Agricultural Sourcing: Pandora’s Box in the Beauty Industry?

Soaring oil prices and developments in green chemistry are encouraging chemical companies to switch to plant-based materials, especially feedstock.

Many companies have started to promote these ‘green’ ingredients on their environmental credentials, however Organic Monitor believes this development could open up a Pandora’s Box in the beauty industry.

Environmental benefits are often cited as a reason for the switch to plant-based raw materials by chemical companies. Apart from a renewable source, these cosmetic ingredients often have a lower environmental footprint than petroleum-based counterparts.

However, the diverting of agricultural land from food crops to make cosmetic ingredients raises many ethical and ecological questions. There has been much debate about using agricultural land for bio-fuel crops whilst many developing countries suffer food shortages. An increase in plantations of plant crops for cosmetic ingredients could spark a new debate about ‘food vs. beauty crops’.

Organic Monitor sees some early indicators that the beauty industry is moving in this direction. L’Oreal and Unilever have already made commitments to sustainable sourcing. Unilever, which has received much criticism for its raw material sourcing in recent years, has made ingredient sourcing a key part of its Sustainable Living Plan. In the US, Wal-Mart is putting pressure on its suppliers to adopt sustainability practices via its Sustainability Index programme.

Apart from the supply chain, the media and NGOs are also putting pressure on companies to become more sustainable. Food security is becoming a major global concern because of rising food prices and scarcity of agricultural land. The global population is expected to rise by 50% to over 9 billion in 2050, however agricultural land is projected to decrease over this period. If agricultural land needs to be diverted from food production, at the very least the beauty industry needs to ensure that the ingredients are sustainable sourced.

Such developments are could make sustainable sourcing mandatory in the beauty industry, rather than a preferred option as present. More ingredients, especially commodities, could go the way as palm oil; leading beauty firms have pledged to only source from Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-approved companies. Similar sustainable roundtables exist for soya and cocoa, and others are in the pipeline. A number of other sustainability schemes, labels and standards are emerging.

Natural & organic standards have become established, with many cosmetic ingredient companies having some natural & organic lines in their product portfolios. Fair trade is gaining interest as it guarantees a price premium to growers in developing countries. Fairtrade certification is most popular in the UK, which has the largest market for fair trade products. Boots, Bulldog and Bubble & Balm are some of the companies brandishing the Fairtrade logo on their products.

Biodiversity, another element of sustainable sourcing, has become fashionable since the United Nations declared 2010 as the year of biodiversity. A number of ingredient and cosmetic companies are signing up to biodiversity charters. Some like Beraca have already integrated biodiversity into their sourcing programmes.

The growing importance of climate change is making companies more aware of their carbon footprints. Some beauty companies propose giving their carbon footprint data on product packaging; this move is likely to push ingredient companies to start measuring and reducing their carbon emissions, especially those dealing in plant-based materials.

In summary, plant materials are gaining popularity in the beauty industry because of burgeoning demand for natural & organic products as well as their growing use as feedstock. Agricultural land scarcity and concerns about food security are raising many ethical and environmental questions about these ‘beauty crops’. Cosmetic ingredient companies who adopt sustainable sourcing practices are likely to find success, whilst those that do not may struggle to contain the demons coming out of the Pandora’s Box.

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Posted: April 19th 2011

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