Aside from a small number of governing bodies able to issue such assurances, there are also some pretty ambiguous terms that require no solid standards of production or ethics.
Take the term “clean beauty”, which has grown in popularity to stand for free-from beauty products, or “environmentally-friendly”. Critics argue that these labels are being used as a form of greenwashing, where a brand uses deliberately vague language and unsubstantiated claims in order to trick the consumer into thinking the brand is more ethical or conscious than it actually is.
Is your mascara Leaping Bunny approved? Does your cleanser have the Soil Association stamp of approval? What about the Fairtrade International’s (FLO) trademark? When it comes to our beauty products, there are a few dependable signs that demonstrate the brand values from whether or not they test on animals to whether they use organic ingredients, and many of us rely on these certifications to decide which products to buy.
However, there’s a new wave of beauty brands that promise to change the game when it comes to proving eco-credentials. Enter the “carbon-neutral” brands, who are offsetting their carbon emissions across their entire production lines, from ingredients sourcing to packaging – with the receipts to prove it.
“It’s not enough for a company to be simply ‘recyclable’ or ‘sustainable’,” says Micaela Nisbet, founder of Neighbourhood Botanicals, the first UK beauty brand to go carbon neutral. “You cannot be sustainable without thinking about the whole life cycle of your product so a proper emissions audit by a third party assessor is an important step for companies to take.”
For a company to be classed as carbon neutral it needs to offset its carbon emissions by contributing financially to projects that reduce carbon from the atmosphere, like wind or hydro power projects and planting trees. Carbon emissions can arise from all parts of the supply chain, from the energy sources used for manufacturing, to the ingredients used within the product, to the method of shipping, to the final packaging. However, there is scope for interpretation when it comes to companies measuring their own emissions, which makes it more important to seek third party certification.
“There are many assessors who will carry out a company carbon audit, with varying thoroughness and cost,” says Michaela, “but you can be assured of the legitimacy of a carbon offset project when it has been Gold Standard Certified with the United Nations.” Other reputable agencies who can be depended on for a decent carbon emissions assessment are The Carbon Trust, which uses PAS 2060, an internationally recognised specification for carbon neutrality, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which partners with a select group of approved organisations who have proven their circular initiatives and climate positive objectives.
“To truly be carbon neutral you need to start on day 1 of business operations,” says Molly Hart, founder of HIGHR. “Carbon neutral to HIGHR means first and foremost avoiding unnecessary emissions by using clean, renewable energy for as much development as possible.” The brand uses solar energy for the formulation process, and in their warehousing. “The tricky part is then finding partners in your supply chain who are using renewable energy as well. If they aren’t using renewable energy, you need to then offset the emissions they generate while working on your business to claim to be genuinely carbon neutral.”
HIGHR goes above and beyond the call of carbon duty, offsetting 1 of their tube manufacturer’s energy bill, tracking all product and employee’s travel, all freight, facilities, shipments, accommodations, conference and raw material travel. “It’s quite involved and requires the entire company’s cooperation which is why startups are taking the lead here. If you had thousands of employees and have been in business for decades, claiming carbon neutrality would be practically impossible.” Neighbourhood Botanicals boasts similar eco-accolades; “We use FSC mix card, compostable gloves and rubbish bags in our lab, and even a zero-waste coffee filter system,” says Michaela. “Our supplier sends our ingredients in 100% recycled plastic jerry cans, which we then recycle, we use zero-waste tape and document wallets for our trade orders, we repurpose all boxes and bubble wrap we receive… the list goes on!”
Other start-ups are following suit and London-based soap brand KANKAN are taking things one step further. “We are committed to be carbon positive, which also aligns with our circular economic principles of regenerate natural systems because we need to not only stop contributing to the carbon but repairing the damage already made,” says founder Eliza Flanagan.
It would be easy to assume that there’s a price to all that extra work and offsetting – a price that the customer would undoubtedly absorb, right? Well, no, not necessarily. “Being carbon neutral requires additional diligence of tracking and recording all operational emissions, and the discipline to choose partners who align with your values,” explains Molly. “The actual cost of offsetting is only 1% of total revenue.”
Even if the products are more expensive than mass produced alternatives, they’re guaranteed to not cost the Earth – or our future on it. “We have been exploiting the world for years by prioritising price over quality and care, including in the meat industry and with fast fashion,” says Eliza. “Beauty is no different. We all have so much power in our wallets and I’m confident that the modern consumer recognises their power.”