The 2010s saw important social and political issues, like the environment, animal welfare and the anti-sweatshop movement, come to the forefront of international conversation. A growing concern with these concerns has prompted roughly 65% of Brits to attempt to live more ethically, as a way of doing their part to help. And as consumers become more and more mindful of the impact their purchases have on the world, many sectors have had to adapt to remain appealing to the changing needs of their customers.

One of the UK’s most lucrative industries is the beauty sector, contributing £30 billion to the economy. While this is excellent news on a financial level, the cosmetics industry is still plagued with many moral problems such as the inclusion of child labour and animal testing in beauty business models, and numerous missteps in terms of sustainability. In consequence, the industry has undergone a huge transformation, prioritising ethics—the UK’s top beauty concern—to meet the demands of consumers who want to see companies proactively tackling these issues.

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Organic health and beauty distributor Original Organics lists eight different aspects of ethical beauty, noting that these extensive criteria mean there are “few products ticking every box”. Still, the beauty companies who have spearheaded the industry’s reinvention have done so in the following areas.

Vegan products

Considering that veganism is the fastest-growing lifestyle movement in the UK, perhaps it’s no surprise that consumers want their cosmetics to be as animal-free as their food. It must be noted that vegan beauty is very distinct from cruelty-free beauty, which refers to products that haven’t been tested on animals, but could still contain ingredients that derive from them. By contrast, vegan products will omit such ingredients, meaning that a cosmetic can be cruelty-free but not vegan, if something like beeswax is used to create it.

The global vegan cosmetics industry has been immensely successful, predicted to be worth $20.8 billion by 2025, a figure that has shot up by nearly $8 billion since 2017. This growth has been attributed to a growing concern for animal welfare, especially among millennials. The success of Kat Von D Beauty, an entirely vegan company, has proven that cosmetics brands don’t need to sacrifice quality when embracing mineral or plant-based ingredients. Furthermore, many of the UK’s top beauty brands, such as Charlotte Tilbury and Urban Decay, have their own extensive vegan product ranges, while Hourglass Cosmetics has pledged to become 100% vegan by the end of 2020.

Sustainable packaging

In an age where recycling is deemed essential, and single-use plastic is frowned upon, it stands to reason that brands are adapting their packaging accordingly. Zero Waste Europe has pointed out that 120 billion units of cosmetics packaging are produced every year, much of which is made from plastic, which can’t be recycled since it takes almost 1,000 years to decompose. Therefore, beauty brands are trying to attract customers by selling products in biodegradable pots and containers instead.

This boom in sustainable packaging has been explored in depth by Raconteur contributor Giselle La Pompe-Moore, who references an API Group 2018 study which revealed that over 50% of beauty brands made sustainable feature changes between May 2018 and 2019. Aveda, for example, has embraced post-consumer resin (PCR) plastics made from discarded items like plastic drinks bottles. Meanwhile Lush has been a long-time champion of entirely package-free products, such as solid soap-like shower gels and shampoo bars. Another interesting development is the uptake of refillable cosmetics. For instance, the By Kilian fragrance brand offers four-piece refillable perfume kits, including a dropper and funnel.

As so many cosmetics companies have now adopted attractive, functional packaging that’s also sustainable, those that buck the trend now risk alienating their consumers. As La Pompe-Moore points out: “In the age of call-out culture, beauty brands that are not seen to be actively tackling the problem are at risk of damaging both their reputation and customer base.”

Mindful sourcing

As well as the beauty brands making changes for the sake of animals, there are also many rethinking their supply chain in the name of humanitarianism. Writing in The Independent, Niellah Arboine argues passionately that “there’s a double standard in what consumers in the West deem to be cruelty-free”, pointing out that many cosmetics contain elements extracted in abhorrent working conditions.

For example, according to World Vision Canada, a quarter of the world’s mica—the reflective mineral used to add sparkle to beauty products—comes from illegal child mining in India. Similarly, a report from global risk-consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft revealed that other common cosmetic ingredients like cocoa, vanilla, shea nuts, copper and silk are also often produced through child labour.

This is a problem many mainstream beauty brands have yet to tackle—Estée Lauder, MAC and L’Oréal are just three major names linked to Indian mica mines. Luckily, there are some which opt for synthetic or ethically-sourced alternatives to ingredients like these. For instance, BareFaced Beauty only sources raw materials from suppliers who use mines that are free from child labour. Meanwhile Palmer’s is part of the World Cocoa Foundation, which helps to create sustainable cocoa farming, and the Global Shea Alliance. This is an organisation which is committed to promoting sustainable shea production, as well as women’s empowerment, supplying storage facilities, and offering business training for women’s groups.

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