How Coronavirus Could Change Beauty's Commitment to Sustainability

In a pandemic-stricken world, beauty companies are acknowledging that caring for the planet means caring for people, and vice versa.

For the beauty industry, the sustainability conversation often revolves heavily around reducing plastics and packaging, but the widespread economic fallout and rising death and illness rates from the coronavirus is forcing that conversation to expand to include social issues.

Before the global pandemic hit, consumers already cared — or at the very least, were curious — about a company’s commitment to the health and safety of its employees and customers. Consider the @EsteeLaundry account on Instagram, which has amassed a following by calling out companies for alleged bad behavior, ranging from mistreatment of employees to lack of diversity to excessive use of plastic.

In the wake of the coronavirus, consumers are watching what companies do closer than ever, and while for the foreseeable future they are concerned with how businesses handle the health and financial well-being of people, experts say consumers haven’t stopped caring about the environment either.

“I don’t think it’s either-or,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail. “We’re already seeing [in our research] that [consumers care] very much about [companies] taking care of people — your people and your customers and also caring for the community and in the broader sense, taking care of our world and making sure we are protected.”

“Social and environmental impact are inextricably linked,” said Nancy Mahon, senior vice president of global environmental, social and corporate governance at The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “People are much more aware of the total value chain and now have a deeper understanding of it on a human level.”

She pointed to the company’s Melville, N.Y. manufacturing facility as an example. The facility employs locals from the community, and has enlisted employees who are willing to go to work to make hand-sanitizer. “It’s a great way to understand the value chain, which can be very broad,” she said.

The aftermath of COVID-19 is going to force companies to accelerate — not abandon — focus on the environment, Mahon said, but will also make shifting some attention to social issues nonnegotiable.

“The coronavirus pandemic…will take social impact out of being a one-off marketing approach or a communications-only approach to how do we think deeply about this work, and also work across sectors,” she said. “This has shown that business has the ability to move the needle. There is a great awareness that we are a global community and share one standard of public health. Business has stepped up and consumers see that. The bar has been raised for social and environmental concerns.”

Right now, it may seem as though sustainability efforts are being dialed back. Parking lots and sidewalks across the U.S. are littered with disposable gloves and masks, and grocery stores have rolled back plastic bag bans. At a Giant Eagle-owned grocery store in Indiana this week, signs were posted at cash registers that a rewards program for bringing in reusable bags was being temporarily discontinued, and use of plastic bags was encouraged.

But the idea that companies may relinquish their environmental sustainability efforts long-term because of the overwhelming focus on health and hygiene is missing the greater point, said Liebmann.

“People are doing things they might not normally want to do — not buying organic or free-from, because they’re buying what’s available to fulfill short-term needs,” said Liebmann, who conducted a recent study that revealed 88 percent of consumers polled were still practicing sustainable habits like recycling, and some of those people were even ramping up efforts. 

She noted there is also exponentially increased awareness on the way companies treat workers, not just the environment. “It’s not a new value —  this has been happening for three to four years,” said Liebmann. “We’re in this heightened situation that has caused people to care about it more — it’s this new sense of trust, like who do I trust to take care of and support me? If you treat people badly and don’t take care of their health, there are other options [for consumers to purchase.]”

Some consumer packaged goods executives say they expect consumers to be much more focused on the way companies are taking care of people, not the planet, in the wake of the pandemic. Preventing the spread of germs and disease is likely to take precedence over practicing environmentally friendly habits.

“‘I’ve heard a lot of people reflect an optimistic view, that this is going to be an opportunity for change in working toward that sustainable lifestyle, and I agree with that — but there’s going to be some significant headwinds and we have to recognize it and work within it,” said Dave Muenz, executive officer and senior vice president of ESG at Kao Corp. in the U.S.

A key takeaway from the pandemic, he said, is that there will be “a bigger emphasis on social connectedness of people and the importance of humans and people over things.”

Muenz predicts that for companies in the consumer packaging goods sector, environmental issues are likely to become “less of a priority,” in the near future. “Social and human connectedness,” he said will become the main factor in corporate social responsibility, especially as companies and governments grapple with economic fallouts that could put pressure on their commitments to environmental sustainability. 

Japan-based Kao has long had a corporate culture imbued with taking care of humans and the environment equally, and seeing the two as interconnected. The company’s ESG platform, Kirei Lifestyle Plan, aims to achieve a series of sustainability initiatives by 2030. While some of the plan involves reducing plastics and waste, Muenz said about two-thirds of the goals deal with social issues rather than environmental.

In the U.S., Muenz said in response to the pandemic, Kao is planning to emphasize the portion of its ESG platform that promotes cleanliness and hygiene. The company has its own hand-washing song that teaches proper hand-washing technique — in Japan, Kao employees visit classrooms and teach the song to children. The company now plans to release and promote the song in the U.S. “We’ll probably double-down on that type of effort,” said Muenz.

At Unilever, the corporate messaging includes a mandate to “care for people and planet.” That sentiment has proven especially true during the pandemic, said Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of beauty and personal care for Unilever in North America.

The company has a series of product launches rooted in environmental sustainability slated for 2020, including some concentrated formulas that incorporate less water, and the launch of biodegradable body-care products under its Seventh Generation home cleaning brand. Most notably, the biggest brand in the company’s beauty and personal-care portfolio, Dove, has committed to moving its packaging in North America and Europe to bottles made from 100 percent post-consumer resin packaging, as well as plastic-free packs for its bar soap. That packaging began rolling out early this year.

Environmental sustainability was a priority for Unilever in 2020, and while those launches are still slated, the company is doubling down its efforts on social causes. “It’s a super-dynamic time for everyone, facing the reality that we’re living in a new world,” said Bracey. “Some needs are fundamentally unchanged and we’re feeling more responsible and committed to being of service.”

Last month, Unilever’s corporate office in Europe unveiled a list of initiatives around the COVID-19 pandemic, estimating that through worldwide programs, it is contributing more than 100 million euros to help people affected.

In the U.S., through a program called United for America, Unilever contributed more than $8 million worth of food, soap, personal hygiene and home cleaning products for Feeding America, which will distribute the supplies to Americans in need. The company is also donating 200,000 face masks to hospitals in New Jersey.

Unilever has organized a national day of service aimed at providing $12 million worth of support through donation of “essential item[s]” produced across Unilever’s 14 U.S. factories on May 21. The products will be donated to community partners. Unilever plans to also offer ad spend dedicated to nonprofit partners, relief organizations and other community groups.

Dove also pivoted its Real Beauty campaign, which is focused on raising self-esteem and body positivity on women, with a TV ad focused on honoring medical workers on the front line.

The company is dealing with overwhelming demand for some of its personal-care products, but is “being agile and making it work, looking at what messages are relatable and most meaningful,” said Bracey. “We belong to a company and category that really matters now, where there are increased needs that can prevent the spread of common germs.”

Bracey said there is opportunity in the future to pivot marketing to focus on how Unilever’s products can aid in sanitation and hygiene.

For smaller companies, it may be easier to keep a continued focus on efforts related to the environment, said Christopher Gavigan, one of the cofounders of The Honest Co., who is now ceo of his own CBD start-up, Prima.

One of Prima’s core tenants is environmental sustainability — the brand is carbon-neutral for 100 percent of operations, and has pending B.Corp status.

No matter how the pandemic plays out, Gavigan said, the company is just as committed — if not more — to sustainable practices.

“It can be seen as a ‘nice to have,’ but certainly for Prima it’s part of our responsibility and public duty to take care of the environment,” said Gavigan.

His cofounder and chief operating officer Laurel Myers added: “[The pandemic] is happening at a time when we’re actually seeing the real environmental impact of how we live — the air quality has never been better [due to social distancing.] The realization around [how we’re impacting] our environment has never been so real…if anything, it’s furthered our desire to drive that positive impact.”

A commitment to environmental sustainability isn’t changing at Luxury Brand Partners, said Dan Langer, president of R+Co CMO of LBP. R+Co just launched its Super Garden CBD shampoo and conditioner, which are packaged in bottles made of 55 percent PCR materials. The brand has always incorporated some level of sustainability into its DNA, said Langer, adding, “What you may see some brands doing is making those belief systems more visible to consumers,” he said.

“If anything,” he continued, “one of the things that will come out of this unprecedented time is the building of community and this overall social consciousness that people will be more aware of each other and the world.”

For example, R+Co just rolled out an affiliate program for hairstylists where they are able to sell products to clients and make a 40 percent commission. With salons across the country closed and hairstylists out of work, people are “way more aware of local economies” than ever, said Langer.

The pandemic, said Muenz, has forced many consumers to examine issues of social inequality that they may have passively ignored before. And with global economies in crisis and no end date in sight for COVID-19, he said it is possible that environmental efforts could become “less mission critical” for governments, companies, and even consumers as attention turns to keeping people healthy.

“At Kao, there’s going to be a lot more thrust on what we’re doing to address social inequality — [consumers] are starting to see that people who are not socially well off are not well served and are suffering more from the virus,” said Muenz. “We could see significant change — people make decisions based on things that are important to them.”

 

Key Takeaways:

1. The coronavirus pandemic has broadened the definition of sustainability, as social concerns take precedence over environmental.

2. Consumers are more aware than ever of a company’s practices and whether they benefit the greater good, both their own employees and the community at large.

3. That heightened awareness means brands should accelerate, rather than abandon, their focus on sustainability and social initiatives.

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