A friend of mine was telling me about her search for a new natural mascara. “It’s vegan,” she said. “That doesn’t tell you anything,” I said.
To my mind, a vegan beauty product doesn’t clue you in on anything about it other than the obvious: that it’s animal-product free. A beauty product being marketed as vegan doesn’t tell you if it’s natural or petrochemical, clean, sustainable, or environmentally friendly, or whether it includes or excludes any known bioaccumulative and/or sensitizing ingredients.
But here’s the problem.
As a consumer, you think it does.
Veganism sprung from the food world and it is where the association still most commonly lands. Where it so often does mean natural, plant-based, sustainably sourced, and responsibly farmed ingredients. Veganism as a concept is intertwined and indistinguishable from ethical consumption.
For the purpose of clarity, practicing veganism is the avoidance of eating or consuming any material derived from animals, including meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as leather, fur, wool and lanolin, silk, pearls, all bees’ products (honey, propolis, beeswax et. al), and some glues (gelatine).
As a vegetarian for over 20 years, I’m in the know as to why I, and many of my friends, stopped eating meat and using animal products. I didn’t eat meat not because of the ethics of killing animals (though I won’t deny that was a consideration); I did it because the climatic implications of humanity’s consumption of meat are earth-shatteringly stratospheric in their impact.
One of the primary causes of climate change is agriculture, accounting for approximately 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions as well as contributing to 7 (out of just 9) planetary boundaries. While meat and dairy provide just 18% of the world’s calories, they occupy 83% of the world’s farmland, which contributes an eye-watering 60% to agriculture’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
For me, not eating meat was about the environment first, ethics second, and I know I’m not the only one who came to veganism this way (Disclaimer: I was a much better vegetarian than I was a vegan—though I did try!).
But to the crux of my thread—for a consumer, there is a subconscious presumption that veganism is natural, plant-based, and environmentally friendly. Because that is what being vegan is in practically every other domain except beauty.
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” wrote Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK.
Usurping the implied ethics of veganism for profit over sustainability is a worrying trend when our industry’s alternatives, often petrochemical, can be worse once chemical pollution and biodegradability (or lack thereof) is factored into the equation—a core criterion of the planetary boundaries.
It is also worth bearing in mind that beauty and personal care consumption is far less than food: an equivalent dietary portion of honey will provide several months’ worth of moisturization when blended into a skincare product.
Let me be clear, I’m not anti-vegan at all. I’ve worked with several brands where veganism is a core pillar of their brand proposition and, done responsibly, it absolutely can be. But there’s so much more to social purpose and sustainable brand development, and if that’s what you are relying on to sell your product? There’s something—important—missing from your message. And I’m a little tired of its overuse in being offered up as a main, and sometimes sole, USP.
Perhaps I am alone here, but I never really had a problem with sustainably sourced beeswax or honey in my mascara or lip balm (though I do think it’s a tad too comedogenic for leave-on skincare and will avoid it for that). I do have an ethical dilemma, however, with an entirely petrochemical formula including known bioaccumulative materials such as silicones or microplastics marketing itself as vegan and expecting kudos for it, or to acquire the “conscious consumer” as a result.
My point to you? Nothing really changed when vegan beauty became a “thing.” It was a seemingly natural-enough trend ripe for the picking by big business jumping on board for their own benefit, pulling on the compassionate heartstrings of Gen Z and the Millennials (those genuine demanders of transparency and authenticity), without having to do a thing to actually improve the ethical or ecological impact of beauty and personal care products.
This is exactly the type of greenwashing we as an industry should strive against. It dilutes the very progress we are trying to achieve as a whole regarding sustainability and transparency.
So next time, when someone tells you their brand or product is vegan? Please ask, “And what else?”
And that, is how the beauty industry co-opted the vegan movement.
Photo: Ivana Milakovic via Unsplash