Clean beauty products are meant to make us look and feel great, but if they’re made with raw materials extracted using child labor or causing environmental devastation, or contain ingredients that aren’t as ‘natural’ as a manufacturer claims, how clean are they really?
Ingredient traceability is a must have for clean beauty products, but how can you tell if a brand is truly transparent and not just hiding its blushes with some serious greenwashing?
What is traceability?
At its core, traceability means being able to see what is in a product, and where all the ingredients come from, including how they are extracted, harvested, or otherwise produced. Ideally, we would also be able to tell how these raw ingredients are processed and transported, along every step of the supply chain until they reach you, the consumer.
The point of traceability is to ensure that what we are told is in a product actually is in the product, and that responsible sourcing standards are being followed throughout the manufacturing process. Simply put, without ingredient traceability there is no sustainability.
A lot of this begins at the label level. Responsible brands increasingly list the full ingredients in beauty products, despite there being no law in the U.S. requiring them to do so. Without a full list of what’s inside a product, how can we trust claims that the product is clean, green, or that it does what you want it to do?
With no legal requirement to list all the ingredients in full, it’s difficult to trust that any brand is doing things responsibly. This is where third-party certifications come in. These reputable organizations can offer a seal of approval to confirm that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle, nothing more and nothing less. (More on that below.)
As an aside, if a product is said to be packaged in recycled packaging, you’ll also want to check the veracity of that claim too! Some packaging is made with a tiny amount of recycled material and then lauded for being green despite being mostly made using virgin petroleum. What you want to look for is a clear commitment from the company about sustainable packaging, ideally with a certification from the Global Recycling Standard (GRS).
Does traceable equal sustainable?
Simply being traceable does not make a product or brand sustainable. After all, we could trace an ingredient back to a source involving horrendous working conditions and polluting processes. Instead, traceability is a tool to help us assess the sustainability of a product (or individual ingredient). Traceability also helps consumers hold companies accountable for their sourcing practices.
Traceability allows us as consumers to ask:
- Where is a product manufactured, and by whom?
- What exactly is in this particular batch of a product?
- Where do those ingredients come from?
- How does the sourcing of these ingredients affect workers, local communities, and the environment?
- Are the ingredients and processes third-party verified in any way?
Increasing globalization in recent decades has made it much more difficult to know where ingredients come from and where products are made. For beauty products, this is particularly challenging and is why many consumers concerned over safety and sustainability are turning to products made locally using fresh local ingredients. This isn’t possible in many places, however, and globalization does have some advantages, in that it can help share wealth worldwide by supporting small local farmers in poorer countries while also keeping costs down for the end consumer.
How does traceability work in practice?
Traceability ideally means that a company provides the names and contact information of all of their direct and indirect suppliers. So, if a product is made with coconut oil, for instance, the company may state that this is sourced directly from a specific, named, plantation in Indonesia that is managed using certified organic, fair trade, sustainable practices. Consumers could then contact the operators of that plantation to check that they do, indeed, provide coconut oil to the cosmetics company and ask for copies of the up-to-date certifications. If the coconut oil is then processed by another company, this should also be listed as part of the supply chain.
There are various ways that companies can provide information on their supply chain. Batch numbers, QR codes, and even special close-frequency radio tags can all help consumers access information about a specific product’s ingredients. These are especially important for products such as cosmetics where suppliers may change between batches due to varying ingredient availability.
A product label can provide information on the date of production, certifying organization, types of ingredient processing (such as cold pressing of oils, hexane extraction, etc.), and the supplier or country of origin.
Offering this level of transparency and traceability helps to build trust, even if everything isn’t perfect every time. Indeed, transparency can help a brand share their progress with consumers by showing, for example, that while 75% of the ingredients in a given product are sustainable but there are one or two ingredients they struggle to find sustainable suppliers for consistently. This allows a brand to tell a story about the steps being taken to either find a more consistently sustainable replacement for that ingredient and even to connect with potential suppliers who offer a more sustainable option.
Unfortunately, most beauty products are bought from retailers with little to no say in how manufacturers source their ingredients. And for some manufacturers, ingredients may come from indirect suppliers, meaning that the actual source of raw materials is very far removed from the end consumer, with no way of auditing the full supply chain.
Add in some sneaky labeling tactics where potentially toxic and/or environmentally sensitive ingredients are listed under deceptive names or lumped together as ‘fragrance’ and it’s no wonder we often feel left in the dark when buying safe, sustainable products.
Troublesome ingredients in beauty products
Because beauty products are often made with a mixture of natural and synthetic materials, there are several potentially troublesome ingredients in terms of sustainability and traceability. Natural ingredients are sourced from plants, animals, and, in some cases, the earth. This can mean that many farmers, wild harvesters, and mining operations are involved in the supply chain, along with brokers of these raw ingredients, cooperatives, exporters, importers, and others.
Where raw ingredients are harvested on different farms and then consolidated and processed through various stages into a homogeneous material, it quickly becomes very difficult to know exactly where the ingredients in, say, a jar of face cream came from originally. Big brands with a large consumer base often work with several suppliers who themselves work with hundreds of smaller suppliers in order to meet the required volume of ingredients.
This is one reason why consumers are increasingly turning to smaller, artisanal brands that use a single supplier for all ingredients.
Particularly troubling ingredients include:
- Palm oil
- Essential oils
- Almond oil
- Jojoba oil
- Manuka honey.
These ingredients may be linked to destruction of the environment, poor working conditions and human rights abuses including child labor. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of International Labor Affairs has identified more than 100 products from more than 75 countries which may involve child labor or forced labor. These include mica, highlighting the need for traceability for any product using this as an ingredient.
In the case of manuka honey, the biggest issue tends to be fraud, where a lesser quality product is passed off as genuine manuka honey in order to hike up the price. This is a huge problem for consumers but also for brands. After all, if the efficacy of a product hinges upon a specific ingredient and that ingredient isn’t even present, consumers will notice and turn to a different brand or decide the natural ingredient doesn’t have any benefits after all.
In addition, traceability can help confirm the safety of products. Without knowing exactly what is in a beauty product, there’s always a risk of contamination, allergic reaction to something undeclared on the label, and other issues such as the use of animal testing at some point in the supply chain. Traceability allows for a greater degree of assurance for the safety of end users, those making the products, and non-human animals too.
Several traceability solutions exist, including certifications, blockchain, and deep integration. Certifications are typically used to demonstrate environmental and social commitments but can sometimes offer insight into the origin of specific ingredients. For instance, the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) offers assurance that the manuka honey in a product is genuine, while RSPO (the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil) uses blockchain technology to create a traceable supply chain for palm oil and derivatives.
For many brands, the simplest and most attractive way to go, though, is deep integration. Sometimes known as vertical integration, particularly in the clothing industry, this model reduces how many people are involved in a supply chain. The brand may themselves own and operate farms supplying raw materials for end products, or they may work with a single supplier that owns and operates a farm and transforms the crops into natural compounds used directly by the brand to make their products in-house.
In addition to improving traceability and transparency, this model also tends to support better working conditions for farmers. It also promotes greater sustainability as suppliers care for the local community and environment where ingredients are grown and processed. For consumers, this model continues to rely on a certain degree of trust that a brand isn’t just creating clever marketing spin and that there actually is a direct supplier relationship. For the most part, asking a few questions can quickly reveal any holes in a brand’s story as genuinely sustainable operators are typically keen to share information about their relationships with farmers and communities.
At the other end of things, there are organizations such as Sourcemap which help brands trace certified raw materials and ensure fair labor conditions and wages across a supply chain. Sourcemap enables a brand to map every ingredient in every product, with verification of responsible sourcing and production, all presented in a way that is accessible to consumers.
This is especially helpful for beauty brands making products using mica. Sourcemap offers a specific Responsible Mica Platform that identifies every mine and processing facility in the mica supply chain, with assessments of suppliers made using third-party audits for every shipment of the mineral. As similar mapping process is also available for palm oil, which covers hundreds of thousands of plantations and a complex processing and export supply chain. By providing satellite imagery of plantations of origin to consumers, this helps the end user of palm oil products better appreciate the importance of sustainable sourcing without deforestation.
What can you do?
Seriously. For too long, beauty brands have gotten away with a horrendous lack of transparency over what’s actually in their products. This puts you and your family at risk and also increases the potential risks to workers, local communities, and the wider environment.
Expecting better means asking beauty companies to clearly state every ingredient in a product and to name the supplier(s) of those ingredients. Where this is extremely onerous for a brand – if they have hundreds of products and thousands of ingredients, for instance – we should expect the brand to use services such as Sourcemap to assess their extended supply chains.
We might also start expecting cosmetics companies to use something akin to the ISO 22005 standard currently in place for traceable food products. This international standard provides businesses with a certification of compliance to demonstrate that the business provides location-specific, genuine and traceable food products through every stage of the supply chain. Where a beauty brand uses food-grade ingredients, this would offer an interesting avenue for traceability certification.
In the meantime, consumers may wish to favor products that carry the MadeSafe™ seal of approval. This non-profit organization doesn’t deal with traceability per se but does have a team of scientists that scrutinizes the molecular makeup of a product to determine what’s actually there and whether those ingredients are safe and appropriate for the intended use of that product. This is a great start for consumers who want the bare minimum in terms of traceability, but brands need to go much further in offering information on where those confirmed ingredients are sourced from. And for that, we’re still waiting for an industry-wide standard for beauty products.