Today’s post is a guest post from Aubri Thompson, a fellow sustainability geek and clean beauty chemist in Oakland, CA, who recently founded her own beauty brand. Aubri and I met on Instagram when I first started the blog, and you can read our conversation about what “clean beauty” is here. This post is not sponsored, and all views expressed are of the author.
Okay folks, I’m sounding the alarm. As much as I love clean beauty and all that it stands for, it’s entering into territory I’m ready to call “fast beauty” – and it just ain’t sustainable.
Similar to fast fashion, “fast beauty” is characterized by rapid product development cycles, new trends and trend-based marketing, and purchasing at an unprecedented rate. And the impacts will be the same too: disregard for human and environmental health.
How it started
Clean beauty has exploded thanks to social media’s ability to spread the message: “pay attention to the ingredients in your products!” Not a bad message, at that. But as beauty influencers purchased more new products to keep their feeds interesting and relevant, the rest of us felt compelled to keep up with these trends: “Superfoods can help my skin, I need those!”, “Ooo a lip mask, what’s that?” Things I’ve said or thought myself.
As a cosmetic chemist, I saw these trends from the inside. And the truth is that we really wanted to bring the best new ingredients to consumers; there wasn’t anything malicious about it. If there was a new ingredient that could make a difference, why shouldn’t we launch a product with it? But when I took a step back and looked at the pure volume of new products we were creating, I couldn’t help but think “Does anyone really need all of this?”
What it means
Although the rise of clean beauty has empowered more people to ask more questions about what goes in our cosmetic products, there’s a complex supply chain that’s invisible to most consumers. Many of us have the privilege to choose clean beauty products that have better toxicological profiles than conventional products. With access to information on websites such as EWG and from clean beauty retailers like Credo and Follain, we’ve been able to gain more transparency and decrease our exposure to harmful chemicals in our personal care products. Which is fantastic!
But what’s behind those products? Now that we’ve shifted away from a lot of petrochemicals, we’re demanding a lot more from the natural resources we’ve switched over to. And of course, from the people who farm and process those ingredients. Shea butter farming and production often relies on the work of underpaid women, and some abuses are reported. The mining of mica – the natural mineral that provides a pearlescent effect to color cosmetics – is notorious for using child labor.
Environmentally, deforestation and decreased soil viability are some of the hallmarks of conventional farming practices. Palm oil is the starting material for many natural cosmetic ingredients including emulsifiers and surfactants. Grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, the cultivation of palm has resulted in deforestation and burning of peatlands, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not that brands deliberately choose to degrade the environment – often it’s that they don’t have visibility to the full supply chain and will typically prefer the cheapest version of an ingredient.
So what can we do as consumers?
SLOW DOWN! This is typically my answer when it comes to any topic around environmental sustainability. We’re simply buying and consuming too much. Again, I support the goals of clean beauty, and I think the use of non-toxic natural ingredients is a huge step forward for both humans and the environment. It’s the rate that’s the problem.
Additionally, it’s important to support brands that share these values. Look for brands that value minimalism and transparency, who have a clear position on sustainability (preferably with standards for what that means for them), and who prioritize organic and Fair Trade practices.
More consumers are waking up to the realities of fast fashion, and unfortunately it took countless lives before the damage was publicized enough for consumers to start changing their habits. We don’t have to wait that long. And we have another advantage: clean beauty is built on transparency to begin with! Let’s not get lazy now that we’ve shed light on ingredient safety… let’s demand information about the supply chain and make our decisions accordingly.