Last updated: September 2012
Cosmetics and Toiletries
There was once a time when the most basic of soaps was a luxury for most people. Now many of us bathe daily in a complex mixture petrochemicals, choosing to cover our chemically-dependent skin in ever increasing quantities of expensive products.
The European market for perfumery and cosmetics is the largest in the world with sales of €67 billion per year. The UK is the third largest market in the EU accounting for £6.7 billion. Even with the recession, the market is expected to grow at approximately 4.4% per year.
To move such a gargantuan mass of potions and snake oils the ad men remorselessly target our perceived imperfections and insecurities. While the names and claims of the products they hawk change with dizzying regularity to match changing market fads, the basic premise always remains the same: ‘No wrinkle too small or blemish too big that our cream/ointment/balm cannot render it invisible to the naked eye.’ The sensory bombardment reaps big financial rewards but can have a dramatic impact on consumers and society. This is discussed more by our readers and Simon Birch.
To sell the impossible dream of perfection, companies in the UK spent a total of £466 million on advertising in 2011. Procter & Gamble was the biggest spender (£138 million) with L’Oréal coming in second (£123 million) and Johnson & Johnson third (£37 million).
The companies with this eye watering ad spend are among a small coterie of multinationals that dominate the market. Procter & Gamble is the largest of these with over 250 brands. Its beauty division brings about 18% of its income to the group. L’Oréal is the second largest player with 23 global brands and it is present in 130 countries. Colgate-Palmolive is the third major player in the industry. Unilever is the largest company by annual sales, although more than half of its revenue comes from food products.
To stay ahead of the competition, companies are looking to tap into people’s desire for more ‘environmentally-friendly’ and less toxic products. The market for ‘natural’ products is estimated to be growing in Europe at a rate of 20% a year, and the ‘Environmental Approach’ has been seized upon by producers with 40% of new products launched in 2010 incorporating environmental claims.
This trend has meant, according the industry body COLIPA, that mainstream producers have reduced their environmental impacts by minimising water consumption, waste minimization and increases in transportation efficiency.
Our own research found the evidence of environmental improvements to be more of a mixed bag. L’Oréal for instance scored best for its environmental policy but worst for its palm oil policy. Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble all scored middle for their environmental reports but only Johnson & Johnson had an adequate policy on palm oil. (Read more about palm oil).
Three in ten women say they only use natural and organic products where possible but there is little clarity over definition of ‘natural’ and organic. Almost half of women don’t check the ingredients of the brands they use and a quarter of women don’t feel the need to check ingredients if a product claims to be natural or organic. Market research company Mintel says, “This allows manufacturers to exploit consumer perceptions of natural by using brand names and packaging to imply that a product is more natural or organic than it actually is.”
Unfortunately, unlike organic food, there are no legal standards for organic beauty products. Therefore a company can label or name a beauty product ‘organic’ even if it only contains 1% organic ingredients. And the description ‘natural’ has no protection at all.
In 2011 the Soil Association and other European organic certification bodies launched a new ‘harmonised’ certification system – called Cosmetics Organic Standard or COSMOS standard – for organic and natural claims on cosmetics. Companies voluntarily apply for certification.
The ‘COSMOS Natural’ standard will ensure that no more than 5% of the total product is synthetic with the list of permitted synthetics very short and only permitting biodegradable and non-toxic substances.
The ‘COSMOS Organic’ standard will ensure that at least 95% of processed agro-ingredients in a product are organic and that where an organic version of an ingredient is available it must be used. It also states that at least 20% of the total product must be organic and, like the natural standard, no more than 5% of the product can be synthetic.
Until such time as organic claims around beauty products can be regulated as they should be, consumers will need to look out for certification labels to make sure they’re not being taken for a ride. We give certified organic products an extra Product Sustainability mark on the score tables in this report.
A ‘free from’ labelling ban?
Big cosmetics brands are apparently pressuring EU authorities to ban ‘free from’ and ‘no’ claims on natural and organic beauty products – such as ‘Free from Parabens’ and ‘No SLS’. Peter Kindersley, owner of Neal’s Yard Remedies, writing in Natural Products News explains that the ban is being driven by larger companies and consumer groups in an attempt to strike a blow against greenwash, but would penalise companies who go beyond baseline compliance.
Kindersely suggests that a more likely motivation for the proposed amendment of the EU Cosmetics Directive is that ‘free from’ labelling casts big brands in a poor light by highlighting their failure to remove ingredients of concern.
If the big brands get away with banning ‘free from’ and ‘no’ labelling it would mean that at the point of purchase consumers would be deprived of information on health compromising ingredients and, potentially, claims like ‘no animal testing’ that are so important to growing numbers of consumers.
We discuss six ‘Ingredients to avoid’ and SLS specifically.
The globalisation of markets has made national bans on the animal testing of cosmetics (such as we have in the UK) very difficult to enforce in reality. Wendy Higgins from the HSI explains more about how this issue is still not going away, and what consumers can do about it.
Much of the environmental impact of shampoo and soap comes from its disposable packaging, and some companies have policies in place to address this. Lush are probably the main pioneer in this regard with 46% of its product range (such as solid shampoo bars) formulated so as not to require packaging. The packaging problems stemming from a general trend towards buying soap as liquid in bottles rather than as soap bars is discussed here.