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Sustainable Cosmetics Summit

April 30, 2013

The impact of consumer behavior

The cosmetics industry is focused on green formulations, resource-efficiency and packaging to reduce environmental impacts—all good stuff, but there is growing evidence that such measures have little effect on the overall environmental footprint of cosmetic products, according to Organic Monitor. A number of life-cycle analysis studies show that the highest environmental impact of cosmetic products occurs at the consumer level. LCA and other topics will be addressed at Organic Monitor's Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, May 16-18 in New York.

According to Organic Monitor, companies will need to address the environmental consequences of consumption if they are to significantly reduce their ecological footprints. For instance, one study shows that 94% of the carbon footprint of a shampoo is at the consumer level; small changes in water temperature during an average wash can significantly reduce the overall environmental impact of the product. SGS will present its latest life-cycle analysis findings on environmental footprints at the New York summit. It will be shown that after consumption, the highest environmental impact of cosmetics is from raw materials and packaging. Although there is a growing trend to use raw materials from renewable sources, such ingredients can have complex footprints because of differences in extraction and processing techniques.

According to the summit organizer, sustainable purchasing and responsible consumption are the way forward. Cosmetic companies need to engage consumers for positive change if they are to make a sustainable difference. Reformulating products with green ingredients, using fewer resources and eco-design are only part of the solution. The major challenge however is changing consumer behavior. Research shows lack of choices, high prices and perceived quality of green cosmetics are major barriers to sustainable purchases. The high incidence of greenwashing in the cosmetics industry also undermines companies’ efforts to influence consumer behavior.

On the positive side, advances in mobile communications provide an opportunity for brands to engage consumers for positive change, according to Organic Monitor. Social media in particular improves transparency and encourages two-way dialogue between brands and consumers. Many large cosmetic companies, including Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal, have made commitments to reduce their environmental footprints whilst significantly expanding their business in the coming years. Much of this business growth will be in developing countries. According to the OECD, the global middle-class will expand from 2 billion to 5 billion by 2030. This increase will mainly be in developing countries where consumers aspire towards western lifestyles characterized by conspicuous consumption and intense resource use. Without addressing consumer behavior, it is likely that lofty corporate goals
to become more sustainable will not be met.

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