Last week we saw the 27th UN Climate Change summit come to a close. I’d love to say that it was a roaring success and that we’re all saved from global disaster, however yet again it seems that world leaders just couldn’t reach an agreement on anything much worth agreeing on, and the (habitable) future of our amazing planet is yet again hanging in the balance. As always I’m left with a feeling of despair mixed with determination, if a top down approach is not going to be forthcoming, it seems that a bottom up, society led approach is going to have to lead the way. And that brings me to my own tiny corner of influence, as a business owner how can I try and make a difference? I see this role as being two fold;
- first there are the small gains I can make as a business owner, I can ensure that my own business contributes in the smallest way possible to carbon emissions (for example by growing as many ingredients as I can on site, using minimum heat in my manufacturing methods, refusing to import any ingredients I don’t grow myself) and sinking as much carbon on site as I can (through the expansion of our wildflower meadows!)
- and second by sharing my knowledge with others in the hope that as consumers they can make informed decisions when it comes to buying beauty products. The problem here is that so many skincare companies are shouting their green credentials from the roof tops and as a consumer it can be difficult to know what to trust. So, I thought it might be handy to set out a (very) brief guide to climate impact in the beauty sector. So, without further ado, here goes:
What as a consumer can you do to lessen your climate impact according to the products you buy?
First up, I think it’s really important here to point out the fact that climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, although equally important and admittedly highly interlinked, are actually very separate environmental issues (ones that I will no doubt write separate blog posts about in fact!). A company that tries to green wash its way through the climate crisis by shouting about its plastic free packaging, is always one to be wary of.
And that brings me nicely to my second point. In terms of carbon footprint, what’s inside the bottle is just as important as what it’s packaged in. And I’m not talking about the presence of rare/threatened species on the ingredients label here (e.g. sandalwood, rosewood oil) or those that cause deforestation (e.g. palm oil). Although incredibly important, these are ingredients that mainly relate to issues of biodiversity loss rather than carbon emissions (see above). When it comes to the climate crisis, we need to be more aware of ingredients that carry a large carbon footprint as a result of where they’re from or how they’re processed. In this category I place ingredients that are imported unnecessarily (e.g. one of my biggest bugbears; Rosehip oil), have travelled great distances, often from far flung tropical places (e.g. aloe vera, jojoba oil, shea butter), are produced using intensive farming methods (e.g. non-organically farmed rapeseed oil or wheatgerm oil), or require vast amounts of heat and processing to extract (e.g. essential oils and absolutes).
The third point to consider is where has it come from and how did it get to you? Some large skincare companies have huge distribution networks that see their products being made in a factory in one country, being sent to a distributor elsewhere before being transported yet again to various retailers. As you can imagine these multiple journeys add up, and that’s before its even reached your hands. To take this a step further, each of the individual ingredients used in the product will also have made multiple journeys. Take botanical ingredients for example, they will be transported from whichever country they are grown in onto a wholesaler, from which they may be bought by a botanical extract manufacturer and processed, before being sold on to a skincare manufacturer.
Fourth, how was it made? Many beauty products, especially creams and lotions require heat to produce. Traditional emulsifiers for example, which combine water and oil to make a cream, need to be heated to around 70 degrees centigrade for the chemical reaction to take place. When making small batches of product, this of course doesn’t require too much energy, though when manufacturing on an industrial scale the scale of the impact becomes more significant. What I find particularly frustrating about this is that cold process technologies e.g. emulsifiers, are available which don’t require any heat at all.
And lastly, and this one is slightly controversial, avoid brands that attempt to mitigate their carbon emissions through use of carbon offsetting. Although these schemes mean well, they don’t address the core issue of the climate crisis, that of reducing our emissions, and are frowned upon in environmental spheres as they could never be implemented at the scale that would be needed to solve the climate crisis. Although I completely support tree planting schemes (particularly for their biodiversity gains), I’m always very sceptical of a company that uses tree planting as way to greenwash their way out of the climate crisis. Measures of carbon footprint in the industry are also to be questioned, as existing schemes simply quantify that of the manufacturing process (minus any offsets), rather than taking into account the footprint of the entire lifecycle of the products (including individual ingredients).
So, without spending hours pouring over ingredients labels and googling their provenance, how can you decide which products really do carry a low carbon footprint? Buying from small artisan producers that use locally produced ingredients is a good start. And buying locally, as in, buying direct from the producer, will reduce the length of journey a product then travels to you (cutting out the journey to/from a retailer). Brands that use Royal Mail over couriers get extra brownie points (posties are making the journey to your house everyday anyway, rather than the special journey a courier will make). And finally there are some obvious product that carry a high carbon footprint by their very nature; most balms and butters have a high content of imported ingredients (e.g. butters, oils and waxes).
In terms of the skincare industry itself, how can we encourage brands to become more honest about the carbon footprint of their products? First up, I would love to see a beauty awards competition that truly assesses a products carbon footprint (dare I say it, led by environmental rather than skincare experts), over and over again I see ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate action’ awards given to products simply because they’re not packaged in plastic or because the brand plants a tree for every purchase, despite the fact that the ingredients they’re made from carry a huge environmental impact. I believe we need a much more rigorous way of assessing truly sustainable products and championing those that are leading the way, thus enabling the public to make more informed decisions. Second, I think we need ingredients manufacturers/distributors to be much clearer about the origins of the ingredients they’re selling, so manufacturers can no longer turn a blind eye to carbon heavy ingredients.
In terms of my own brand, I can absolutely promise that I will do my absolute utmost to ensure that our products carry the smallest carbon footprint they can. I spend hours researching the origins of any ingredients we don’t grow ourselves, days agonising over ingredient choices, weeks trying to formulate products that don’t use imported ingredients, and months growing our own ingredients on the very same site in which they’re incorporated into the end products that they’re used in. And I have to be honest, seeing other brands greenwashing their way into ‘environmental awareness’ really does grate and I have to be careful to hold my tongue! But I hope that by sharing what I know, I can enable others to look a little closer, read past the marketing speak and make their own well informed decisions about brands. You can find out more about our sustainability ethos here.