The Changing Face of Beauty

Conscientious Consumerism and the Cosmetics Industry

The beauty market isn’t playing by the same old rules anymore. Conscientious consumerism has taken the industry by storm and is poised to realign industry values and branding strategies permanently. From sustainable packaging and transparent labeling to cruelty-free pledges and minimalism, this isn’t your parents’ cosmetics market.

A whopping 77 percent of Generation Z’s 13 to 25 years olds buy beauty products because they support the brand’s values, Do Something Strategic reports. The group estimates that Gen Z accounts for around 40 percent of all shoppers, so the generation’s decisions have a massive impact on sales that will only increase in the future.

While this trend dominates the youth market, the desire to support a brand with shared values is strong throughout the beauty market as a whole. In fact, the concept has redefined the definition of luxury within the industry. Once upon a time, premium was defined by quality, price, packaging, and appeals to vanity. But gone are the days when glamour drew dollars. It simply is not enough to offer consumers a solid product and alluring image. Beauty brands must serve up an image that goes beyond sexy models and promises of flawless skin. They have to convince buyers that their purchasing power has the ability to make a difference. Consumers don’t just want to look good; they want to feel good, too.

In today’s market, luxury means the ability to pay higher prices for a brand you believe in, not just because you trust the product, but because you trust the company to do the right thing – whether that means delivering a cruelty-free product, or limiting pollution, or supporting labourers in the developing world. The list goes on – and so does the power of the purse. To adjust, beauty brands must clearly define their purpose and convince consumers they are worth supporting for more than their product alone.

Of course, the product still remains a crucial part of the deal. This is clearly seen in the clean beauty trend, which continues to grow in popularity. Today’s consumer wants cosmetics free of laboratory-made chemicals, animal products, and other potentially harmful or unethical substances. Sixty six percent of American women would be interested in trying a new brand if it were “natural,” a survey by Ispos found. Fifty nine percent of American women would be interested in trying a new brand if it were “clean.”

Consumers are putting their money where their mouth is and following through on their value systems. This can be seen in the recent trend to minimize the use of beauty products, as buyers have taken to heart the ‘Reduce’ part of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’ Buying fewer products means less waste, lower environmental impact, and less contribution to climate change. Additional motivation for the minimalist makeup movement comes from burnout for laborious, time-consuming beauty routines. These consumers look to save time and energy. There is also a belief that fewer products are better for your complexion. “Fasting” skincare products is catching on among health-conscious consumers, who consider it a detox program for the skin as part of an overall wellness regimen.

Buyers are becoming more discerning as they seek to limit their consumption. They want to get the most out of the limited number of products they buy. Cosmetic companies are responding by offering more products that combine purposes so that a consumer can, for example, use just one serum or cream, instead of four or five.

Consumers are also demanding waste reduction throughout the beauty industry. Reusable, refillable, or biodegradable packaging is a major trend. Indie brands have long been at the forefront of sustainable offerings, and this area is no exception. For instance, Lush has pioneered an innovative concept: cosmetics that come in solid, cake form, without any packaging at all, while some brands are experimenting with glass bottles to cut out single use plastic. Models vary from refilling a glass bottle at the brand’s retail location to returning glass packaging to the company via mail, where the bottle is cleaned and reused.

Sustainable packaging is not just a phenomenon among niche, indie brands anymore. The concept has not only become mainstream, but is fast becoming an expectation, with big brands making major commitments. As detailed on the company website, Dove has committed to making the brand’s Beauty Bar packaging plastic-free, using 100 percent recycled plastic bottles, and developing a new, refillable deodorant format by 2025. The result would be a reduction in the manufacturing of more than 20,500 tons of virgin plastic each year. L’Oréal has set a target, detailed on its website, that by 2025 half of the plastics used in the company’s packaging will either be of recycled origin or bio-sourced. By that same year, 100 percent of the brand’s plastic packaging will be refillable, rechargeable, recyclable or compostable.

L’Oréal is already finding success with balancing sustainability with its premium luxury image. The company’s Lancôme brand debuted a new jar for the skincare product, Absolue L’Extrait, in 2017 that showcases the ability to marry elegance, functionality, and waste reduction goals. Loreal.com reports that the weight of this refillable glass jar has been reduced 39 percent and refilling it twice will create a packaging weight reduction of 58 percent, when compared to using three conventionally packaged products.

Reuse covers more than just packaging. Some brands are repurposing waste byproducts from other industries. UK-based FRUU produces organic, biodegradable, cruelty-free, vegan-friendly lip balms and dyes from processed fruit waste. According to the company website, FRUU is the first brand to use over 70 percent fruit-based ingredients. Coffee scrubs are a current trend and a number of up-and-coming brands (including FRUU) use leftover coffee grounds in skin care products. Siblings William and Anna Brightman founded UpCircle specifically to find a use for all the coffee grounds and brewed tea leaves thrown away in London every day. Not only does the company reduce waste and offer a 100 percent natural product, it enjoys the benefits of a low-cost ingredient sourced by collecting waste from hundreds of London coffee shops.

Consumer demand is also driving the beauty industry to consume less water. Traditionally, water is the leading ingredient in most cosmetics, so slashing its use is no small feat. Yet L’Oréal managed to reduce water usage in its U.S. manufacturing plants by 52 percent back in 2017, lorealusa.com reports. Procter & Gamble has upped the ante by launching an entire brand focused on water reduction. The Waterless line of hair care products – including shampoo and conditioner – require no water to use and are made for people of all hair types and textures.

Beauty brands are stepping up to the plate to give consumers the sustainable, ethical products they demand, but what this commitment actually entails is not always straightforward. Cruelty-free, organic, clean, vegan-friendly, natural, and eco-friendly have all become key deliverables, but does ticking these boxes create an ethical brand? What about lesser known – but critically important – social issues? Take mica for instance. The shiny, glittery mineral is used in cosmetics such as eyeshadow and highlighter to create sparkle and glow. On the surface, mica passes the test – it is an all-natural ingredient. But what the label “natural” does not disclose is that mica is often obtained through illegal mining by the desperately poor, including children, in dangerous, sometimes fatal conditions in the developing world.

Another issue about the natural label is that natural does not automatically equal healthy or environmentally friendly. The tobacco plant is “natural,” but that does not make it good for your lungs. Trees, after all, are “natural” but deforestation is certainly not good for the planet. Some brands are moving forward with a compromise to create a more sustainable, more affordable solution by engineering natural ingredients. The industry has a responsibility to sort out these complicated considerations and educate consumers on the pros and cons of the “all natural” concept.

Not only will the industry need to define concepts overall, but more specifically, as in the case of labeling. Cosmetic labels have long been open to interpretation. What does organic really entail? And what does “clean” actually mean? Can a product with beeswax be labeled vegan? Consumers are demanding answers and governments are backing them up. A new EU regulation on the labeling term “free from” (which was frequently used with ingredients that would never be included in the product anyway) is likely just the beginning of increased transparency in cosmetic labeling.

Meeting consumer demand has become more complex as buyers look to share a brand’s values and promote social responsibility. Brands must be savvy to this trend, or risk falling by the wayside. For every traditional label there are dozens of hopeful startups founded on the values that young, eager consumers believe in, but these companies must be genuine to pass the sniff test.

Today’s consumers are too well-informed to put up with lip service. Generation Z’s social media expertise has shaken up the industry as young people fact check and compare notes among themselves. According to a recent RetailDive study, 80 percent of Generation Z is influenced by social media when deciding what to buy. Misleading brands are exposed and shamed, while brands that follow through with their promises are touted. The expectations of conscientious consumerism are firmly rooted and are here to stay. It is up to the industry to meet them, communicate them, and stand by them to move successfully into the new decade.

September 19, 2020, 4:32 AM EDT