Sustainable Skincare

By Yaso Shan

Thursday 11th July 2019

It is difficult to open any magazine, newspaper or online publications without reading something about the pressing concerns surrounding climate change (or more accurately according to some media outlets, climate crisis). It is without doubt, there is a real threat of such devastating impacts on natural habitats and wildlife.  Being close to the benefits of harnessing plant ingredients, perhaps botanical and natural skincare manufacturers and formulators have faced these threats and confronted the problems much sooner than most. This has perhaps given the industry the much-needed time to consider the way ahead and to implement strategies to mitigate the potential loss of natural ingredients that appear to be increasing in number by the day.

With the rising popularity of natural skincare and plant-based products, the demand has never been greater. However, with this comes a concern for the environment although other industries should share the burden of being a responsible manufacturer given than 1 in 5 plant species are at risk of extinction. The three biggest factors threatening plant species are:

  1. deforestation of habitats (31%)
  2. deforestation of timber (21%)
  3. construction of buildings and infrastructure (13%)

It is, after all in the interests of these companies to be mindful of ensuring sustainability and protecting our most valuable ecosystems so that we can continue to enjoy Earth’s bounty for many more years to come. So how can we ensure this?

If manufacturers and consumers want to enjoy making and using plant-based products, then a sustainable system must be established. This includes the supply of ingredients from source so all parts of that sustainable system must flourish in order to continue. It is imperative therefore to promote biodiversity because at the heart of sustainability is the basis of stable and functioning ecosystems that ensure their ability to provide the economy and society with essential goods and services.

Many cosmetic products contain natural ingredients which are derived from plants and animals and biodiversity is a rich source for inspiration and innovation in the development of new active ingredients. Among these are essential oils, pigments, surfactants and other substances of biological origin with useful properties in skincare products. Rising consumer demand for natural ingredients and sustainable cosmetic products mean that biodiversity is increasingly becoming a strategic issue for the cosmetics industry. The most significant direct and indirect negative effects on biodiversity are generally related to the cultivation or collection of biological raw materials and sustainable companies are very much engaged in the protection of biodiversity. The main environmental impacts are the (indirect) land usage for resource production, the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems, pollution through the use of pesticides and fertilisers and erosion-promoting cultivation methods.

However, it is tempting to feel virtuous about purchasing products made with natural skincare ingredients but whilst there are opportunities for stories to be told about ethical shopping or together with product and brand advertisement which can raise the awareness of consumers to biodiversity, it is important not to equate the use of natural ingredients with the protection of biodiversity. Due diligence, research and updating consumer knowledge is key to preserving some of our most precious plants which are under real threat of extinction.

The trade in wild plants especially the value of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) has undoubtedly increased significantly (approx. 3-fold in 20 years) but traditional harvesting practices are being replaced by less sustainable alternatives. However it’s not just the cosmetics and natural skincare industries that utilise these valuable resources; the use of wild plants is common in many household products including herbal remedies, food and drink, health supplements and even furniture.

A recent analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Medicinal Plant Specialist Group found that only 7% of MAP species with well-documented uses have been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with 1 in 5 being found to be threatened with extinction. Over-harvested and resource management are two major contributors to species declines.

Of the roughly 30,000 plant species with well-documented MAP uses, approximately 3,000 are found in international trade. An estimated 60-90% of them are harvested from wild. International trade in such plants has tripled in value from 1999 to 2015 and is now worth over £50 million. Such is the demand that traditional sustainable harvesting practices are being replaced by more intensive and destructive alternatives for example, using heavy machinery and destructive collecting practices. However, if managed well, sustainable wild harvesting and trade in plant ingredients could provide holistic management for other species and ecosystems as well as multiple benefits to wild harvesters and supply chains overall.

Collectors of wild plants often belong to the poorest social groups of the countries of origins. With the growing interest in MAP, new economic opportunities are opening up for rural populations with collection, gathering and sale of MAP, providing a complementary source of cash for extremely poor rural households. However, despite the high value of MAP at the shop-end, the collectors at the origin typically receive only a small share of the final price.

So what does ‘sustainable skincare’ mean? First and foremost, it is important to examine the manufacturers’ environmental practices which needs to include their concern/sensitivity to ecology as well as their ethical and sustainable sourcing practices. On the processing side, it also means non-toxic modes of botanical processing and extraction, good manufacturing practices and a commitment to these various industries. Modern practices are degrading the integrated nature and high purpose of true sustainability.

For example some multinationals extol the virtues of their water-saving and improved energy management practices whilst churning out mountains of non-recyclable waste, and harmful pollutants that are hazardous to the soil, water and air as well as their workers who are exposed to them. It is important for companies involved in the natural skincare and cosmetics industry to believably demonstrate that the natural resources they use (which include plants), that they are of sustainable origin. Having the lowest ecological footprint is the principle tenet but realistically, this is not always possible. Protecting biodiversity and ecosystems is crucial in the course of sustainable sourcing of plant-based ingredients which is guided by a complex set of factors. In essence, good environmental practices mean that harvesting or cultivation of a plant will not harm the natural habitats or environment, degrade biodiversity, deplete the natural supply of the plant or produce toxins that may harm the soil, water, air or wildlife.

Ethical business practices must also include the principles of sustainable wage practices. This may well be limited by the market but the greater portion of the profits made can certainly be assigned to farmers/growers or harvesters of that plant. Given that our demand for such highly desirable ingredients tend to come from some of the poorest regions and communities in the world, it is fair to redistribute some of the financial gains perhaps to those who are at the humble beginnings of the whole process. This could help alleviate endemic global poverty in the agricultural sector in those communities. Many consumers would probably be very happy to buy products that can give them assurance that the growers and harvesters benefit from their purchase through a fair and sustainable wage. Equally, those who grow and harvest the most popular plants could be paid a premium through a supported trading partnership with companies thus helping the poorest in those communities progress out of poverty and up the economic ladder. Crucially, there should be no exploitation of workers through malpractice, poor working conditions, pitiful wages and no child exploitation whatsoever. A truly sustainable and ethical business would invest and incentivise to avoid all such practices.

There are as many as 10,000 MAP that are at critical risk or very endangered due to over-harvesting in the wild but whilst some plants remain abundant (eg. Moroccon rosemary), some (eg. ginseng for example) need to be cultivated if supply is to be maintained. Many companies need to be mindful of the delicate ecosystems from which they source their plants. The principles of certified organic agriculture can promote standards for sustainability by helping growers regenerate soil health greatly reducing the environmental pressures of growing crops in addition to supporting biodiversity. This goes a long way towards reassuring a health-conscious and ethical shopper of the merits of a ‘clean’ plant-based, botanical product.

The table below lists some examples of endangered plants, some critically (which all have useful purposes for humans). This is not a comprehensive list.

A truly sustainable market must ensure the preservation and protection of the land, people, community and culture from which the plant(s) were extracted. Traditional cultures provide much-needed income especially for poorer communities. Thus, any sourcing of ingredients must be sensitive to those local issues despite the aggressive worldwide scramble for natural resources by helping people of diverse cultures to sustain themselves. Moreover, sustainability should also include the initiation and implementation of community development programmes that promote the concept of benefit sharing. This can simply be the sharing of profits with local people who were part of the success such as those who cultivated and harvested a plant or an ingredient from a plant. Alternatively, it could be donation to community development projects or works as defined and valued by the local people such as rebuilding schools, establishing sanitary facilities or providing educational resources, materials and supplies.

True sustainability means advancing the prospects of local communities that have been instrumental in the success of the product enabling them to gain market access. However, many companies are reticent about publicising their sources as they are perennially fearful of competition. But sustainability should not be held back by this or by malpractice, dishonesty or skulduggery for that matter. If there is a genuine care for the planet and quality of life for all, as driven by the market end-users, then we should all promote sustainability at all levels from sourcing, manufacturing and consumption.

As a consumer, there are things one can do to ensure sustainability. This can include checks on suppliers regarding:

  • procurement (how and where they acquire their materials)
  • sourcing from sustainable origins (assuming transparency by the company)
  • traceability (of their ingredients and packaging)

Additionally, customers can look out for sustainability logos which can give assurances that such checks on suppliers are carried out by independent bodies. This would be a good starting point and some examples of logos are given below:

Why stop at ingredients? Sustainable packaging is just as important especially if the company markets itself on this principle. So selecting the right material is crucial given that in recent years there has been increased plastic usage and a high commercial footprint. To be sustainable, packaging material has to be at least readily available and not detrimental to the natural environment. There are alternative choices to plastic that are not only eco-friendly but also high quality for both solid and liquid substances. Being sustainable sometimes means it is derived from naturally occurring plants or creatures, sometime not. The use of these alternative materials is a great strategy to support the global agenda in decreasing plastic waste. Here are the contenders:

  1. Green Polyethylene (PE) This material is made by first taking ethanol from the sugarcane and dehydrating it so that it becomes ethylene. It is then converted into green polyethylene or PET at a polymerisation plant.
  • Post-Consumer Regrind (PCR) These recycled plastic products help to save energy and reduce the use of materials. Manufacturing new plastics becomes less necessary when existing plastics can be recycled and used again.
  • Biodegradable Products that will naturally break down in the same manner as a compostable material can be useful sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. The primary concern with plastics is that they take hundreds of years to break down, contaminating the environment. The biodegradable material can perform the same functions as traditional plastics but degrades over a much shorter time span.
  • Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) This compostable polymer is created from renewable sources, including corn starch. Research into how this material can be used is ongoing, and there are some limitations to its uses.
  • Nano-cellulose Synthetically made from plant cell walls using the latest technology devised to consider alternatives to plastic. It is generally produced from wood pulp though it can also be prepared from any plant material. It can be made into foams, for strengthening parts and as coatings. It is made using bacteria which may not sit comfortably with vegans or vegetarians.
  • Bio-engineered Solutions Sources can include algae, fungi or bacteria. This may not sit well with those who oppose the use of any life form other than plants either because they are vegan or vegetarian or indeed being compatible with their ethical principles.

In summary, we can all do something to limit our damage on the environment. It is good to see that consumers are looking for products that have less impact on the environment and manufacturers in the beauty industry are responding to this need. These are all positive indications.  Encouragingly, there are more ‘eco-friendly’ products on the market than ever before which gives consumers much choice. Although there are stringent guidelines and standards established by the relevant regulatory agencies for skincare products to be categorised as natural or organic, there isn’t much harmonisation between them. Equally, formulating natural and organic skincare products is a significant challenge to guarantee stability, safety and efficiency. It therefore falls on individual manufacturers to adhere to the principles of sustainability as much as it is for consumers to check their credentials and trust the logos emblazoned on their products. We can still enjoy the seemingly limitless bounties of planet Earth and what Mother Nature has so abundantly bestowed upon us but we all need to play a part in ensuring continuity of these highly desirable, prized natural resources.

Medical Writer, Health Consultant & Lecturer

Yaso Shan is a registered member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP), a leading UK professional body for qualified and practising members of western herbal medicine who began her career as a Lecturer in the Health Sciences, specialising in the biomedical sciences, physiology, pathology, infection and the principles governing conventional medical treatments. Her interest is in natural therapies, particularly plant remedies, stems from her own cultural perspective together with the fundamental belief that enabling the body to heal itself lies at the heart of all effective therapies. She is also a member of the Royal Society of Biology (RSB)

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