At Seilich we’ve just been shortlisted for an RSPB Nature of Scotland Award (woo hoo!). Within the nature conservation sector this is a big deal, so to say I’m feeling a little bit proud would be an understatement. On hearing the news, I’ve not only become a pretty perky individual but I’ve also become a bit more confident in my ideas on what constitutes a ‘sustainable beauty product’.
Are products in the wider community really sustainable?
Since starting Seilich three years ago, I’ve found my ideas to be often at odds with that of the wider community, which surprised me as I thought I knew a thing or two about environmental best practice having worked in the nature conservation sector for over 20 years.
For example, I’ve seen sustainability awards given to products that are packed full of ingredients that my own background tells me are not sustainable at all, such as essential oils, wild-foraged ingredients, bee products, hot-process emulsifiers and butters/waxes; or brands celebrated for their sustainability values for simply switching from non-recyclable to recyclable packaging, for ‘off-setting’ their impacts, or for creating water-less products (more on these later).
I can only attribute this distortion to a huge misunderstanding, one that is based on an assumption; that natural ingredients inherently have a negligible environmental impact.
If we go with this assumption for a minute, the fact that sustainability values within the industry are so heavily skewed towards packaging, that wild harvested ingredients are so celebrated, and that use of essential oils are so ubiquitously used suddenly makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense however is that when it comes to food, brands and consumers are much more aware of the environmental footprint of the ‘natural ingredients’ they are buying. For example, imported foods (particularly those that are heavy/bulky) and highly processed ingredients are known to carry high carbon footprints, crops requiring high use of fertilisers, pesticides or water are known to have high environmental impacts, and those that cause the loss of natural habitats (e.g. palm oil) are often upheld by the press for the damage they cause.
However when it comes to the use of these same ingredients in our natural beauty products, the same rules don’t seem to apply and we seem much more flexible on our definitions of what constitutes a sustainable product when it comes to beauty products than we are when it comes to food (despite the fact that food is essential to continued human existence where as for most of us beauty products are optional/luxury items).
Let’s take some of these points in turn:
When it comes to sustainable food, we all know that buying locally produced rather than imported food is one of the most impactful decisions you can make. Yet when it comes to natural beauty, we seem completely blind to the origins of our ingredients. However, the majority of natural ingredients in beauty products are imported. I first realised this while looking for a supplier of Rosehip oil. Rosehip oil is made from the hips of Rosa canina, a species that grows freely in hedgerows around the UK. However most of the commercially available rosehip oil used in the beauty industry comes from Chile. Yes, that Chile, the one in South America!!! And to maintain its freshness, the oil must be kept cool, and therefore refrigerated.
So you can imagine the environmental cost of transporting this ingredient to our shores. And then there are the butters and waxes. I’m yet to find a single commercially available natural butter or wax that is grown and processed on UK shores (apart from beeswax, and we all know my feelings about bees!), and it always confuses me that waterless products (which rely so heavily on these types of ingredients to make their bars and balms) are so celebrated in the industry for their sustainability.
Highly processed ingredients
All products that require water and oil to be combined will contain an emulsifier of some sort; a compound that will bind these otherwise opposing groups of chemicals together.
The majority of emulsifiers have to be heated to around 70 degrees Celsius before they will form a stable emulsion, and that’s after the butters and waxes (which already carry a high carbon footprint due to transportation) have been melted down.
You can see where I’m going with this, all creams and lotions that use these ‘hot-process’ emulsifiers have a high carbon footprint as a result of energy usage. And the crazy thing is that we now have the technology to do away with these hot process emulsifiers! Cold process emulsifiers are now available on the market, meaning these products could now be made using the bare minimum of energy.
Intensively farmed crops
Crops that require high amounts of fertilisers or pesticides are thought to be bad for human health and therefore often shunned in the natural beauty sector in favour of organic products. However crops which require excessive amounts of other resources such as water, energy or land to produce are less vilified as the damage is environmental rather than directly to human health. And a major culprit here is essential oil, the main stay of almost all natural beauty products yet one of the lowest yielding, energy intensive, water guzzling ingredients going. I’ll say no more (largely because I’ve said it all before!).
Along side climate change, the loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest threats we face. Therefore any ingredients which require the loss of yet more natural habitat are often (rightly) vilified, take palm oil for example; in the beauty sector, palm-oil free products are becoming more and more popular as consumers become more aware of their negative environmental impacts.
However, crops such as cocoa butter are often farmed in the same way (requiring virgin forests to be cleared to make way for plantations), yet as the story of cocoa isn’t so well known by the public as yet, the industry continues to use it in vast amounts.
These are just some examples of the foundations that underpin Seilichs sustainability ethos. For example, we try to source all our ingredients from the UK (growing over 80% of our ingredients on site), we never use hot processes to make our products, we don’t use essential oils in our products (alongside those that are naturally produced when we distil our hydrosols), we avoid using any butters and waxes in any of our products and ensure that we create large amounts of natural habitat (by way of wildflower meadows) rather than using ingredients that require natural habitats to be destroyed.
For now I’ll save my rants about water-less skincare, off-setting, wild-harvested ingredients and recyclable packaging for another time, as I feel I’ve already rather stuck my neck out. But I hope you can see my point. Natural ingredients are not innocent of environmental crimes.
Until we begin to uphold the ingredients in our beauty products to the same standards we do our food, I believe that the sustainability values within the industry will continue to be superficial, with trends directed by big brands, influencers and marketing companies. The time has come, we need to start digging deeper if we wish to wash away the green-wash.
I’d love to know your thoughts on these ideas! Please leave your comments below.