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Is the Beauty Industry "Green-Washing" Sustainability?

How can you tell if your beauty products are made sustainably? The answer must include some assurance that claims of sustainability are not just a form of greenwashing. Is there substance behind the sustainability claims of the beauty business?
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On the Beauty Brains, we've fielded countless questions about whether so-called "natural" and "organic" beauty products are better for hair and skin. But we've never been asked what is, in our opinion, a far more important question: how can you tell if your beauty products are made sustainably? The answer to that question must include some assurance that claims of sustainability are not just a form of greenwashing. Is there substance behind the sustainability claims of the beauty business?

Aligned definitions
At first glance, sustainability seems just as confusing as other green claims. Everyone seems to have their own spin. Consider these definitions from a governmental agency, a major US retailer, and three global consumer products manufacturers.

US EPA: "Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.."

Walmart: "Our broad environmental goals at Walmart are simple and straightforward: To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; to sell products that sustain people and the environment."

P&G: "Sustainability is about ensuring a better quality of life, now and for generations to come."

Unilever: "By 2020, we will halve the environmental footprint of our products, help more than 1 billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, and source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably."

Aveda: "We see the sustainability challenge as one of protecting biodiversity. We believe that the following issues are the main threats to biodiversity: Global climate change, water pollution, loss of species and habitat destruction, air pollution, toxins in the environment, and waste generation."

While there's a bit of scatter in the specifics, the tone of these definitions is similar: "Don't screw up stuff we're going to need in the future."

Meaningful metrics
Of course it's easy for a company to give lip service to sustainability; it's another thing to take actions whose impact can be measured. Sustainability reporting is a strong indication that the beauty industry is not treating sustainability as just another greenwashed marketing campaign. While the industry still lacks universal guidelines around natural products, broadly accepted sustainability reporting guidelines, known as G3, have been established by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). As of 2010, nearly 1900 companies in 60 countries filed reports using this format. Many of these companies, like Unilever, P&G, and Estee Lauder, are in the cosmetic sector. Cosmetic ingredient suppliers, including Akzo Nobel, Evonik, and Nalco, also use G3 standards. (GRI Reports List)

What is the GRI G3 report?
The Global Reporting Initiative is a non-government organization formed in 1997 by two US based non-profit organizations (the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies and the Tellus Institute) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP ). They are currently headquartered in the Netherlands and they produce "the most widely used standardized sustainability reporting framework in the world." (GRI History)

The G3, or "Third Generation," guidelines were launched in October 2006. The G2 version dates back to 2002, following the original guidelines which were released in 2000. The G3 Guidelines provide universal guidance for reporting on sustainability performance.

Reporting standards
G3 guidelines are far too lengthy to republish here, but the following examples will give you a flavor for the depth of information required in the report.

Materials: The types used, their sources, and how much material is recycled. Energy: How much was consumed (as well as how much was conserved) and was the primary source direct or indirect. EN6 initiatives the company has to improve energy efficiency or generate renewable energy.

Water: Source of water, the total amount withdrawn, and the amount that was recycled and reused.

Biodiversity: Amount of land owned/used by the company that is located near areas of high biodiversity value. Description of significant impact of activities, products and services on biodiversity. Strategies, current actions, and future plans for managing impacts on biodiversity.

Greenhouse gases: Total direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and initiatives to reduce greenhouse and emissions of ozone depleting substances.

Chemical waste: Total amount of waste by type and disposal method; Total number and volume of significant spills; initiatives to mitigate environmental impacts of products and services and extent of impact mitigation.

As you can see, this form of sustainability reporting goes far deeper than asking "Are you using plant-derived ingredients instead of petroleum-based chemicals?"

Opportunity for abuse
While the G3 guidelines are the most widely accepted reporting structure, GRI is not without its critics. As Moneva, et al, point out in "GRI and the Camouflaging of Corporate Unsustainabilty", "some organizations that label themselves as GRI reporters do not behave in a responsible way concerning sustainability question, like gas emissions, social equity or human rights." While we acknowledge that the G3 is not without legitimate criticism, we still agree with Ed Lawler's assessment that we "support the direction we're moving in...we need to pick up the pace." While there may be issues with GRI's approach, they provide the best independent corroboration of sustainability that is currently available.

Are your favorite beauty products made sustainably?
The G3 report provides a tangible alternative to the hollow "natural" and "organic" claims that constantly bombards us all. If you'd like to find out if your favorite beauty products are made by companies who have a real commitment to sustainability, you can download this list of companies who have filed G3 reports. (Of course, finding any given company presumes you actually know who REALLY makes your beauty products. For example, in the 2010 list of reports you won't find natural product czar Burt's Bees but you will find parent company, Clorox. The shell game of which company makes what product is a discussion for another day!)

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