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Athena paginton carbon neutral beauty products
Photography Piczo, make-up Athena Paginton, courtesy of HIM + HIS

What does ‘carbon neutral beauty’ actually mean?


TextSophie Benson

Beauty industry buzzwords are rife, and on occasion, they're concealing deeper more negative processes – we dig deep for more transparency around the clickbait term

‘Carbon neutral beauty’ is an impressive-sounding term. We hear so much about carbon footprints and carbon emissions bringing the end of the world ever closer, so a product or a brand being carbon neutral must be a good thing, surely? But what does it actually mean? 

“A carbon neutral beauty product results in no net release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere,” explains Lorraine Dallmeier, chartered environmentalist and CEO of online organic cosmetic formulation school Formula Botanica. “In other words, you either avoid releasing carbon dioxide in the first place, or you remove as much carbon dioxide as you put into it.” Actually emitting zero carbon dioxide when you make anything is difficult. Even turning the lights on in a factory emits CO2 because of the electricity they use, and yet brands all around the world are claiming carbon neutral status.

One of those brands is Davines, who, in May last year, announced it was releasing A Single Shampoo, its first ever 100 per cent carbon neutral shampoo, which is available in salons now and will be on sale to the public later this year. But with manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and all of the other elements that go into creating a bottle of shampoo, how has it achieved this? According to the brand, it’s down to “the carbon dioxide emissions generated throughout the entire life cycle of the product (being) 100 per cent compensated,” AKA offsetting. 

Offsetting is, it turns out, the key to carbon neutrality for many beauty brands. Sukin, a natural, vegan and cruelty-free skincare brand, made the decision to go carbon neutral in 2008 and, for them, that meant offsetting too. “We offset each carbon emission that we as a company produce,” says a representative from the company, “from the emissions made when transporting our products to store, to running the machines that make our products, to the electricity that powers our offices.” 

But there is controversy surrounding carbon offsetting, with some feeling that it allows companies to keep on polluting and then throw money at the problem without making any real, systemic change. “The beauty industry seems to predominantly rely on offset schemes at the moment,” says Dallmeier, “but the holy grail in carbon neutral beauty is that you avoid releasing carbon dioxide emissions in the first place – and this is where I strongly feel the beauty industry should be aiming to go.”

“A carbon neutral beauty product results in no net release of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. In other words, you either avoid releasing carbon dioxide in the first place, or you remove as much carbon dioxide as you put into it” – Lorraine Dallmeier, chartered environmentalist and CEO of Formula Botanica

The process of offsetting isn’t predicated on reducing carbon emissions, but instead involves companies purchasing ‘carbon credits’ for each tonne of CO2 they emit, which is then used to fund schemes and projects such as tree-planting, clean energy, eco-friendly stoves, and preventing deforestation. They’re all worthy and important projects but it’s a bit like using a NutriBullet with the lid off every day then buying your roommate a stepladder so they can clean the smoothie off the ceiling. It helps but it doesn’t solve the issue in the first place.  

“We could offset everything today, but we don’t think that is doing the right thing,” says Antonia Cadbury, head of new product development and technical for men’s skincare brand Bulldog, who released a carbon neutral version of their Original Moisturiser last year. Before launching their carbon neutral moisturiser, the brand sought the help of environmental consultants Natural Capital Partners to assess the life cycle of the product “from source to customer”. Cadbury explains that this entailed looking at the ingredients sourced and where they come from, investigating the production facility and the amount of greenhouse gasses produced there, looking at storage and warehouses and then finally, assessing how the product is delivered to the customer. 

Once they knew the exact carbon footprint of the moisturiser, they had a figure that they were able to offset. That does technically make them carbon neutral but, according to Cadbury, “the bit we’re really interested in is working with our manufacturers on changing and improving so that when we do the next assessment, we’ve actually reduced our greenhouse gasses. The idea is to offset less as we reduce our emissions.” That’s an aim shared by other brands too, who use offsetting to supplement other efforts. Sukin uses recyclable packaging, while Davines’ 100 per cent bio-plastic, recyclable bottles are sized to fit 17 per cent more into each shipping pallet, therefore reducing the impact of transportation. 

Natural beauty brand Tropic not only double offset but recently moved into a new HQ powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, sent zero waste to landfill in 2019 and divert heat from the manufacturing machines to their offices on the floor above. Awake Organics, meanwhile, support the UK hemp industry to reduce the ‘beauty miles’ of their ingredients and also run the #ZeroWaste500Club, a pilot program with the aim of reusing 500 glass jars in one year, saving energy equivalent to 4 acres of forest absorbing 4.3 tonnes of CO2.

 “We could well be on the cusp of a carbon neutral beauty revolution but in order for it to live up to its planet-saving potential, it has to have its foundations in more than offsetting and avoid replacing one issue with another as a PR-friendly fix”

While many brands must rely at least partially on offsetting, for the time being, it’s not always the case. The biodegradable, natural Cork Pots sold by Lush for storing shampoo bars aren’t just carbon neutral but carbon negative, as each one removes over 33 times its weight in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thanks to the growth of the trees used to make the pots. For fellow independent brand Spotlight Oral Care, it’s a similar story. Their toothpaste tubes are made from a by-product of sugarcane, with each tonne of the material capturing and sequestering CO2, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

While carbon neutrality is still on the fringes, flourishing mainly amongst indie brands, Corinne Thomas, a sales consultant for natural, organic and green businesses believes that “in the future, it will become everything”. She’s backed up by Mintel’s Global Beauty and Personal Care Trends 2030 report, which states that “In 2030, the clean beauty industry will just be the beauty industry. The focus will be on transparency and an eco-ethical mission.”

“Consumer pressure is helping in a very positive way… the big corporations – the ones with the real power to make fundamental environmental changes – are being forced to change how they do things,” Thomas says. “These brands know that they cannot put their heads in the sand any longer. They are part of the problem, and they must work to become the solution if they want to stay viable in the next 30 years.”

But with the industry reaching new territory in reducing its carbon footprint and consumer scrutiny high, it’s important that bigger brands keep integrity in sight when adopting a buzzy, easily marketable phrase if they’re to gain consumer trust. For Lauren Sandom, who blogs about sustainable living, a carbon neutral beauty product would be a major draw for her as an ethical consumer but only if it goes hand in hand with transparency and proof. “I would definitely expect to see an official certification, and preferably a page on their website discussing their process and explaining exactly how they make sure they are carbon neutral,” she says. “Too many brands are greenwashing nowadays.”

And by greenwashing and rushing to stick a label on their product, brands could actually do more harm than good. “The carbon neutral approach requires a good understanding of the processes involved to allow an objective evaluation of sourcing issues without being influenced by opinions and trends,” says programme leader for cosmetic science at the University of Sunderland, Dr Kalliopi Dodou. “For example, palm oil has been an extensive topic of discussion in the industry due to claims that it is unsustainable, resulting in several companies seeking alternative ingredients due to its unfavourable reputation. However, the alternative ingredients are in fact less environmentally friendly.”

We could well be on the cusp of a carbon neutral beauty revolution but in order for it to live up to its planet-saving potential, it has to have its foundations in more than offsetting and avoid replacing one issue with another as a PR-friendly fix. If a brand’s efforts begin and end with offsetting just to tick the carbon neutral box, it might well be worth swerving them in favour of another who’s doing the real research and groundwork.

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