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Genuinely Green

Beauty meets real environmental stewardship

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Natural. Eco-friendly. Clean. It’s easy to buy into heartening assertions marketers make about our beauty products. Unfortunately, these claims can be misleading. Find out how to sleuth out greenwashing, and make purchases that will really make a difference in this article.

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Identifying greenwashing

According to a May 2023 study, greenwashing is a marketing strategy that’s only growing with time. However, there is no agreed upon definition of the practice.

For Brandon Frank, CEO of Pacific Packaging Products Inc. and sustainable packaging expert at Credo Clean Beauty, greenwashing is when companies intentionally use misleading messaging, marketing, and communications to lead consumers to believe they’re more sustainable or green than they actually are.

Frank says one common example of greenwashing occurs when businesses state that polypropylene—a material used in many consumer goods—is recyclable, when it almost never is.

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Other instances of greenwashing

·         The use of imagery and sounds reminiscent of elements of nature, such as the sea paired with a flock of birds, or backgrounds of natural landscapes such as mountains, forests, and oceans, without including any direct claims of sustainability.

·         An emphasis on one aspect of a product that is environmentally friendly, while ignoring other aspects that aren’t.

·         Labelling with a certification claim that’s completely false, or the use of graphics, print, or wording that mimics a known certification.

·         The use of statistics and percentages without any supporting material or reliable third-party certification to back them up.

·         The use of undefined, ambiguous language, such as “nontoxic,” “green,” “environmentally friendly,” or “eco-friendly.”

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Making meaningful efforts

So how can you determine which beauty brands practice what they preach?

“It comes down to honesty and visible actions,” says Winnipeg-based Dr. Heather Smith, natural skin care and sustainability expert, physician, and founder/owner of bareLUXE Skincare (bareluxeskincare.com).

The brand specializes in oil serums elevated with functional botanicals and active ingredients. Her products are also vegan, cruelty free, and liquid microplastic free. For example, says Smith, bareLUXE is an anti-plastic brand, yet it uses plastic, in particular in its product refill program, where plastic was the best choice among the options.

“Full transparency means that choices are explained in terms of pros and cons as well as rationale, and there is an understanding that nothing can be black and white (or perfect),” expresses Smith.

bareLUXE also makes donations from its sales to environmental causes. It uses the Verdn app that allows consumers to track how these donations translate into their on-the-ground impact. For instance, the app will tell you how many kilograms of ocean-bound plastic have been recovered through bareLUXE’s donations.

Yet another example of environmental stewardship can be found with Anto Yukon, which sustainably hand-picks rose petals, fireweed, and arnica found in the Yukon to source its bath products.

The Body Shop engages in social sustainability and fair trade by buying plastic from waste pickers in India and recycling the plastic into new shampoo and conditioner bottles.

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A consumer’s game plan

To avoid being led astray by greenwashing ploys, Smith suggests an informed, knowledgeable, and somewhat skeptical approach when considering a new brand.

“Taking words like ‘transparent’ and ‘clean’ at face value is too superficial,” says Smith. “Look into what the brand means by the words they use. How do they define them? How do they operationalize them? Also, do their actions match their statements?”

Consumers should also opt for products that provide links to supporting information for their environmental claims and seek products verified by trustworthy independent certification.

According to Frank, it’s also important for consumers to take ownership of the end-of-life cycle of the product they’re buying. That could mean performing online research or contacting your municipality or sustainable packaging experts to find out what’s being captured in the recycling stream in your hometown.

The most important thing to look for when making purchases, says Frank, is the percentage of recycled content (PCR or post-consumer recycled material) in a container—the higher the better. And if you detect a grey tinge in a container, that’s a good indicator it’s 100 percent PCR, says Frank.

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Clean versus green

Here’s how to blend them both into your beauty routine. “Clean beauty” and “eco-conscious beauty” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Like many terms used in this space, there isn’t one universally accepted definition of either.

The term “green” typically refers to a product created without causing harm to the environment. But this label doesn’t necessarily mean everything in the product is green—it could be referring to just one or a combination of components such as ingredients, packaging, business practices, and so on.

“Clean” generally refers to a product created with safe, nontoxic ingredients.

Here are just some examples of how you can kind to your body and the earth at the same time.

·         Skin care and sustainability expert Dr. Heather Smith encourages readers to refer to Beat the Microbead and its app to help you identify brands/products that are microplastic free. “This is liquid plastic that’s invisible, and it builds up in our waterways, our food chain, and the tissues/organs in our bodies. The true harm isn’t fully understood, but why use products that contain them when other options exist?” questions Smith.

·         Purchase products created with upcycled materials such as spent coffee grounds. Studies have shown that coffee grounds can increase skin hydration and have wound-healing properties.

·         Choose refillable packaging filled with clean ingredients. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to building a regenerative, restorative economy, if all beauty and personal care product bottles were refillable, greenhouse gases emissions would decrease by 80 to 85 percent.

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The truth about sustainable beauty

“The number one way to be good to the earth with your beauty routine is to buy less stuff,” says Dr. Heather Smith. “No brand or product is so amazingly sustainable that choosing it—over the alternative of using nothing—is better. However, this just isn’t realistic. So, accepting that consumerism is going to happen, making carefully thought-out choices is key.”

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of alive magazine.

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