Greenwashing: What to look out for when buying environmentally friendly beauty products

Greenwashing is a term used in the industry that indicates a product is environmentally friendly when it isn't.

Isn’t it beautiful when beauty brands realise the importance of speaking to ‘natural’ and ‘no harsh ingredients’ being used in products, as well as ‘greener’ and ‘more sustainable approaches’ to skincare?

There is, however, a sly trend that has been doing the rounds.

Dr Stephan Helary, founder of Terres d’Afrique says: “Greenwashing has been common practice since the consumer started shifting to more natural and eco-friendly products due to health concerns about certain ingredients. Brands always try to jump on the bandwagon on trends and many big brands aren’t always very scrupulous about being transparent and honest.”

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Salmari Fourie, Brand Manager at Lulu & Marula says consumers should be encouraged to choose a sustainable option year-round at an affordable rate when it comes to beauty products.

“Misleading claims such as ‘healthier, more natural, chemical-free, less wasteful to the environment’ are deemed greenwashing if it is not actually true.”

Buy organic instead of natural beauty products
Buy organic instead of natural beauty products. Image: iStock

How do you know if a brand is really clean and not greenwashed?

As consumer, it is important to endeavour to be more conscious of what we are consuming.

This includes what we buy, use and throw away.

By asking the question, “What is the impact on the planet?” within these three categories, you can make an informed decision on whether you need to buy, use or toss the item.

Today, with all the greenwashing, it is rather difficult to tell whether a product is clean or not, unless you have good awareness of bad ingredients. According to Formulation Specialist at Lulu & Marula, Monique Spaltman and Dr Stephan Helary, these are some guidelines that might make the identification process a little easier:

  • Keep an eye out for brands with a minimalist type packaging. That means no unnecessary and additional printed cartons, leaflets or inserts. These are not always recyclable, depending on the finish of the board. Lulu & Marula’s packaging, for example is recyclable or reusable in some or other way.
  • Look for ethical certifications like Fair Trade, Ecocert, Soil Association, Organic and Beauty Without Cruelty. All of these indicate that the brand has good ethical intentions.
  • See if the product promotes reduced water usage, either in the formulation or when you use the product. Products that have reduced water usage in the product itself, but also in the manufacturing process are referred to as anhydrous products.
  • Research is key when you are keen on making a difference for your skin and the environment. In Europe and the USA, many beauty brands have started to develop their own criteria to define what they don’t allow in the products they sell. This is a trend that will spill over to South Africa soon and therefore, knowing your brands and what they stand for is a must.
  • When you buy new skin products, opt for organic instead of natural.
  • Avoid plastic packaging at all costs.

Dr Helary says sustainability is no longer enough, and regeneration is necessary.

“Sustainability means that what we take and what the earth gives are equal, but it is not the case. We have been taking more for years and now we need to regenerate.”

READ: This is South Africa’s favourite and most searched for beauty brand…

There are key ingredients to look out for on clean beauty product labels to use as a guideline to assist you in making informed, clean decisions for your skin and the planet:

Beauty product ingredients
Beauty product ingredients. Image: iStock
  • Plant seed oils (Avocado, Marula, Sweet Almond, Macadamia Nut, and Sesame seeds) are all packed with antioxidants and fatty acids that feed and nourish the skin.
  • Dermatologically approved products have been lab-tested on human skin and certified by a dermatologist that the product is safe to use.
  • Botanical extracts like aloe, fruits, vegetables and flowers offer a wide variety of benefits to the skin like calming, soothing, anti-inflammatory benefits and cell-regeneration.
  • Gentle cleansing ingredients derived from sustainably sourced plant stocks are also something to keep an eye out for when you’re attempting to buy cleaner skin products. There is a whole list, but it includes betaines and cocoyl isothionates among others.
  • Biodegradable ingredients are key too. With a simple internet search, you should be able to determine whether an ingredient is of vegetal origin and whether it is biodegradable or not.

As consumers, it is also our responsibility to encourage beauty brands to better themselves in the field of developing planet-friendly products without becoming guilty of greenwashing. Here are some ideas on how you can do that:

  • Support smaller, local, sustainable brands. Terres d’Afrique’s TD’A products, My Beauty Luv and Beaut Serums are but a few examples.
  • Ask questions and do your research. Don’t just accept everything you see on a label.
  • Understand and read the ingredient list on products. This way you can choose what you’re putting into and onto your body and skin.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up when you don’t agree. It only takes one person to change an entire mindset; that person can be you.

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