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November 11, 2022

How to recognize – and market – truly sustainable health & beauty products

As concerns around health and sustainability intersect, many consumers are gravitating toward natural beauty and health products to ensure the most bang for their buck, body, and the environment. Unfortunately, not all sustainable health and beauty brands are created equal, and it all comes down to the level of transparency in their claims. Some health and beauty brands that seem sustainable may be no better than their traditional, unsustainable counterparts, due to the level of transparency in their sourcing and marketing.

Some major brands have even been exposed for false sustainability claims, paying the price in loss of reputation and in some extreme cases, in expensive lawsuits.

Remind me, what is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the practice of making a product seem natural, safe, green, or eco-friendly when in reality it isn’t. Whether intentional or accidental – keep in mind that a lot of companies are under a lot of internal and external pressure to be perfectly sustainable in an unsustainable, wasteful, and toxic world –  greenwashing is fueled by a company’s desire to provide customers with the sustainable products they are looking for.

Terms like “natural” or “green” aren’t quite regulated (yet). So any beauty brand can slap green buzzwords onto its labels without any proof to back it up. Other common buzzwords that may or may not accurately reflect a brand’s sustainability commitments include: botanical, chemical-free, paraben-free, organic, earth-friendly, and raw.

Can these words be used correctly? Absolutely. However, they are most often used as blanket marketing words that don’t correctly reflect the sustainability of the ingredients or products. These buzzwords make consumers feel like they’re making a safer or healthier choice, even if there is no proof or data to back up these claims.

As a consumer, always approach these buzzwords with a skeptical eye. As a health or beauty brand striving to be “greener”, ensure that your claims are specific and backed by data. For example, if only some of the ingredients in a product are certified organic, tell the consumer precisely what the percentage is! The antidote to greenwashing is, you guessed it, transparency in all things (even with buzzwords).

Examples of sustainable health & beauty brands that have greenwashed

Greenwashing can be anywhere from accidental to flagrantly purposeful. Even brands that have built their reputation on being “clean” or “green” can make mistakes with unreliable sustainability claims. While the level of greenwashing varies in each, the following brands are examples of some that have been called out at some point for greenwashing beauty products: Alba Botanica, Aveda, Aveeno, Banana Boat Baby, Herbal Essences, Nivea Pure and Organic, and St. Ives.

Does this list mean you should never purchase from these brands again? Absolutely not. Instead, this list is intended to show both consumers and brands how even the most popular sustainable health & beauty brands can fall short of backing their claims with accurate marketing and data.

Transparency is the antidote to greenwashing for brands. Awareness is the antidote to greenwashing purchases for consumers.

Recent greenwashing incidents and repercussions to learn from

  • Innisfree: In 2021, South Korean beauty brand Innisfree launched a new green tea beauty product. Innisfree made claims that the product was bottled in a “paper bottle.” Closer inspection showed the bottle was actually made of plastic, wrapped in paper. After a major upset on social media, the brand issued an apology and revoked its claims.
  • Bondi Sands: In May of 2022, Australian company Bondi Sands was hit with a lawsuit for false claims that its sunscreens were “reef friendly.” Although the sunscreens are free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, they use other toxic ingredients, such as avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. The term “reef-friendly” isn’t regulated in most areas, and Bondi Sands made the mistake of being too vague with the term.
  • Lilly Lashes: Lilly Lashes is being sued for making false claims about its mink lashes being “cruelty-free.” The brand used the term without supporting the claim with any evidence of the welfare of minks in their supply chain.
  • Head & Shoulders Ocean Clean Bottle: Head & Shoulders recently marketed their bottles as recyclable. While the bottle can be recycled, the caps are not recyclable. This is problematic in two ways: first, it’s deceptive to label the bottle as recyclable when the cap cannot be recycled. Second, this puts all the pressure of recycling on the consumer, when the brand should also be taking measures to ensure circularity and sustainability.

Tips on avoiding product greenwashing, for sustainable health & beauty brands

#1 Be transparent

One way that beauty brands greenwash their products is by highlighting a single organic or plant-based ingredient, even when the product barely contains that ingredient. At other times, brands will claim to be free of ingredients that consumers want to avoid, such as parabens or phthalates. The product may contain other harmful ingredients, but the consumer would only know that by looking closely at the ingredient list.

To avoid greenwashing, be transparent. Don’t oversell the “green” qualities of your product. If your product packaging uses less plastic than it used to, state that specifically. Phrases like “more sustainable” or “uses less plastic” aren’t meaningful without context.

#2 Back up claims with data

Second only to transparency is data! Whether quantitative or qualitative, ensuring that any terms or claims you make are backed by actual, real-life data is key in ensuring your claims hold ground.

Data will only become increasingly important in the future, as sustainability becomes regulated, investors look for proof before supporting a brand, and consumers become more conscious.

Making sure you have a solid grasp on your claims and the data that backs them will help you grow in your sustainability efforts without sacrificing your bottom line.

#3 Learn from others’ (and your own) missteps

A common mistake in greenwashing conversations today is the tendency to call people out instead of calling them in.

Brands are under a lot of pressure to do good and make a profit. Internally, there are often a lot of conflicting KPIs between sustainability departments, compliance departments, and the C-suite.

Learning from other brands’ missteps, and your own, is key in ensuring smart action without the need to be “perfect” before doing so. Sustainability as an essential and integrated concept throughout an entire business model is a new concept that will take time to learn and master, for everyone.

#4 Track both environmental and human impact

Last, but certainly not least, sustainability claims that consider both environmental and human impacts are key to building an ethical brand with ethical products. Of course, brands should start small, be transparent, and scale from there. But as you begin tracking a single ingredient, package, or product to ensure its sustainability and market accordingly, be sure to consider the environmental and human impacts that sourcing may cause. For example, ensuring that the guar farmers supplying your beauty products are being ethically treated is just as important as ensuring the guar is organic.

Responsible Beauty & Health for a Sustainable Future

Today’s consumer cares about responsibly sourced ingredients, minimal packaging, and cruelty-free beauty products. In order to make a real impact, we need beauty brands that take actual steps toward sustainability. We also need consumers who are aware enough to look out for greenwashing warning signs, and who do their research and funnel their money toward products that will be good for both bodies and the planet.

One way brands can move toward a sustainable future is by using sustainable sourcing software like BanQu. BanQu is a data-driven platform that helps you track an ingredient or material from source to shelf, so you can ensure responsible sourcing, and full compliance, back your sustainability claims with real-time data, and protect your supply chain — all in one place.

BanQu creates blockchain solutions for some of the modern world's biggest challenges, such as supply chain transparency and identity platforms for impoverished populations. We believe that with blockchain's bright future, world poverty can become a thing of the past.

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