Monday, 24 November 2014

Green-washing in cosmetics: Why do they do it?

When I was 16 I was an extreme level young hippie. John Lennon was my Jesus, I genuinely wanted World Peace more than anything in the world and wished I could save every starving kid and abused animal on the planet. I refused to drive a car because I didn't want to contribute to pollution, I bought all my clothes from Value Village and the Salvation Army because I wanted to rebel against norms and not feed into the fashion machine, I was Vegan when being Vegan wasn't trendy yet (10 years ago, most people didn't even know what the word Vegan meant). And having problematic skin and hard to manage hair, but a very hippie personal ethos, led me to try to formulate my own cosmetics at home so I would know they were truly natural and not green-washed.

When something is actually made by a kitchen chemist, like we would all love to believe all our products are, it's not exactly aesthetically appealing. I made my own Aloe and ACV hair rinses, way before it was cool. These products were not very cosmetically elegant- nor did they work as magically as the internet told me they did. I made my own Rhassoul Clay face wash and mask, but this did not cure my acne as the internet said it would. I had unrealistic expectations, to say the least. I thought they would work better than products I had purchased at stores (because I was using high concentrations and not "watering it down" with synthetics). What I had failed to realize was that the synthetics I thought of as filler, were what was making commercial products feel great, absorb and spread well, smell great and last longer than a week in the fridge. Not that I had never read this anywhere, but I simply didn't want to believe it, because in my hippie little heart I genuinely believed that nature had all the answers for us if we just looked hard enough.

 We consumers drive what cosmetic companies do, whether we believe it or not, they truly are trying to give us what we want. What most consumers want boils down to the following few points:

1. Effective products: The truth is that though there are many helpful natural extracts, there are just as many helpful lab-synthesized or extremely chemically altered extracts which can provide superior results such as BTMS
2. Reasonably priced products: If a product contains very high levels of exotic plant extracts, effective or not, that cost will be passed on to the consumer. There is just no way to extract large quantities of Amazonian rain forest plant juices while using fairly paid local women co-ops and then shipping across the world without that costing a lot. This is why truly natural products are almost always far more expensive than synthetic products. There are very few companies out there who would willingly take on very low profit margins and run the risk of going out of business just to provide us with 100% natural products at a very low price.
3. Easy to use products: Surfactants, emulsifiers, thickeners, foam stabilizers, solvents etc are all classes of cosmetic ingredients which make the consumer's life simpler by being able to use a product easily. If the oil and water in your product don't separate, it's been emulsified. If your product has slip, it has a surfactant. If it feels thick rich and creamy, it has thickeners. Some of these ingredients can be naturally derived (popular thickeners such as Cetyl Alcohol are) but they are most certainly very chemically modified to make them easy to use and appealing to consumers. This is not what people want to hear, but it is what they want.
4. Products that feel nice and smell nice: Everyone likes a thick, rich creamy product which absorbs well, which means they like the feel and look of synthetic solvents, emulsifiers and thickeners in their product. Simple natural formulas simply don't have this benefit and almost always suffer from a lack of cosmetic elegance. Everyone likes a product which smells appealing, which means almost every product has fragrance added, more natural smelling fragrances can be achieved with the use of essential oils or well selected synthetics, but this is still something extra which is added to a product without being an active ingredient.
5. Products that don't spoil in a week: If you bought a conditioner and it developed mold, started smelling funny or separated, you would probably be disappointed and return it. So would I, and cosmetic companies know this, which is why they add preservatives to their products, so that you can still use them a year or two after opening and experience the same quality you did when you first received them. Products that are water based, or packaged in a way which allows more light and air, require even more preservatives than products which are non-aqueous or packaged in airless pump containers (which also leads to more expensive products).
6. Products that they can find easily in their local stores without having to traverse across town or order online: Having worked on the logistical and operational side of cosmetic retailing, I can tell you how hard it is for indie companies which use truly natural ingredients to keep the shelves of your local store always stocked. Basically, it's nearly impossible. Sometimes your local store doesn't order enough product to stay in stock after a big sale or after customers have stolen, damaged or returned products. Sometimes, one of the natural ingredients in the product becomes less available because of a poor harvest or some type of natural disaster. This means they can't manufacture the product in sufficient quantities. Scaling up a production model to manufacture 10,000 bottles rather than 100 requires a lot more business know-how than most kitchen chemists have. Distribution agreements with retailers can be very restrictive depending on how much industry clout the indie manufacturers have (L'oreal is in a position to negotiate with Walmart, your local Etsy selling, whipped shea butter making girlfriend is not). Logistics and shipments are even more complicated and expensive when you're dealing with larger scales than your $50 Curlmart order. And the only way a small company can start to transcend these issues is if they grow really steadily and start to become a larger player in the industry. But they will have a hard time growing if people simply don't want to purchase their products, which leads back to the last few points regarding smell, texture, performance, price and lasting power.

We as consumers don't understand how complex it is to provide us with fantastic products, great customer service, accessibility and reasonable prices. Most companies resort to green-washing in order to give us all these things on a consistent basis and still stay profitable. They know that most people just want to feel good about what we slather on ourselves and this is why they tell us something is natural when it really isn't.

Though I am a very educated consumer now and have worked in the cosmetic retailing industry for long enough to get jaded, my internal hippie ethos hasn't subsided. I still love to purchase from smaller indie companies who use high concentrations of natural ingredients, but I know now that making an effective, cosmetically appealing product sometimes requires the use of synthetics. I know that truly natural products are almost always more expensive and I don't balk at higher price points if I see predominantly natural ingredient lists. And I know that most indie companies still rely on internet based distribution models and pricey shipping options, not because they don't want to be more accessible to us all, but because they're still too small to be in all our local drugstores, health food stores and beauty supply shops.

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