What does sustainable (or eco-friendly) beauty mean?

In a world where everyone is trying to go more "green", it seems like we are hearing more and more about “sustainable” beauty products. However, many of us do not really understand what it means.

A product does not have to fulfil any official requirements to be classified as sustainable, at least not from a legal point of view.

Actually, “eco-friendly” can mean a lot of things. For example, it can mean that a company uses packaging made from recycled materials, or that a company makes a specific effort to reduce waste and pollution during their manufacturing activities.

Anyway, an eco-friendly company is making an effort, in some way, to produce their goods in a manner that does not hurt the environment. In this regards, “sustainability” could be referred to:

Sourcing of raw materials: recently simple components and non-invasive procedures has been popular in the cosmetics industry. It is why there is still an increasing interest in raw materials obtained directly from nature or produced in a eco-friendly way.
Sustainable vs natural: a sustainably harvested ingredient won’t be disruptive to its surrounding ecosystems and will be harvested in a way that will ultimately help serve the communities that are doing the harvesting. So, sustainable is the synonym of “green” and refers to manufacturing processing. Natural and Organic ingredients are harvested by agriculture with the lack of synthetic ingredients.
A natural cosmetic product should not contain synthetic substances; although some certifying organizations consider the product to be natural if it contains a very low percentage of synthetic substances. For the production of natural cosmetics, companies shall not use, for example, mineral oils, paraffins, petrolatum, synthetic dyes, synthetic fragrances, synthetic preservatives, i.e. parabens or formaldehydes, as well as propylene glycol (PPG), silicones, BHT, SLS and SLES.

Production: Cosmetics manufacturers are striving to minimise any negative impact on the environment, economy and society in general caused by the manufacturing processes. Transforming materials into products requires, in fact, complex manufacturing systems and uses resources such as energy, water and materials (generates carbon dioxide emissions, uses water and land, produces waste products).

Eco-frienldy Packaging: In the last years, many natural and organic brands have redesigned traditional cosmetic products to drastically reduce or completely avoid plastic packaging, for example, prohibiting the use of halogenated plastics and promoting recyclable and renewable materials for primary and secondary packaging, as well as supporting the reduction of packaging whenever possible.

Biodegradability of the final product is a key factor increasingly improved in the last few years in cosmetics to contribute to the protection of the environment. Innovation and new formulation processes have made it possible to find alternatives to the use of certain substances traditionally used. For example microplastics, water-insoluble plastic particles (smaller than 5 mm) can easily pass through the filters of water treatment plants and end up in the sea.

So, from the final consumer point of view, sure of buying a product safe for the environment, people often feel attracted by the wrong label, the one that actually defines only one aspect of a huge matter: some ingredient used to prepare the cosmetic. And that is not enough. What makes the difference is the entire product life. Everything revolves around two terms that are often wrongly given as synonyms: naturalness and sustainability.