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Behind The Pretty Picture

7 minute read

Beauty Goes Green Cosmetics have never been as eco-aware as they are today, with brands like Lancôme and Stella McCartney leading the way

Until now, the only “green” news coming out of the prestige beauty business was about shades of eye shadow. When you consider the resources used to deliver a prettily packaged, fragrant little moisturizer or lipstick, it’s no wonder that the industry’s environmental report card has been less than stellar. “The ecological footprint left behind by the manufacturing and distribution of cosmetics and fragrances has been dismal,” says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Whatever the cosmetics industry is doing to reduce its environmental impact is welcome.”

There isn’t one aspect of the business that hasn’t been a cause for concern for environmental or public-health groups. Whether the ingredients in the actual product, the manufacturing of the plastic packaging that carries it or the use of virgin-paper outer packaging is at issue depends on which organization is complaining. A small group of organic and eco-conscious brands, like European labels Weleda and Dr. Hauschka and Australia’s Jurlique, has been catering to an increasingly savvy group of green-minded consumers in the U.S. for decades. But most of the more commercially available luxury brands—those sold at a mall near you—have all but ignored environmentalists’ calls for them to reduce solid waste and energy consumption and search for more renewable resources—until now. Ecologically minded brands like Clarins, which is French, or Aveda and Origins and their corporate owner, the Estée Lauder Cos., continue to innovate, while other, more conventional beauty companies like Lancôme, Kiehl’s Since 1851 and Paul Mitchell are finding philanthropic ways to lessen their impact on the world’s resources.

To find evidence of these changes, look no further than the cosmetics counter. To coincide with its launch of Cell Defense, an antioxidant skin-care treatment that helps reverse damage caused by environmental pollutants, Lancôme is supporting CarbonFund.org an organization that focuses on renewable energy and reforestation projects. “With the launch of Cell Defense, we’re planting one tree for each of the first 10,000 products sold through CarbonFund,” says Nina White, Lancôme’s U.S. general manager. “The whole thing came about because one of our spokesmodels, Elettra Wiedemann, brought it to our attention.”

Wiedemann, the daughter of longtime Lancôme “face” Isabella Rossellini, wanted to offset the environmental impact of the travel she does for the brand. Now Lancôme is doing the same for its other spokesmodels too. “We’re hoping to bring awareness to CarbonFund.org and inspire our clients to take part,” says White. Similarly, Paul Mitchell has joined with American Forests to plant enough trees to offset all carbon emissions from the manufacturing and distribution of its Tea Tree products. Kiehl’s and the NRDC are partners in Click for Greenland, an online program that raises awareness about the effects of global warming on that country. Kiehl’s will make a donation to the NRDC for each of the first 500,000 visitors to clickforgreenland.com

In a similar vein, Clarins has been a supporter of Alp Action, a foundation established in 1990 by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and devoted to preserving and rehabilitating the delicate ecosystems of the region, where some of the natural oils and ingredients used in Clarins products are grown. The beauty company also awards the ClarinsMen Environment Prize to a man who works for the sustainable preservation of plants.

Countering the damage done by business practices through support of environmental organizations is one way to address the problem. Reducing the actual damage is another. “There have been some noble efforts,” says Hershkowitz, citing as an example cosmetics-brand-driven recycling programs that encourage customers to return used packaging. “But it’s not the disposal of the plastic container that causes the big environmental impact. It’s the production of the bottle. The coal, the gas, the coloring agents, the heavy-metal stabilizers, the refining of the petroleum to make the plastic containers—it all creates a tremendous amount of toxic air emissions.”

Brands like Aveda and Origins are finding packaging and energy alternatives. “Seventeen years ago, when we started Origins, there weren’t many sustainable materials available,” says Daria Myers, the company’s global president. “We used recycled paper, about 20% postconsumer. We were as natural as we could be while still protecting the products.” These days all of Origins’ outer packaging is 50% postconsumer recycled fiber and certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and the cartons are manufactured using only wind- or hydropower. And by July, all 500 Origins products will have been reformulated without parabens, controversial chemical preservatives that are inexpensive and effective but may be linked to certain cancers. “It’s taken a couple of years to get there, since it was a huge endeavor and financial commitment, but it’s critical to our positioning and our commitment to our customers,” adds Myers. The design of Origins’ freestanding stores also reflects the brand’s philosophy: they now feature low-energy MR16 lighting that is complimentary for applying makeup, an abundance of air-purifying live plants and wood veneer from managed forests.

At the forefront of green innovation in terms of product and store design—in the beauty business or any business—is Minnesota-based Aveda. For decades, Aveda has concentrated on using green energy, renewable resources and plant-based alternatives to synthetic ingredients. Its distribution center in Blaine, Minn., is 100% wind powered. Its makeup casings are refillable, and a candle that Aveda created last year won an award for its packaging, which contained makeready paper, used by printing presses to prepare for a job. Aveda claims to be the world’s largest purchaser of organic essential oils, and to make its new fragrance, Rose Attar, it imports 100% organic rose oil from a 100-year-old family-run distillery in Bulgaria that had previously been shut down for political reasons but now employs a number of local residents. And an experimental solar-powered system at its corporate headquarters lights windowless buildings with rays from the sun.

“Aveda is really on the leading edge of this work,” says Malcolm Bond, the Estée Lauder Cos.’ executive vice president of global operations. “They then become the role model for our other brands to pick up on.” Lauder employs 30 people in its environment, health and safety division to figure out how to reduce energy consumption, seek new energy sources and find ways to use postconsumer and sustainable materials in each of its 25 brands. “For example, we’ve reduced our power consumption company-wide by about 10% since 1998,” says Bond. “That’s the equivalent of us planting 1.9 million trees. It gives us a couple of million dollars a year in savings too. Currently about 25% of our power use is green energy, and I’ve challenged the group to come up with new programs to get us up to one-third.”

Many of Lauder’s fragrances will be manufactured at a plant opening this year in New Jersey that is 50% solar powered. And its hundreds of U.S. field representatives are being encouraged to use more fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

“We are a prestige cosmetics manufacturer, and the customer has certain expectations about the products and the look of the package,” Bond says. “We can’t lose sight of that.” However, through increased consumer education and awareness of the effect those little luxuries have on the environment, Bond and others hope to make even bigger changes soon. Says he: “But I will be the first to admit that there are things we can do industry-wide to improve our consciousness of the environment.”

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