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Your Beauty Habit Is Destroying the Environment

These makeup artists and influencers want the cosmetics industry to start changing before we're buried in tonnes of plastic.

by Shayma Bakht
21 August 2019, 11:01am

Salwa Rahman aka @urgalsal_. Photo of Salwa courtesy of subject, photo of plastic waste by Magda Ehlers via Pexels

When you think about climate change, you probably imagine acres of arid land, smog-filled roads congested with cars, or dried-up lakes surrounded by trash. You might even be able to rationalise it, in your head, as partly the fallout of the Western world’s demand for fast fashion. But a haul video from a YouTube MUA (makeup artist)? That probably doesn’t even enter the picture.

More than 120 billion units of packaging is produced by the global cosmetics industry every year, most of which isn’t recyclable (according to Harper’s Bazaar, the average moisturiser pot take nearly 1,000 years to decompose), though you’re not likely to realise that watching any beauty blogger or influencer’s content, where shelves heaving with industrial quantities of makeup and draws overflowing with 30-or-more bottles of setting spray are the norm. Ordinary consumers too, are also increasing their beauty consumption – ONS consumer trends show that British households now spend 400 percent more on personal care products than they did in 1985.

Unlike fashion, the beauty industry has been relatively insulated from criticism of this wastefulness – until now. More makeup artists and influencers are beginning to think twice about their effect on the environment by cutting back on their consumption and encouraging others to do the same. “At the end of the day,” explains London-based makeup artist and beauty blogger Salwa Rahman (aka @urgalsal_), “I can only either stop consuming or consume less... If [beauty brands] can change the way they produce, then maybe I can consume at a normal rate, but at this point in time I can’t do that.”

MUAs like Salwa are part of a growing choir of voices that are increasingly concerned by the environmental effects of the beauty industry. Andrew McDougall, the associate director of Mintel Beauty, a subdivision of the market research firm, identified “sub-zero waste” as the biggest beauty trend of 2019.

Brands, he warns, must adapt to consumers’ desire for sustainable and ethical beauty products. Forget the toothless “zero waste” campaigns of the past – the new philosophy predicts that brands, manufacturers, PR teams and consumers will communally seek to eliminate waste and undo the destruction caused by the industry.

“It’s a movement towards a ground-shaking new archetype for the beauty and personal care industry,” he explained in a trend report. “If brands don’t change their approach now, they will become insignificant and may not exist in the future.”

Experts at Mintel observe that “reducing packaging is not enough; there is far greater potential for ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking from manufacturers and brands at every stage of the beauty supply chain” to slow down the severe environmental damage caused by the industry.

“No one is exempt from thinking about the environment,” Salwa says. “We are stewards of the Earth. I think, definitely, we have a responsibility to talk about reducing our makeup collections.” On her part, she curbs consumption by decanting makeup in palettes, up-cycling containers, giving away excess PR freebies and buying products from package-free brands like LUSH or second-hand items from Depop.

A Painted by Esther model
Photo courtesy of Painted by Esther.

Up-and-coming makeup artist Painted by Esther, who has painted the faces of model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, singer-songwriter Ari Lennox and Love Island contestant Samira Mighty, also recognises the issue of overconsumption in her industry. “There is pressure on artists to have a large collection,” she explains. “It’s like a status. The more high-end items you have, the better you’re viewed.” Beauty PRs, too, are guilty of environmentally unfriendly practices. “When I’ve been sent PR packages, they have used large, unnecessary boxes. Our role as makeup artists is to make it known this is unnecessary. I’m not going to promote your products unless you reduce your waste.”

The influencers we spoke to agreed that the darker side of the beauty industry is rarely discussed. Few consumers are aware that internationally-sourced ingredients such as vanilla, cocoa and mica have been linked to child labour, modern-slavery and the illegal mining of protected forestland in the developing world. The sheen in our lip gloss, that chocolate-y scent in our bronzer, or the glitter in our highlighter are real-life symbols of our contribution to the irreversible damage of the planet.

Rebekka Theenaart, who has over 80,000 Instagram followers and was recognised as a ‘Rising Star’ at the 2018 Monaco Influencer Awards, believes that more transparency is needed from beauty suppliers. “I have a big problem with the way that the term ‘cruelty-free’ is used,” she says. “Right now, a company can basically call itself ‘cruelty-free’ while using mica sourced through child labour.” Sites like rankabrand.org, which provides dummy-proof reports of brands, their ethics and sustainability, are key to debunking false labels.

Rebekka Theenaart model
Photo courtesy of Rebekka Theenaart

The topic of excess plastic wastage is one that ethnic minority beauty consumers may consider personal, since over 95 percent of the 234 cities most affected by climate change are located in Africa and Asia. Brown Beauty Talks founder and award-winning blogger Ronke Adeyemi has previously used her platform to talk about on green beauty for black and south Asian women. Her advice for influencers wanting to reduce their consumption? “Think carefully about whether you really do need that new lipstick, blusher or foundation,” she says. “Could you manage with a tiny sample? Look into donating some products to new influencers who are struggling to get onto the PR mailing lists.”

Back-to-M.A.C, LUSH’s Black Pot scheme, or Kiehl’s Recycle-and-be-Rewarded loyalty card offer free makeup in exchange for returning plastic packaging after use. While these are ideal starting points for increasingly eco-conscious consumers, some believe that it’s time for aggressive change in the industry.

“The concept of refillable makeup should become the norm, as it … drastically reduces the eco footprint of an item,” ZAO Beauty UK director Lyndsey Bates says. Her natural and organic makeup company is also the first refillable beauty brand, with a carbon-negative impact bamboo casing. “Furthermore, packaging can then be made sustainable”.

Lyndsey emphasises that change must be “remedied from the top downwards, in that manufacturers need to think about sustainability and stop peddling unethical products with huge PR campaigns to make women feel that this is the norm and the only way to operate.”

“Consumers are now demanding change,” she concludes, “and it's up to the beauty industry to listen and act.”

@shaymabakh

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.