Can The Beauty Industry Become Carbon Neutral — & Does It Make A Difference?

Spoiler alert: absolutely.

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You’ve probably seen “clean,” “green,” and every other exceptionally vague phrase splashed across dozens of jars and vials of beauty products. Chances are you may already have a few of these products in your own beauty stash. And by now you might know that due to a lack of FDA regulation in the United States, these terms don’t really mean much when it comes to your product’s formula. However, carbon neutral beauty is one phrase that still has many consumers scratching their heads, wondering whether this is one type of environmentally-conscious product formulation that can actually avoid negatively impacting our planet — or even, perhaps, improve it.

So before you write off this trendy new phrase entirely (or completely devote yourself to products that boast about their own carbon neutrality), there are a few things that you — the ever aware and thoughtful beauty fan — need to know before your next product purchase.

According to Austin Whitman, CEO of nonprofit organization Climate Neutral, all carbon neutral-certified products — regardless if they’re within the beauty industry or not — have one main goal: to have no net release of carbon dioxide (as in, no carbon dioxide released at all) into the atmosphere, also known as reducing their “carbon footprint.” That could be by either avoiding releasing carbon dioxide in the first place or removing as much carbon dioxide as you put into it.

Though you probably have noticed the plethora of independent and global conglomerates touting carbon neutral practices, the unfortunate fact is that the beauty industry still accounts for an enormous amount of waste. Approximately 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the beauty industry every year, and a large portion of it is either made for single-use, is made of mixed materials that cannot be recycled, or are just too small to be recycled — and that number doesn’t take other factors like shipping and factory carbon emissions into account. Addressing carbon emissions is just another step in the larger battle to making the industry overall less wasteful and less harmful to the environment.

Getty/ Emilija Manevska

How Does A Company Or Product Become Carbon Neutral?

There are many ways for companies to go about being carbon neutral, but Climate Neutral’s path to successful carbon neutrality involves an annual audit of a company’s entire carbon emissions generated when making and delivering products, including all the raw materials, packaging, shipping, corporate services, business travel, and more things that consumers usually don’t think about when buying a product. Then the company has to compensate for all of those emissions by purchasing verified “carbon credits” in the amount of their total carbon footprint, says Whitman.

According to Conservation International, “carbon credits” are common in the fight for carbon neutrality, and individuals and companies alike purchase these credits to compensate for their carbon emissions. The credits are applied to funding projects and activities that protect and/or restore forests and support local communities with alternative eco-friendly livelihood opportunities. Think of it as a form of a donation, which can be extremely helpful on top of making other hands-on choices that help reduce your carbon footprint, such as recycling and driving less.

“So if my footprint is a thousand tons, I've got to purchase a thousand carbon credits, and then the company has to identify reduction actions that it's going to take to reduce its footprint from within its own operations and its supply chain in the next one to two years,” he says. “And this is a process that typically takes companies about three to four months in our experience, except for very small companies. And in our certification, they qualify to use our labels for a year, and then they have to annually re-certify.”

You may have also heard the term “carbon negative,” which is a bit different than carbon neutral. “It means that you're doing more than accounting for the emissions that you've created,” Whitman says. “The way I look at that is net-zero is a global state that the world is trying to get to by 2050, and companies can achieve or should achieve carbon neutrality immediately as a way of accelerating along the path to a long-term net-zero target.”

Lorraine Dallmeier, biologist, Chartered Environmentalist, and award-winning CEO of online organic cosmetic formulation school Formula Botanica, also notes that many brands, especially within the beauty industry, use what she calls “offset schemes” to create an initially large carbon footprint and then lightly counterbalance it with gimmicks like planting a tree, proclaiming that they are therefore doing the right thing.

“Offset schemes undoubtedly have a role to play in the whole process, but they are not a panacea, because your beauty products are then still generating carbon dioxide emissions in the first place,” Says Dallameier. “Many offset schemes also rely on tree planting, which is an important component of combatting climate change, but it is important to note that tree planting does not provide an immediate carbon sink. It can take many years, if not decades, for a tree to grow to maturity to the stage that it sequesters large amounts of carbon.”

Carbon Neutrality & The Modern Beauty Industry

Think about everything that goes into your beauty products: the ingredients, where those ingredients were harvested, how the packaging was made, how it got to you or the store you bought it from in the first place. According to Whitman, all of those things (and more!) create some form of carbon emissions, and if they’re using unsustainable ingredients and packaging made out of plastic, which has a huge carbon footprint on its own, their carbon emissions are significantly heightened and contribute to global warming.

“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,” says Dallmeier. “However, the beauty industry seems to predominantly rely on offset schemes [like planting a tree] at the moment [and] I’m worried that beauty brands will simply start to invest in offset schemes without properly assessing, measuring, and reducing their footprints.”

Another issue Dallmeier highlights is that, due to the lack of standardized government regulations in the United States, brands are creating their own way to measure their carbon emissions. Since there’s no single standard for carbon footprint measurement, paired with the issue of brands going rogue with their own in-house calculation tools (and occasional egregious marketing), it’s nearly impossible to compare two companies making similar claims on a tangible level.

Getty/ Ilka & Franz

Where Can The Beauty Industry Go From Here?

Though it may seem like the industry is diving into murky water with carbon neutral beauty, there’s still an opportunity to clear things up. Whitman notes that transparency is key to paving the way for a more carbon neutral environment, and suggests that beauty brands get certified through a third-party organization.

“You really need to look for an independent third party that has developed a framework that has been applied to make that [carbon neutral] designation,” he says. “In the same way that food can't say that it's organic unless it meets the USDA organic definition of what organic is, carbon neutrality is not regulated, but it's still really important for there to be a third party framework behind it.”

Some beauty brands, such as body care company type:A, have gone through this step and have worked with third-party carbon neutrality certification organizations to ensure their customers that their products are, indeed, as carbon neutral as they claim — and the brand’s founder, Allison Moss, says they’re even on the road to becoming plastic neutral within the near future.

“We work directly with an independent organization, Carbon Fund, certifying the business as carbon neutral, ” says Moss. “Through the organization, we review every aspect of the business using a special calculator that sums up our carbon footprint and then we reduce where possible and offset the remaining emissions through Carbon Fund's validated carbon reduction projects (planting trees, etc).”

Shannon Goldberg, founder and CEO of Izzy Zero Waste Beauty, was also on a mission to create a truly zero-waste product with no carbon footprint. Goldberg notes that Izzy’s process to create their only product — a zero-waste mascara equipped with stainless steel tubes meant to be refilled over 10 thousand times, all packaged in a reusable mailer — included partnering with Natural Capital Partners to solidify their sustainability efforts based on a rigorous, proven and transparent framework. Goldberg also says that her brand pivoted its focus to longer-term, “scientifically-backed” targets for financing emission reductions beyond their operational control, and even claims the brand’s supply chain can run on two Tesla charges.

“My goal was to create a zero-waste beauty brand that checked all the boxes from clean to carbon-neutral,” she says. “But even after successfully producing a mascara with a 78% smaller carbon footprint than the industry standard, I knew we still had work to do in order to achieve carbon neutrality — which, while ambitious, was precisely the type of strategy the brand needed to make a radical social impact.”

However, as gratifying as certification may be, Dallmeier notes that there’s tons of work to be done by brands and consumers alike in order for the beauty industry to even begin to pave a path to true carbon neutrality. She suggests consumers question brands’ claims and research the data for themselves — however, Dallmeier says that would require brands to be 100% transparent about their activities and business model and publish all of this data freely on an accessible platform. “I have not yet seen a beauty brand undertake this exercise,” she says.

But most importantly, Dallmeier suggests taking the entire conversation beyond carbon neutrality in order to make a tangible positive impact on the environment. Other eco-friendly sects of beauty that she recommends digging into include low consumption beauty (also known as skinimalism) and circular beauty.

“In order for the beauty industry as a whole to reduce its carbon footprint and overall environmental impacts, it needs to start promoting multi-purpose formulations and fewer, longer-lasting beauty products,” she says. “The beauty industry needs to start closing the loop on its impacts. In reality, carbon or climate neutrality is only one — very significant — component of a much larger sustainability picture.”

And remember — carbon neutrality is also not exclusive to companies and major corporations. You yourself can go carbon neutral. However, Whitman notes that going carbon neutral goes beyond planting a tree or using renewable energy. “It needs to be done at a level and a scale that is proportional to the total carbon emissions that a company or even an individual is responsible for,” he says. If you’d like to measure your own personal carbon emission footprint, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends gathering all of your utility bills (think: electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane) to calculate your average annual energy consumption.

Carbon Neutral Beauty Brands To Shop

While some information on carbon neutral beauty is disheartening, it’s not all nihilistic. The good news is that there are quite a few beauty brands that are certified carbon neutral by trusted third-party organizations. Just stop to ask yourself: is this something I really need? That’s the first step in keeping your beauty choices as carbon neutral as possible.

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