Sustainability In Beauty: Your Complete Guide to Carbon-Neutral Skincare


Sustainability in beauty? And what exactly is carbon-neutral beauty? As brands make efforts to address consumer concerns about the environment, these are terms you’ll see a lot more of in the near future. Here’s everything you need to know.

The clean beauty revolution is swiftly transforming the face of the beauty industry — and consumers are largely to thank. More than half of shoppers now prioritize sustainability when shopping for cosmetics, according to a study by eco-friendly hair care brand weDo/ Professional.

As a result, beauty products now feature terms like “clean,” “organic,” and “natural.” But there’s a new green beauty movement that’s making waves in the space. Called carbon-neutral beauty, it’s looking to tackle one of the industry’s ugliest secrets: carbon waste.

The ugly side of the beauty industry

The beauty industry is booming. In 2021, the sector surpassed $511 billion globally — and it’s only getting bigger. By 2027, the cosmetics market is expected to be worth more than $784 billion, according to e-commerce growth agency Common Thread Collective. And while your fave shade of lipstick may look good on you—it might not be good for the planet.

Similar to other industries, the beauty sector contributes to the escalating carbon emissions making their way into the atmosphere each year. Responsible for destroying the ozone layer and fueling global warming, carbon dioxide is one of the most common — and dangerous — forms of air pollution. 

a woman with eyes closed
Photo courtesy Thien Dang

Take the beauty industry’s use of plastic packaging — which isn’t naturally biodegradable — for example. According to recycling company TerraCycle, the personal care and beauty industry produces 120 billion units of packaging each year around the world. If companies were to switch to refillable containers, the sector could cut its carbon emissions by 70 percent, reports the LCA Centre, a group that studies the environmental impact of packaging.

In addition to plastic use, the beauty industry relies on mined raw minerals and toxic chemicals, not to mention the transportation of products to store shelves — all of which have a large carbon footprint.

Enter carbon-neutral beauty. Unlike their unsustainable counterparts, carbon-neutral cosmetics products are made in a way that minimizes and offsets the number of carbon emissions emitted throughout the entirety of their life cycle, from their production down to their delivery. But is the concept truly green or just a greenwashing marketing ploy?

What is “sustainability”, anyway?

While there’s no official certification for “sustainability” it has come to mean a few things to many industries. In short, it’s not taking more than you’re giving back. It means avoiding the depletion of natural resources, but most often it means keeping your carbon output in check by taking steps to sequester carbon, either by offsets or reducing your overall energy use.

When it comes to beauty, sustainability can be addressed in all areas, from the ingredients themselves grown organically or without pesticides, for example. It can also mean how the product is formulated, how it’s packaged, and how it’s shipped.

woman in front of plants
Photo courtesy Taylor Heery

For example, the tattoo industry has begun to look at sustainability in recent years, with an increased focus on vegan inks and renewable energy. They also make use of stencil paper that is cruelty-free and great for all skin types. The ingredients of stencil paper are made up of plant cellulose and it is completely safe and non-toxic. Moreover, this paper can be composted after use which makes it extremely sustainable.

Sustainability can also mean whether or not the packaging is recyclable, refillable, or, even biodegradable.

It’s also important to remember that just because one area of a business is sustainable, it doesn’t mean everything it offers is. For example, what is sustainability in ingredients doing for the planet if that product is packaged in plastic?

Generally, the more a brand can tout certifications and is transparent about its entire value chain, the more sustainable it likely is.

The rise of carbon-neutral beauty

In its simplest form, the concept of carbon neutrality aims to ensure that the amount of carbon dioxide produced is equal to or less than the amount that’s being captured from the environment.

“[It] is about ensuring that the carbon dioxide we emit through our businesses, practises, or lifestyle is net zero and it can be applied to beauty brands, other businesses and even individuals,” said Lisa Sexton, founder of sustainable skincare brand Bolt Beauty, in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar

Courtesy Bolt Beauty

In addition to being vegan and cruelty-free, the U.K.-based brand carries a variety of carbon-neutral skincare products. From cleansers and moisturizers to serums, Bolt Beauty’s skincare products are contained in biodegradable capsules which are contained in compostable packaging.

So, how exactly does a beauty brand like Bolt Beauty achieve carbon neutrality? First, it must assess its carbon footprint. Carbon emissions must be calculated across the supply chain before companies can determine plans for neutralizing them — for example, by using biodegradable packaging and non-toxic ingredients.

“Anything that cannot be reduced must be ‘offset’, which is done through the purchase of ‘carbon credits’,” Sexton explained. “These are special instruments that can be purchased to counterbalance carbon dioxide emissions. The cost of them represents the amount it takes to remove an equivalent amount (normally 1 tonne) of carbon dioxide from the environment.”

Companies can then use the money obtained from carbon credits to fund various carbon-offset programs like tree planting programs, which help to balance out a company’s overall carbon footprint.

Brands embracing carbon-neutral beauty

Bolt Beauty isn’t the only brand that’s committed to reducing its carbon emissions. Founded in 2019, Climate Neutral, an organization that works to eliminate carbon emissions, has certified 291 brands for going net zero. In total, the companies have helped to offset more than one million tonnes of carbon.

In 2020, Estée Lauder revealed it had achieved net zero emissions by switching to 100 percent renewable energy. Other luxury brands like L’Oréal and Lancôme are working toward similar goals. In March 2021, Ethique — a vegan and cruelty-free beauty brand that makes plastic-free shampoo, conditioner, and face bars — became carbon negative, offsetting 120 percent of its emissions.

Courtesy Estée Lauder

Another prominent zero-waste and carbon-negative brand, London-based Neighbourhood Botanicals makes natural skin care products, including oil and foaming cleansers with compostable packaging and biodegradable refills. 

Other brands that have gone carbon neutral include vegan and cruelty-free brands Tropic Skincare and Highr Collective. The former is able to double offset all of its carbon emissions by partnering with environmental initiatives like replanting portions of the Amazon rainforest. The latter — which carries the world’s first carbon-neutral lipstick, according to the company — relies on clean energy and carbon offset programs. To date, the company has negated 43.1 metric tons of emissions — which equates to taking 9.2 cars off of roads for the entirety of a year.

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