Paris Sustainable Cosmetics Summit Focuses on the Mainstream

The event's European edition gathered 140 delegates.

PARIS — What consumers look for when it comes to natural and organic cosmetics is changing, as are big corporations’ attitudes to the subject, according to speakers at the recent Sustainable Cosmetics Summit here.

The three-day event, which ran from Oct. 21 to 23 at the Marriott Champs-Elysées hotel, was the fifth European version of the summit run by U.K.-based consultancy Organic Monitor.

“Sustainability is becoming more important on the big-company agenda,” said Organic Monitor founder and director Amarjit Sahota, adding that the summit saw increased attendance from companies including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Mary Kay among its 140 delegates this year.

“It’s not just about developing green formulations,” he explained, highlighting the increased diversity of the subject matter covered by the conference, which consisted of half-day sessions on topics including marketing, distribution, packaging, formulation and sustainability metrics.

Sara de Dios, global director of Meaningful Brands for Havas Media Group, spoke about the current disconnect between traditional branding models and what people (de Dios said it is necessary to stop categorizing human beings as simply consumers) desire from a brand.

“Forty-five percent of people in Western Europe think that natural or organic cosmetic claims are not credible,” she said by way of example. Yet if companies such as Dove manage to make a connection with consumers, their performance can improve accordingly, de Dios added.

According to Havas Media Group’s 2013 Meaningful Brands Index of 700 companies, firms that were perceived as “meaningful” by consumers have been seen to outperform the stock market by 120 percent.

“Sustainability is really a brand-equity builder. Use it,” de Dios advised attendees. “Be holistic and link product with personal and collective well-being issues to reach mainstream consumers.”

The increasing importance of the brand, rather than specific product claims like organic ingredients, was also apparent in a presentation by Inés Hermida, head of health and beauty at Whole Foods Market in the U.K.

Describing the retailer’s product-selection criteria, Hermida specified: “We look for brands first. The market has evolved so much in the past five years. The ingredients are out there on the general market, so you need a differentiating concept.…Everything that makes a good brand in natural retail is the same as in a conventional channel.”

In a recent survey of its U.K. beauty shoppers, Whole Foods Market found that health and wellness were the most important criteria for selecting products for more than three-fourths of customers, followed closely by pleasure. Specific attributes like organic ingredients came bottom of the list, below pricing concerns, Hermida revealed.

Several speakers nevertheless insisted on the importance of product certification as a means of communicating with consumers, despite the expense to smaller companies going down this route.

“Certification is very important” in winning customers’ trust, agreed Gordon Chalmers, chief operating officer of Australian company Jasmin Skincare, which focuses its business on Asia, particularly China. “This industry is full of people who tell lies. Without certification, the consumer would be continually ripped off.”

Listening to consumer demands has also proved important to the brand’s success in Asia, Chalmers said — for example, by bringing out a BB cream in response to customer requests, or by launching lipsticks in bamboo packaging, which led to lipstick sales increasing threefold. In terms of packaging, the importance of eco-design was highlighted by Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability for design agency Seymour Powell, which counts companies like Unilever and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Christian Dior among its beauty clients.

“Eighty percent of the environmental impacts of packaging and products are determined at the design stage,” said Sherwin, who warned attendees, “Don’t just make stuff and assess the impact at the end.

He added, “It’s really great that we’re starting to see sustainability in our design briefs, but there are occasions when it tends to drop off.”

In his presentation, Sherwin highlighted products from Burt’s Bees for using eco-materials, Natura’s premium-look pouches or Lush’s lack of packaging, the cardboard outer pack from Cargo Cosmetics’ PlantLove lipstick — embedded with wildflower seeds to be planted — or refillable products like supplier Yonwoo’s Jumbo Naturals pack and Dior’s L’Or de Vie as good examples of eco-design in cosmetics.