Sustainable Beauty is a Racial Issue
Today’s beauty industry is contributing to racial inequities in climate change without conscious awareness.
Every year, the beauty industry generates 120 Billion units of plastic beauty/cosmetic packaging. Unfortunately, plastic waste is a large contributor to current climate deterioration and negative environmental impacts. Although adverse impacts from plastic pollution–like ocean pollution and climate change–are often communicated in environmental and sustainability discourse, the impacts on minority communities are rarely at the forefront of these discussions. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are most impacted by these negative environmental outcomes due to social determinants of health, like education, occupation, income, and location–all hinged on the possibility of being nearest to circumstances related to environmental crisis. Thus it is important that the beauty industry take necessary measures to generate more plastic-free packaging options to help prevent contributions to ongoing racial disparities in climate change.
According to the NAACP, “climate justice is a civil rights issue” because human living experiences are correlated to the health of the environment. Backing this up, the Princeton Student Climate Initiative stated that “people of color are at the forefront of the climate crisis.” In terms of racial disparities in climate change, the probability of a person of color in the U.S. having a greater chance at living near a toxic chemical emitting power plant or the fact that BIPOC are more likely to have less access to healthier food and produce are most highlighted in the media. However, less commonly spoken about are the connections between waste generated from the beauty industry and how that is impacting current and future circumstances related to the climate crisis for minority communities, like African-Americans, in the U.S.
The worlds of skin care, hair care and cosmetics aren’t as glamorous as you think. Considering that new brands emerge everyday, the unglamorous truth is that the beauty industry is creating a great amount of plastic waste that helps to erode our planet–one plastic concealer bottle at a time. In 2020, the beauty industry (along with other U.S. industries) decided to uplift Black and minority-owned businesses after the violent attacks on members of the African-American community (Ahmad Arbery, Briana Taylor, George Floyd, and others). After these socially traumatizing events, a surge of information, support, and empathy for racial disparities in BIPOC communities ensued. Suddenly, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous-owned brands were thrusted into the spotlight and given tremendous social and financial support. Although emerging from the grounds of tragedy and injustice, this recognition was long overdue and deserving. BIPOC have contributed heavily to the beauty industry without the acknowledgement or wealth to show. This degree of support allowed many minority-owned brands to emerge–like mine, Odelia, Marie, & Patrice, a vegan, sustainability aggressive self-care brand that meets at the intersection of decadence and social justice.
However, the double edged-sword is that creating a truly sustainable beauty business takes capital and customers willing and/or able to pay for a more luxury experience. Further, Black and minority-owned businesses experience financial disparities that can limit start-up capital or the financial leisure it takes to pursue a plastic reduced or negative beauty venture. According to McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, “Black-founded or Black-owned—makeup only 2.5 percent of revenue in the beauty industry.” Further, BIPOC-owned beauty brands are less likely to have access to opportunities that can help change the environment via sustainable packaging but more likely to experience the negative effects of a deteriorating climate–a true mind game and harsh reality.
Oftentimes, the cost of a plastic cosmetic bottle can be significantly cheaper to buy in bulk than plastic alternatives like glass and aluminum. There are other paper-based cosmetic alternatives but many times the structure of cardboard packaging cannot sustain many oil and/or water-based products–unless you increase the layers of cardboard used for more thickness which, like the process of shipping out materials like glass, can also increase carbon footprint. The recycling discussion can go around and around with whether or not plastic is more recyclable than paper, aluminum, and glass. Nonetheless, small brands must do what they can to meet at the intersection of feasibility and efficiency. At OMandP, were re-branding our products and packaging to offer a range of paper, tin, and glass by matching the product type with the most effective recyclable packaging. For instance, our lip balms are going in paper tubes because they are smaller and people may be less likely to recycle lip balm containers.
An emerging area of interest to the beauty industry is plastic-reduced packaging. In Summer 2022, while attending a large beauty conference, I scoured through the vending booths looking for plastic alternative options for beauty packaging and discovered extreme limitations beyond glass and aluminum (which don’t solve every cosmetic packaging function). Even when glass and aluminum options were present, they usually are accompanied by plastic tops and caps. I stopped to speak in-depth to one vendor with a large booth of options. She took me to her sustainable packaging area and explained to me that most of the packaging that claims to be made from sugar cane or coconut rind is most-likely a blend of that material and plastic–hence the name plastic-reduction. These plastic reduced alternatives are a great start. However, an industry that is expected to generate $73 Billion in sales by 2025 ought to be able to afford looking into creating truly sustainable cosmetic packaging.
This is a matter that also should not fall upon minority entrepreneurs, like myself, who must spend the bulk of their time, capital, and energy on creating a business that can properly function and sustain growth. The highest initiatives should be taken by the largest beauty companies and retailers, who benefit from the 11.1 percent beauty industry purchasing. Interest and care in African-American and minority communities should not only be shown in the diversity of models or shades of make-up a company can exemplify, yet, also by the energy, intent, and actions put forth to protect our environment and communities of color who are most at risk of experiencing the negative impacts of climate change.
The future of the beauty industry depends on socially conscious and active organizations from conglomerates to entrepreneurs. Our collective efforts toward creating truly sustainable cosmetic packaging could have tremendous effects on our planet. Plus, current and future consumers like Millennials and Gen Z place a great deal of interest in knowing the brands they support are active in social issues. As technology is more advanced than ever, possibilities are limitless for revolutionizing the beauty industries approach to product packaging. Racial environmental justice is not a far off occurrence for the beauty industry, rather an incredible oversight happening right under our noses that could increase racial disparities (on multiple fronts) if action to create sustainable packaging is not immediately taken.
About the Author
Candace Parrish, Ph.D. is the founder of Odelia, Marie, & Patrice–a vegan and sustainable self-care brand–and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Relations at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington.