The first time I picked up what I thought was an ethically-made beauty product, I ran towards the bright light and never looked back. It was a moisturizer from LUSH called “Vanishing Cream,” and in this cream, I thought I had found my saving grace.
Fast forward five years later, and I haven’t touched a LUSH product since.
Well, wait: that’s a lie. People keep getting me LUSH products as gifts because, at one point in my naive and ignorant life as a younger 20-something, I foolishly believed LUSH was the answer to my green-beauty prayers.
I was so wrong.
A version of this article previously appeared on JacalynBeales.com.
Chances are, you’ve heard of fast fashion–a phenomenon in which fashion such as clothing is produced quickly and at low costs in order to mimic and keep up with ever-evolving trends in fashion. Retailers such as H&M and Zara have long been proclaimed as fast-fashion moguls, disregarding sustainability and ethics to produce collection after collection of clothing and accessory items as quickly as humanly–sweatshop?–possible. In order to keep up with trends and consumer demand, fast fashion labels like Forever 21 produce cheaply-made, low-quality items to feed the masses.
Fast fashion is said to have taken root in the 1990’s when fashion retailers began to experience more serious pressure to increase their profits after department stores started creating their own cost-effective versions of the latest styles. This led to many brands utilizing cheap labor, running a robot-like enterprise whereby people in developing and poor-off countries were being paid far less than anyone ever should be and working in deplorable conditions–all so brands could churn out Chelsea boots and rompers to unsuspecting shoppers in Europe and North America. People looked the other way when it came to the realities of fast fashion: exploitation of fellow humans, poor labor and working conditions, sweatshops…you get the picture.
As of late, there has been a growing awareness developing around the dangers of fast fashion, but one thing I rarely see in the world of eco-conscious living and sustainability is a focus on what could be considered “fast beauty.”
This may come as a surprise, but like many fashion retailers practice fast fashion, so too do beauty brands practice fast beauty. That is, beauty produced using cheaper yet harmful ingredients which impact the planet, humans, and our fellow sentient beings negatively.
If fast fashion can be characterized by a brand’s desire to increase profits, decrease production costs, and use materials not totally ethically made or sourced, then fast beauty can be characterized the same way. Many beauty brands–especially those who claim to be “green”–often use ingredients such as palm oil, animal by-products, and other additives which are available to us at the expense of humans, wildlife, and the environment. It’s obvious that beauty brands like MAC, Sephora, and those created by designer labels such as Chanel use a range of artificial ingredients that many a consumer is blind to, but it’s the green beauty brands you have to watch out for.
Why? Because unlike those brands mentioned previously, which really don’t even bother to hide their use of gross, unpronounceable ingredients, green beauty easily fools you into believing that something is “green,” even if it isn’t, which means you could be buying into what I call the “green gimmick.”
It’s actually called “greenwashing,” and a perfect example of this is LUSH. Claiming to be a vegan, good-for-you green beauty brand, you might be shocked to learn that not every LUSH product actually is vegan, nor is it totally green. The trend of labeling products “green” simply because they aren’t tested on animals also implies that the products themselves are made with natural, ethically-sourced ingredients. But LUSH makes many of their items with artificial additives like fragrances and parabens, a fact easily overshadowed by the brand’s “cruelty-free” mantra. Just because a brand doesn’t test on animals doesn’t mean it’s totally green.
Another example of this (which I’m sure many people will harangue me for) is Herbivore Botanicals. Having tried a few of their items myself, I can attest to their effectiveness but, sadly, not their “greenness.” In many an HB product, you’ll find palm derivatives ranging from glycerine to straight up palm oil. Yet, there is no information available as to where these ingredients are sourced from, and simply adding “sustainable” in front of the words “palm oil” doesn’t make it so. In fact, as Selva Beat explains here, the terms “certified” and “sustainable” don’t mean what we’ve been led to believe they do.
There’s also the slightly tricky issue with the use of ingredients in “green” beauty products which make the whole “vegan” claim null-and-void. If a product says it’s vegan but contains, say, honey or beeswax, for all intents and purposes that product isn’t actually vegan. You could also consider a self-proclaimed “vegan” product not vegan if it utilizes additives like palm oil, considering the production of palm oil has led (and continues to lead) to the destruction and degradation of human, wildlife, and environmental resources, including plummeting numbers of wild species and the exploitation of both wildlife and humans. How can a product be “green” or “vegan” if it contains such an environmentally-harmful ingredient(s)?
What it funnels down to is convenience. Fast fashion retailers want to increase their profits and do so by using cheap, easily-sourced labor and materials. Fast beauty does the same thing. Palm oil, for example, is so easily attainable and often at lower costs than less common ingredients that a soap maker, for instance, might prefer to use palm oil in their soaps and save a few dollars rather than source a more ethical and sustainable alternative. They keep their costs down but can upsell or price their products as they desire, which is similar to fast fashion brands using cheaper, lower-quality materials to make their product. It may also be more cost effective for a brand to use artificial fragrances in their moisturizers or night creams than, say, pure essential oils, which themselves can be pricey. If a brand can manufacture slightly organic products with smaller and sometimes kinder ingredient lists than a Sephora cream, for instance, but at a lower cost by using not-so-awesome ingredients like palm, why wouldn’t they? They decrease their expenses and can increase their profits, simultaneously. It’s obvious the beauty world has learned a thing or two from fast fashion.
As consumers, it’s difficult for us to decipher whether a product is truly green, or if it’s simply a product of “fast beauty” because, for the most part, we are unaware of what “green” beauty really is. You might assume, for example, that LUSH offers green beauty because of its cruelty-free ethos, commitment to giving back to charities, and use of recycled packaging. You’ll read the ingredient lists on their products and see that they use cocoa butter, jojoba oil, mashed bananas, real roses, and pretty much every other ingredient most green beauty brands use as well. But you’re likely to overlook the sulfates, parabens, and artificial fragrances that take up most of those lists because you aren’t likely to know the scientific names or terms for those ingredients, probably aren’t familiar with the numerous pseudonyms for palm derivatives, and are unlikely to be familiar with fake fragrances. LUSH isn’t even a palm-free company, for heaven’s sake, and yet we’re eager to jump on their wagon (and the wagons of brands like them) because greenwashing says it’s “okay,” when it’s the complete opposite.
In a nutshell, “greenwashing” occurs when brands, corporations or companies claim to be “green” through marketing and advertising but, in practice, aren’t actually green. EcoCult provides an example of greenwashing in beauty by examining Kiehl’s, a popular NYC brand of skincare that lacks transparency and still contains a number of sketchy, not-so-green ingredients. Brands like Kiehl’s spend a fortune on marketing their “green” ethos, but behind the curtain of carefully-crafted ads and labels lurks ingredient lists on par with LUSH and other self-proclaimed, but not 100%, “green” beauty brands.
Through greenwashing, brands essentially lie to you, the consumer, by attempting to convince you that because their marketing says something is “green,” it actually is. But in the words of Donald Trump: WRONG.
Beauty brands claiming to be “green” easily get away with it because consumers don’t know better, and those that do can do little, if nothing, to change the way natural or “green” brands formulate their products. I could approach Herbivore Botanicals, for instance, and tell them that by using palm oil in their soaps, they’re contradicting their ethos of using high-quality, good-for-you ingredients, considering palm oil has no benefits for the skin or body and is used purely for textural purposes. But if the use of palm oil allows them to keep their expenses down whilst still charging $15 for a bar of soap no bigger than a deck of cards, would they change their tune? I’m guessing not.
When it comes to “green” beauty, there isn’t any one specific definition which tells us, completely, what “green” beauty actually means. Some argue that “green” beauty means organic products, whilst others claim that “green” beauty pertains to those products made with ethically-sourced ingredients. But non-vegan ingredients aren’t totally ethical, and when it comes to organics, a product like soap only has to contain 95% organic ingredients to be considered “organic.” What about the other 5%? The use of the word “botanicals” in beauty brands also implies that every product is made using botanicals, or derivatives of them, but that’s not always the case. When you consider that many green beauty items contain synthetics and preservatives to lengthen “shelf life,” those items can’t really be considered “green.” So, when it comes to “green” beauty, we as consumers are really left to ourselves to define that term and decide what we personally see as “green.”
For myself, “green” beauty means conflict-free, cruelty-free, palm-free, and vegan items made without the use of harmful additives such as fragrances, synthetics, dyes, parabens, sulfates, etc. What’s funny is that there are brands existing which produce truly green beauty, but you won’t see them on the shelf of your local Urban Outfitters or indie retailer near you because most of these brands don’t manufacture their products in warehouses or facilities big enough to encompass an Old Navy. My own bathroom drawers are filled with products mostly purchased from Etsy, where many green beauty brands hide, and where it is actually surprisingly simple to find brands producing beauty products which meet my own personal definition of what “green” beauty is.
But when it comes to fast beauty, the likelihood of it changing and getting the ethical makeover it desperately needs, is slim. Just as fast fashion is unlikely to ever “die,” so too is fast beauty unlikely to receive an overhaul or fade away completely. As long as we as consumers continue to demand the latest crazes, trends, and solutions from companies able to produce them quickly enough, no matter how unethically, fast beauty remains alive and well and is here to stay.
Have you spotted any fast beauty brands pushing greenwashed products?
Also by Jacalyn: Why Your Skin Is Begging For Natural Soup + 5 Things to Look For
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Photo: Averie Woodard via Unsplash