PARIS — The sixth edition of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit here focused on subjects including the often neglected economic pillar of sustainable development, changing from guilt-driven sustainability models and new alternatives in ingredients, particularly green chemistry.
The event, which ran from Monday to Wednesday, sought to advance the debate around sustainability, with speakers providing leads for addressing the three pillars of sustainable development: environment, society and economy.
“Most attention [from companies] has gone to the environmental pillar,” said Amarjit Sahota, president of conference organizer Organic Monitor. “When you are looking at environmental impacts, you can only reduce them so much. How can you go beyond reducing negative impacts and make a positive impact?”
L’Oréal CSR and sustainability director Alexandra Palt spoke of the importance of effectively communicating about sustainability to the average consumer, sharing results of an in-house survey showing that 58 percent of carbon emissions from the company’s products are contributed by consumer use, compared with 28 percent in raw materials and packaging production and only 5 percent from manufacturing.
“Our consumers are not very passionate about this information,” said Palt. “We are doing all the technical parts [when it comes to sustainability], but [the most difficult aspect is] to engage the conversation with the consumer of L’Oréal Paris or Lancôme on this.”
Sahota said that despite ongoing growth of natural cosmetics in recent years — sales for the segment rang in at $10.4 billion last year, a 9.5 percent increase year-on-year — this represents only around 4 percent of the global cosmetics market.
“How do you rise above this ‘green glass ceiling’ and appeal to the mainstream market?” he asked.
Michael Braungart, one of the initiators of the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, explained that companies engage in a discourse focusing on guilt and negativity — for example with messages like “No parabens” or “free of…”
“With all of this sustainability stuff you make the customer your enemy. You’re saying ‘don’t buy my stuff,’” he said.
Instead of promising to reduce emissions, he suggested that companies focus on positive messages. “By 2020, why don’t we promise not to make stuff that accumulates in biological systems?” he said, citing examples from companies including Method, Aveda and Kiehl’s.
He said brands should instead engage consumers by saying, “This is where we want to go, the more you buy from us, the faster we will go.”
“It should be possible to have clever sustainability,” said Palt. “It can be fun, desirable and glamorous.”
When it comes to the economic pillar, attendees were reminded that without profit, business is not in itself sustainable.
“The fundamental of sustainable business is that you continue to be financially viable,” summed up Neal’s Yard Remedies head of sustainability Vicky Murray.
As for finding funding in the current credit market, Forum Capital managing director Stephen Scott recommended that smaller firms study new financing models like minibonds by tapping existing customers for finance.
“It’s possible to build financing where you can pay in kind and build relationships with your customers,” he said, citing U.K.-based confectionary retailer Hotel Chocolat and shaving brand King of Shaves as companies that had successfully used such strategies.
“Person-to-person platforms are growing and offer potential,” he said. “A lot of natural-products businesses are rebels, and the opportunity to disintermediate banks, [seen as] the ‘bad guy’, can appeal to this consumer.”
Several speakers discussed new developments in ingredients, notably in green chemistry and stem-cell research, which were touted as more stable and sustainable than natural ingredients, as well as less resource intensive when it comes to water and arable land use.
“We are able to exploit rare plants, and can work with plants that are close to extinction,” said Oscar Exposito, chief science officer and cofounder of Barcelona-based Phyture Biotech.
Other leaders were making cosmetics from food waste, demonstrated by U.K.-based Keracol lead development scientist Meryem Benohoud, who recently worked with Marks & Spencer to develop its new Pure Super Grape Natural Beauty line, using waste from grapes used in its wines.
“People are ready to give [food waste] for free,” she said. “The difficulty is the formulation of these natural products. We have to move from synthetic molecules. We can achieve that, it is just changing our state of mind.”