Sustainable beauty is more complex than you’d think

As I stood in the queue at Sephora a few weeks ago, I looked down into my basket and felt horrified. Every single item was coated in plastic shrink wrap and neatly nestled in a single-use box that would be discarded as soon as I got home. It got me thinking about how the makeup industry can do better at being sustainable, cruelty-free, effective, and inclusive. Generally, I tend to roll my eyes when I see all those buzzwords cosmetics companies love to throw around. Until you do a complete deep dive into the actual workings of a company, you can never fully know its policies or politics and it may seem like there are no good guys out there. Let me tell you – there probably aren’t. Every cosmetics company has its own dirt. So it’s up to you to decide what is the main purpose of your sustainability journey and use those products that align with that. 

The beauty industry contributes 120 billion units of packaging a year, according to some estimates, and the shipping industry, an integral part of the process, contributes more than one billion tons of carbon monoxide a year, not accounting for freight or air shipping. 

A tale of China and little bunnies

Let me start here because there are so many misconceptions about Chinese products and companies that sell in China. There was supposed to be a legislation change on 1 January 2020 that gave international companies the choice of whether or not to complete animal tests before hitting the shelves. Unfortunately, this did not come to fruition and the old law is still in place that requires all cosmetics companies that sell in China to test on animals. So basically no matter how cruelty-free a brand might claim to be in the rest of the world – especially in the EU, which strictly forbids it – the company in question may still conduct these tests for the Chinese market. One of the biggest culprits is L’Oreal and animal rights groups have been consistently putting pressure on the company to rethink its policies.

Parent companies and their brands

Every now and then, you will find a brand that ticks all the boxes until one day you’re sitting on the couch and telling your friend how amazing this face cream is and she says “But you know they’re owned by an unethical company, right?” The majority of large parent companies do sell in China, thus making them animal testing companies, but some of their smaller subsidiaries have a vehement anti-cruelty policy. If you are willing to overlook this, well, that’s a choice. Even brands that claim to be completely cruelty-free and sustainable like KVD Vegan Beauty is owned by a company that tests on animals. (Kat Von D’s problematic politics to follow.)

Problematic celebrities, brands, and endorsements

In talking about sustainability, you cannot ignore intersectionality and human rights. Without factoring in how we move forward with representation and what is ethical and what isn’t in terms of human rights need to underpin how we envision a sustainable future. This is why I’ve included this on the list. Problematic celebrities can make or break a brand, depending on what they stand for. You can have a brand like Too Faced that has a sustainable packaging policy and that donates to LGBT+ organisations, but their Born This Way line is from Lady Gaga, who wears fur. Kat Von D herself is anti-Semitic and anti-vax. And then there’s Gwenyth Paltrow who says her products are environmentally friendly but use… bee venom …? Surely they need their venom more than we do. There are many examples of this, and we need to be wary of who champions what products.

Those logos aren’t always what they seem

There are three main cruelty-free logos that brands love to slap on their packaging, but PETA’s involves no monitoring meaning a company can fill out an online form and BAM! They’re PETA-certified. The organisation also certifies brands that test in countries outside of which the certification was applied. Choose Cruelty-Free and Leaping Bunny, however, have stricter monitoring and aren’t so quick to label products with their branding if their policies and practices aren’t up to scratch. Even so, some of the brands they endorse are still environmental hazards with ingredients that are harmful and have non-recyclable or reusable packaging.


We know the ill effects of parabens and sulphates on the human body, but there are so many ingredients in beauty products that are harmful to the environment. One of them is microbeads, which are plastic and cannot break down. This is found in many exfoliators. Likewise, Siloxanes like Cyclopentasiloxane (D4) and Cyclopentasiloxane (D5) may build up in fish or other aquatic organisms, clogging up their internal systems. Triclosan, while an effective anti-bacterial chemical, is found in lots of consumer products, including toothpaste, hand sanitisers, laundry detergent, and facial tissues, among others. Research has shown that triclosan sticks around in the environment, killing helpful algae and accumulating in the bodies of other organisms. Don’t get me started on palm oil.

Packaging and recycling programmes

Some brands, like Lush, MAC, and Khiel’s, offer recycling programmes where they give the customer a free product when they bring back a certain number of empty containers. Most don’t and rely on the customer using public recycling services. This isn’t always successful, though because of the more than 120 billion units of packaging that is produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, much is not recyclable. The majority of beauty products come packaged in plastic, which can take around a millennium to decompose. There are plastic wrappings, paper inserts, cardboard sleeves, packing foam, mirrors and more, sometimes all in one item. The chemical compounds make some plastic pots unrecyclable and these are either landfilled or incinerated for waste energy.

These are only some of the things we need to think about when considering the sustainability of the beauty industry. It may be tiring, but we need to continue putting pressure on brands to do better and hopefully one day we will be able to say that every product we use is truly cruelty-free.