Conventional wisdom holds that seeing "natural" and “organic" on product labels somehow means the companies selling those goods are using better, safer ingredients. However, these words often offer a false promise to consumers and the planet.
For instance, "natural," which is a relatively broad word, has no concrete, recognized definition in the industry, and it isn’t currently regulated. The federal agencies that oversee the sale and advertising of cosmetics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), still have not formally defined this term as it applies to cosmetic products.
Despite this, cosmetic makers often tout natural ingredients, implying that they are less polluting and therefore better for the environment. On the contrary, the “natural" ingredients in personal and skin care products often contribute to pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change.
Take palm oil, for example. This widely used vegetable oil is present in more than half of all packaged products sold in the United States and 70 percent of cosmetics, including shampoo and conditioner, makeup, skin care products, toothpaste, and sunscreen. Companies use palm oil in these products for its many desirable properties, including vitamin E content, texture-boosting fatty acids, and natural alcohols.
But there's a dark side to this ingredient. Corporate demand for palm oil drives deforestation and destroys wildlife habitat in rainforests and other parts of the tropics. Deforestation, sometimes by means of polluting forest fires, also releases the carbon trees sequester, worsening climate change. Indonesia, the leading producer of palm oil, is now the world's eighth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.
A 2018 Greenpeace study found that top palm oil supply companies had cleared 500 square miles of Southeast Asian rainforest between 2015 and 2018 alone. Further, oil palm plantations are often located on peatlands, which store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. To make room for palm oil operations, these peatlands are dug up, drained, and burned, which alone releases more than 2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Further, the farming practices associated with the crop are notorious for their considerable carbon footprints and sometimes exploit child labor.
In addition to the ingredients themselves, the packaging used in cosmetics may also be an issue. About 70 percent of the beauty industry’s waste comes from packaging. According to reports from Zero Waste, beauty packaging amounts to 120 billion units every year. That includes plastic, paper, glass, and metals, all of which end up in landfills and incinerators. In addition, most plastics used in packaging are made from fossil fuels, the extraction of which often releases methane into the atmosphere, and the plastics industry itself is a significant climate polluter, causing the climate impact to be even more of an issue.
The cosmetic and beauty industry's climate and pollution problems are not intractable, and solutions are available. The industry must hold itself to higher standards to protect consumers and the environment, and governments must regulate cosmetic and personal care products in a comprehensive, meaningful way. In the meantime, customers should be aware that product labels can be misleading and educate themselves on potential dangers, both to the environment and themselves.
The health — and beauty — of our planet is at stake. And as human-induced climate change continues causing significant weather extremes and impacting billions of people in every region across the globe, it is important for industries and regulatory agencies to seek and implement solutions and make changes to the way chemicals and product ingredients are sourced, produced, and used.