Consumer Behavior Change Key to Sustainable Beauty Growth

Greater steps need to be taken to change consumer behavior if the beauty industry is to reduce its environmental footprint. This was one of the key messages from the fourth North American edition of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, which took place May 16–18 in New York.

With the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, questions are emerging about sustainability in the cosmetics industry. Critics argue that natural and synthetic raw materials going into cosmetic products could be redirected to other worthwhile applications. Others question the role of beauty products in geographies where food poverty is rife and resources scarce. In the Western world, life-cycle analysis shows that over 90% of the environmental impact of many personal care products is at the consumer level.

Against this backdrop, summit organizer Organic Monitor believes the way forward is greater efficiency in the production and use of beauty, cosmetic and personal care products, as well as encouraging sustainable purchases. A major challenge however is changing consumer behavior. A paper by Accenture showed that 72% of consumers said they are ready to pay more for environmentally friendly products, however just 17% actually purchase such products. Other research presented at the summit stated just 19% of American consumers are regular buyers of green products.

A number of solutions to translate green consumer intent to action were proposed by speakers. The Worldwatch Institute believes that sustainable business practices can influence consumers, while marketing and legislation can directly change consumption habits. Citing the example of the Washington D.C. plastic bags tax, Erik Assadourian said that government can be a major lever of change. Other speakers called brands to engage consumers for positive change, utilizing social media as well as conventional communication tools.

The growing use of green ingredients in cosmetic formulations was also extensively discussed at the summit. Mibelle Biochemistry and IRB/Sederma gave details on how plant stem cell technology can be used to extract actives from plant materials. AkzoNobel showed how its zeta fraction technology can also be used as a sustainable alternative to traditional extraction methods. Mike Rohlfson from Heliae stated that marine algae could emerge as an important feedstock for cosmetic ingredients; unlike agricultural materials, algae are not susceptible to weather disruptions and poor harvests. The panel also discussed the take-up rate of green ingredients and sustainable processing methods; although high prices are currently a barrier, speakers stated costs were dropping as demand rises for such materials and technology.

Other papers highlighted the varying approaches companies have toward sustainability. With most companies focusing on raw materials/formulations and business processes for efficiency, the social aspects of sustainability are often neglected. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps gave details of its fair trade projects for sourcing vegetable oils. Procter & Gamble demonstrated how large companies can make a social difference; 5.5 billion liters has been provided by its safe drinking water program, saving thousands of lives in Asia and Africa. Both companies stated a major challenge for such programs was scaling up such initiatives.

The North American edition of the summit raised further questions about sustainability in the beauty industry, including how can companies take a holistic approach to sustainability and move away from isolated aspects? How do you measure sustainability performance? What sustainability schemes are emerging for natural raw materials? How can packaging be used in conjunction with formulations to reduce environmental impacts of finished products? What can be done to improve sustainability communications to consumers? And how can mobile technology be used to influence consumers towards positive change?

Such questions will be addressed in upcoming editions of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit—Sustainable Cosmetics Summit Latin America happens in São Paulo, September18–20, 2013, while the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit Europe takes place in Paris October 21–23, 2013 and the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit Asia-Pacific will be in Hong Kong on November 11–13, 2013.

More in Event Coverage