Demographers predict a population of 9.3 billion people will be reached by 2050, and this increasing population coupled with rapidly developing global economies has resulted in resource consumption that at current rates is wholly unsustainable.2 The conflict of land used for food production together with other activities has already resulted in a reduction of biodiversity and a degradation of the quality of the land itself.

What is Sustainability?

The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987, defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”3

The United Nations Environmental Program defines a sustainable or “green” economy as one in which growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investment that reduces carbon emissions and pollution, enhances energy and resource efficiency, and prevents the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.4

These relatively simple, globally accepted definitions require the balancing of society’s economic and social needs without undermining the natural resource base and environmental quality, representing the three pillars or spheres of sustainability:

  • Environmental—natural resource use; environmental management; pollution prevention (air, weather, land, waste)
  • Social—standard of living; education; community; equal opportunity
  • Economic—profit; cost savings; economic growth; research and development

It is only when this balance is thoughtfully addressed in a business strategy that a company or corporation can truly be described as having a sustainable business model.

There exists in many businesses a perceived tension between corporate environmental responsibility and overall profitability. However there is growing evidence that taking a positive corporate approach to sustainability is not only of benefit to the environment, the economy and society but also creates competitive advantages to the company. A sustainable approach primarily focuses on innovation and efficiency, which often results in a reduction of costs and improvements in the company’s reputation and standing with the community as well as other stakeholders.5,6 There is also the suggestion that businesses with sustainability embedded into their core values are more desirable to work for and have higher staff retention rates.7 So sustainability is increasingly becoming a key business objective for those companies with an eye to their long term future rather than just as a greenwashing short term marketing option.8

It’s What Your Customers Want

Much of the drive for sustainability is led by consumers who are increasingly demanding products that are deemed to be non-detrimental to their health, well-being and the environment.9 These consumers are influential, as can be attested by the greenwashing report of 2010 (looking at the Canadian and US consumer market), which showed that “greener” products on offer in 2010 grew by 73% over those offered in 2009. Such consumers are demanding as they want genuinely sustainable products without hidden trade-offs, verifiably certified with clear honest labeling.10 This puts an onus on brands and manufacturers to ensure that they are building sustainability into their products and process and are in turn sourcing from suppliers who adopt the same philosophical approach to themselves, either as a result of changes in the supplier’s core philosophy or due to influence upstream in the supply chain. As a result a growing number of businesses are factoring sustainability into their purchase decisions and are working with suppliers who reflect their values.11

When it comes to beauty and cosmetics, consumers will express similar concerns to those they show for their food choices. They understand that the products they apply externally to their bodies or hair can impact their long-term health in the same way that that the food they ingest can have positive and negative health impacts. They show a keen interest in the safety, allergenic and of course the efficacy messages described on the labels and want these presented in a simple and clear manner. They are also concerned with factors such as sustainable origin and production methods of the ingredients and are increasingly buying products which are certified natural or organic.

There are, of course, many examples of brands and companies that have incorporated a positive approach to sustainability within the beauty and personal care industry, and Oat Services, which markets the brand Oat Cosmetics, is one such company.

How Oat Services Balances the Three Spheres

Sustainability involves a balance between environmental, economic and social parameters. The need to produce a profitable, high-quality crop in a sustainable and socially responsible way led Oat Services to make the decision to grow its crops using modern Western world production methods in Finland. For some people, the adoption of Western world production methods seems counterintuitive to a sustainable approach as it is not generally recognized as such; in fact, many would considered modern farming a polluter. In practice, the more advanced farmers have already recognized the benefits of sustainable production either to ensure they meet current legislative requirements or for their own long-term agricultural sustainability.

There is a common perception that adopting practices such as fair trade and localized traditional farming is necessarily more sustainable; however, this also produces challenges in the degree that modern farming techniques can be applied to manage the crop effectively, which, in turn, should maximize quality and consistency of the crop output.

Agriculture is a key driver in maintaining the sustainability of rural populations in Finland. The national policy is to produce quality crops in a healthy environment at the lowest possible cost. Family farms are the backbone of Finnish agriculture, but as with many western countries economic pressures have resulted in the number of traditional farms decreasing over the years, and those that survive are larger and by necessity need to be more efficient, especially since Finland has a very short growing season.12 The crops that enable these farms to remain viable have to be carefully chosen. Of the cereal species, oats, along with barley, wheat and rye together with a number of specialized crops grow well.

Oat Services' partners ensure farmers are continually being made aware of the latest agricultural practice, including the enhancement and protection of soil quality. Soils are regularly sampled and tested and best practice is adopted to ensure there is minimum nutrient run-off to water courses. Finnish farmers are showing growing interest in environmental issues, with over 90% of farms having drawn up environmental management plans which has reduced water pollution from farming and protected biological diversity.

Another important factor is that there is no commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops within Finland. In fact, oats provide an excellent example of how understanding genetics can help breeders select traits very effectively without genetically engineering the genome.

There is now global collaboration to map the oat genome and technology in this area is moving at increasing speed. Breeders are able to breed by phenotype rather than by the traditional genotypic method allowing them select for characteristics such as high beta-glucan, lipid and avenanthramide content. Understanding the genome also allows the planned selection of new varieties that are best adapted to specific conditions, ensuring that farmers get the best yields of high quality grain from the land they farm.


For over a thousand years, oats have been used as a natural ingredient for the beauty and personal care industry. Innovations in breeding, growing and processing have created highly effective, active and functional ingredients, which add value and desirability to a wide range of hair and skin care products. These ingredients prove that innovative products can be developed in a truly sustainable manner by taking into account the three principles of sustainability and working with the metier of a crop.

Oats are relatively easy to justify as a sustainable crop, but the challenge for the beauty ingredient industry will be to apply these same principles to other natural materials that currently have a greater potential for a negative environmental and sustainable impact. However, sustainability is no longer something industry can ignore as an optional extra but something that truly adds value to business as it becomes increasingly important to the end-consumer.


  1. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.
  2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2009). "World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision." Highlights. Retrieved on: Apr. 6, 2009
  3. United Nations General Assembly (1987)
  4. United Nations General Assembly (2005). 2005 World Summit Outcome, Resolution A/60/1, adopted by the General Assembly on 15 September 2005. Retrieved on: Feb. 17, 2009
  5. S Schueth, Socially responsible investing in the United States Journal of Business Ethics, (2003)
  6. AM Grant and S Sonnentag, Doing good buffers against feeling bad: Prosocial impact compensates for negative task and self-evaluations, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, (2010)
  7. M Orlitzky, FL Schmidt and SL Rynes, Corporate Social and Financial Performance: A Meta-Analysis, Organizational Studies, (2003)
  8. K Ruffing, "Indicators to Measure Decoupling of Environmental Pressure from Economic Growth," (2007)
  9. WM Adams and S Jeanrenaud, Transition to Sustainability: Towards a Humane and Diverse World, IUCN, 1196 Gland, Switzerland (2008)
  10. Terrachoice—The Sins of Greenwashing (home and family edition), (2010)
  11. S Bertels, et al, "Embedding sustainability in organizational culture"
  12. Sustainable Use of Renewable Natural Resources in Finland - Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry
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