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Cosmetics and Sustainability- A Quiet Revolution

Sustainability has come to the fore in the cosmetics and personal care industry. With the need for resource efficiency and rise in ethical consumerism, cosmetic companies are taking some serious steps towards sustainable development. Environmentalists might question the use of earth’s resources for vanity products like cosmetics rather than for more meaningful products, as the replenishment of earth’s resources is far slower than the rate of human consumption. Although underrated, cosmetics and personal care play an important role in society. The basic challenge being faced by this consumer product industry basically boils down to this – how to increase the production levels sustainably, in a resource finite world.

What is interesting to note about the cosmetics and personal care industry is that it appears to be tackling this challenge relatively well. A number of surveys put these companies at the top of ethical corporation lists and areas of sustainability. They seem to be taking environmental issues quite seriously. The conjecture behind the transformation is engaging. Is it because of the negative media attention traditionally received for animal testing and unethical business practices? Or because of the strong reliance on petroleum as feedstock that companies are forced to look at sustainable solutions (Sahota, 2014). Whatever be the reason, there is much to learn from the progression of the cosmetics towards resource sustainability.


GHG and water use reduction: Key focus areas for the industry

The cosmetics manufacturing process is relatively straightforward. It involves raw material and intermediate ingredient procurement, end product manufacturing followed by packaging. Environmental sustainability needs to be taken into account throughout the whole product life cycle, from sustainable sourcing of ingredients, to product packaging and use. Companies are increasingly using special packaging materials, which can already be seen on our shelves. Manufacturing operations are also constantly being streamlined, with renewable energy sources becoming the favoured option.

Some of the common long term sustainability goals for the major corporations involved in cosmetics manufacture include:




Sustainability Outlook has conducted a comparative assessment of the key sustainability goals and respective performance against those for selected international cosmetics and personal care players. The companies have set out to achieve their targets by 2020. Most of the large international cosmetics and personal care players have set goals for resource efficiency. Some brands have long term targets as well and 2020 targets are a subset. Most of the players have met or on the way to meet their goals in GHG and water use reduction. Some of them have set goals for sustainable raw material procurement and have a clear roadmap for meeting the goals.


                                                Key sustainability goals and performance comparison*


         Source: Sustainability Analysis

*Note :

Green = target met or on track to meet the target.

Yellow = target not met and the need for focussed efforts.

Red = performance being far away from the target and the need for extra focussed efforts.


The Indian Market Scenario

In the Indian context, there are around 15-20 major players, with international players occupying 40-50 % and domestic players occupying 20-30% market shares. The average revenue of the major players is around $1.5 B. Cosmetic products in India are regulated under the Drugs and cosmetics Act 1940 and Rules 1945 and Labelling Declarations by Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). In certain cases the international corporations have an easy ride as the environmental policies are not so stringent in the developing countries they operate in.  Maintaining the same or even higher standards of environmental compliance as in their home countries, be it voluntary or regulated, would greatly benefit the developing economies as well as themselves with regards to resource sustainability.


Opportunities exist in tackling environmental toxicity and end consumer resource use

Resource use reduction from the consumer side is a major challenge as it requires product innovation and behaviour change. From the environmental point of view, the most important phase is the consumer use of the product, since the majority of the energy used (approximately 90%) is associated with heating the water to shower, to bathe or to wash hair. Also, since energy generation is often responsible for the emission of pollutant gases    and for the production of solid waste, it is also evident that the use phase may be responsible for the largest contribution to solid waste and air emissions (Cosmetics Europe, 2012). There needs to be more focus by the corporates on reducing the environmental impact of end consumer use of their products

As can be inferred from the above analysis, some brands are doing exceptionally well in the waste management while others are struggling to meet their targets.  An important element that could be added to sustainability dialogue for this sector would be that of environmental toxicity. Since most of the products are discharged down the drain, the impact on the aquatic environment can be largely associated with the properties of the ingredients. The chemical damage to the environment is sometimes irreversible, limiting the use of natural resources further. For example, the plastic microbeads found in a number of beauty products, absorb persistent organic pollutants from the sea and sometimes make their way back into the food chain (The Story of Stuff Project).

Also, currently very few companies have set specific sustainability targets for transportation and packaging materials. 

The cosmetics and personal care industry is taking positive steps in the resource sustainability direction. The work would increase in significance if we get to witness their efforts being replicated across the supply chain in different countries and capabilities.



Cosmetics Europe 2012, Good Sustainability Practice (GSP) for the Cosmetics Industry, Brussels.

Sahota, A. 2014, Sustainability: How the Cosmetics Industry is Greening Up, Wiley, UK.

The Story of Stuff Project 2016, Plastic Microbeads : Ban the Bead!. Available:

Author: sustainabilityoutlook