Before starting, I do intentionally play on the double meaning of « clean » as it has become the latest IT word in the beauty nomenclature. I also took the opportunity to pay homage to Hilary Duff’s hit song « come clean » which I still jam to. (#noshame). After an obscure and chaotic 2020, and an unsettling 2021, I’ve longed for 2022 to be the year of clarity (a work in progress), hoping this extensive post will give a better idea of where I stand today. The past few years gave me time to reflect, question, doubt, research, and grow. Yet, this post has been a long time coming. I hesitated for a long time writing down my thoughts on the challenges linked to « green » blogging. It’s a draft that I started in 2019 but kept postponing, unaware that I’d also feel the need in 2022 to address the grand shift in the green and sustainable beauty industry.
Quick disclaimer: this post reflects my sentiment and experience. ‘The world is my representation’, to quote Schopenhauer. Just like the perception of colors may differ from one person to another (do you remember #thedress in 2015 which went viral?) so is my experience of the green beauty/sustainable world. This is my opinion. There’s an unfortunate tendency to invalidate people’s experiences to avoid any discussion and debates, I don’t expect to reach a consensus here, I know others feel completely different and that’s also part of the human experience. One could read this post and feel foreign to it, but to me, writing this is cathartic. I want that this platform continues to be an open and benevolent environment for healthy discussions and debates. I’ll be using green/eco-conscious/ethical as synonyms quite liberally throughout the post but ideally, I’d have to write another post on the terminology.
THE GREEN GENESIS
I started my green journey 13 years ago, at a time when you could barely list 10 green makeup brands; when we were « stuck » with a mere handful of skincare brands, and when repeating outfits would induce mockeries and shame. I remember how tiny organic stores were the only shops carrying a couple of Dr. Hauschka or Weleda products.
Back then, I felt quite lonely because no one around me shared the same interest and as I embarked on this journey towards a more mindful lifestyle, I wanted to connect with people with a similar passion. That’s how Smells like a Green Spirit came later to fruition in 2013 when there were a smaller amount of blogs on green beauty, wellness, and sustainability compared to now. In the early 2010s, popular magazines and retailers were ignoring green companies and very few sources were available to decode ingredients or give insights on cosmetic formulation. EWG was one of the few « resources » when it came to doing some ingredient decoding work. It is certainly not an authority on that matter, nevertheless, it was better than nothing for someone embarking on this new journey.
Terms such as « chemical-free » « pure » and « all-natural » were used liberally and while they are quite inaccurate, the audience for green beauty was so reduced that it was not necessary to feel triggered about it, not to mention that the intentions behind this sub-beauty movement were to offer an alternative vision of beauty, a more simple, authentic, and holistic approach to skincare and rituals. While my entourage swore by MAC and L’Oreal, and planned trips to Sephora, I’d be in my little bubble giddying over this little indie lipstick company called ILIA which at that time, only had a few lip conditioners and lipsticks or swoon over the little colorful glass pots from a company called RMS (names that are now familiar to most beauty lovers, whether they care about green beauty or not). I found my dream foundation thanks to Gressa’s serum foundation which was the only one working for my acne-prone skin. Those are just a few examples.
Nobody shared my excitement and enthusiasm for green products; I’d even be mocked for it because it was not cool and trendy at the time. This sparked the idea to create a blog. My decision to start Smells like a Green Spirit was then solidified after coming across a couple of green beauty blogs. When I joined the green community (which was predominantly active on blogging platforms and Twitter) it was a joyous moment for me. Connecting with people from all over the world and bonding over our love for balms, oils, and mineral makeup was truly special. I was always looking forward to logging into my social media and chatting with fellow green enthusiasts. I still have close relationships with many of these people to this day. This is the most meaningful gift of this adventure: the connections, friendships, and camaraderie.
During those early years, the Internet remained a warm and benevolent space, the community kept growing, gathering more curious, non-judgemental, kind, and free-thinking people who looked for more simplicity in their beauty rituals and gave more attention to what they would put on their skin. People who were also looking to implement this dedication to other aspects of their lives. As the number of people grew, so did the amount of brands, and retailers centered around slow beauty and mindful living. More natural fairs and events started to pop up. The OG green enthusiasts will remember the excitement over A Night For Green Beauty instigated by the marvelous La Bella Figura. The days of struggling to find a hot fuchsia lipstick with a good ingredient list or a coconut-oil-free cleanser were gone, green beauty became increasingly more accessible and visible for our greatest joy. Long gone were the days, when indie brands could be mostly found via Etsy.
It was thrilling to discover the latest launches and upcoming new brands and stores that were working to fill in a gap in an industry that was so rigid, formatted and completely disregarding the potential health concerns linked to certain components commonly found in cosmetics. I’d take such love in reporting this evolution and highlighting green and eco-friendly brands. Working on the blog was not my professional activity, but I took it seriously because I was passionate about it. It would be very time-consuming and while it was not lucrative in the slightest, the community I was part of made it worth it. The green movement was free and spontaneous, there was no pressure for perfection and everyone was welcome to join and bring their unique perspective. It was like a cocoon, a warm environment that would allow you to grow and blossom on your terms because there were no diktats around it. I remember hiding behind an avatar when I first launched my blog, but thanks to the sweet encouragement from fellow green bloggers and readers, I gained enough confidence to put myself out there.
THE LATE 2010’s: THE MUTATION OF THE GREEN BEAUTY MOVEMENT
The wind of change was right around the corner when we reached the late 2010s.
In the meantime, I’ve had to take a few blogging hiatus to tackle mental and physical issues and every time I came back, I’d feel a change in the atmosphere, but I could not yet pinpoint exactly what was different. Retrospectively, it was the slow but unstoppable mutation of this niche movement towards something more « mainstream ». It was inevitable. Initially, it appeared to be good news. There was this (perhaps naive) sentiment that the industry would « clean up its act » and that the green brands would thrive and lead the way because their influence was increasing as you’ll see a bit further in the article.
In parallel, my language also evolved, I found myself removing the words « chemical-free » « toxic-free » and « all-natural » from my vocabulary whilst searching and doing my best to go for more nuanced and detailed terms. Just like those awkward teenage years, my early blogging days were sometimes punctuated with assumptions, and overly assertive points (coconut oil is not the solver to all problems) BUT the intention to do good was always there. I don’t regret this phase, you do need to start somewhere. My unquenchable thirst for knowledge is my Northern star, and the more I learn, the more I have questions and the more I adjust.
As the movement progressed and started getting noticed by a larger amount of people, beauty editors of big magazines began taking note of green brands, especially those on the high-end spectrum. Eco-luxe brands were finally getting a spot in glossy magazines. However, many editors and journalists would make the rookie mistake of regurgitating the old vocabulary « chemical-free » and « all-natural » which ultimately caused a disservice to small, indie brands who would be given the full blame for the rise of « greenwashing » (this will be addressed further down). It was recurrent to find magazine articles written in a presumptuous tone, borderline arrogant with peremptory titles such as « Green makeup product that surprisingly works» or « green beauty is not as effective but we found some products that are », thus perpetuating the old prejudice that green beauty brands were inherently under-performing, unprofessional, new-age and unsophisticated. Those same editors and journalists are now swearing by « clean beauty » and the majority of their beauty cabinet is also described as such. Funny how life works.
The undeniable influence of green beauty in the beauty industry
Back when I started this journey, the latest skincare discourse in the beauty industry was that oils had to be avoided for acne-prone, and blemished skin. Foaming cleansers, micellar waters and heavily-stripping products were recommended, chemical/physical sunscreens were the only acceptable options, aluminum-based deodorants were everywhere, makeup foundations with with clogging ingredients were predominant, and the list goes on.
So when I dove into green beauty and started seeing face oils for acne skin, cleansing balms to remove makeup, and lightweight serum foundations, it was startling, to say the least, because it went against anything that we were told in glossy magazines and recommended by the current IT dermatologists. Ironically, the then-demonized face oils have been successively released by most cosmetics brands today. The same applies to cleansing balms. Companies known for their chemical/physical sunscreens are now coming up with mineral versions. Serum foundations are everywhere and « infused with botanical extracts ». Chanel, Dior, Guerlain, and most luxe brands have all reformulated their products and they do use the claim « 95% of natural ingredients », which has been so heavily decried by some when there were green beauty companies that would do it. But no one is pointing fingers at the big players in the industry of course…
One cannot deny that indie green beauty brands did have a major influence; they were able to set the tone, and go against the beauty diktats to come with innovative, skin-friendly formulas, loaded with botanicals extracts – after decades of being frowned upon and looked down on.
« If you can’t beat them, join them »: Big Corp just joined the « green » chat.
As the demand for more naturally-derived ingredients and more transparency in cosmetics grew, big corporations and investment funds were certainly not going to sleep on that given that every market prediction was sharing that « natural cosmetics » would only grow stronger. And when the dragon wakes up, you can hear it.
In December 2017, Schmidt’s deodorant was acquired by Unilever which created a mini earthquake within the green community. An independent, family-owned business was bought by one of the biggest corporations existing in the market. Like my fellow green beauty lovers, I enjoyed their deodorants combining an impeccable formula with delightful aromas. Upon hearing the news, I felt an initial disappointment, but before letting disappointment turn into outrage, I asked myself the following question: if I was given a substantial amount of money, would I refuse it? The truth is that I could not give you an answer. I have a sister with a disability, my parents are not getting younger, I am not married and I am self-employed. If I have the slightest opportunity to put my family out of any financial trouble, I’d take it without a single question. So I am not judging Schmidt’s decision or any indie brand actively looking to be acquired by big groups and investors; they have their reason. But I have no faith in Unilever or any large conglomerates. They have ulterior motives and they are not motivated by a genuine desire to create a kinder and healthier world. This event did however lead me to a decision: I’d simply move on. Instead of buying Schmidt, I’ll buy from other family-owned/indie deodorant brands, because other brands are creating marvelous products and need our support.
In the last two years, the number of acquisitions of indie brands has grown exponentially by groups such as P&G, Unilever, L’Oreal, LVMH, Kendo, E.L.F group, SC Johnson, Carlyle Group, Amyris, Coty, L’Occitane, Amore Pacific, Shiseido, Courtin-Clarins, just to name a few. RMS, ILIA Beauty, Tata Harper, Pai Skincare, W3ll People, Pacifica, Grown Alchemist, Bite Beauty, Beautycounter, Farmacy, Officine Universelle Buly, Youth to the People, Supergoop, Galinée, Beekman 1802, Biossance, Tula, Drunk Elephant, Conscious Chemist, Coola are just some of the most recent brands that are no longer indie. The acquisition of Bite Beauty in 2014 by Kendo (an LVMH-owned beauty incubator) did not bring them much luck as they recently announced brand closure after 10 years of existence. Kendo holds in its portfolio, Fenty Beauty, KVD, and Ole Henricksen, so they know how to boost a company. One can ask the question if, in the long-term, those acquisitions are not a way to sabotage from within the rising cruelty-free/clean movement. I hold no answer to that. Of course, I don’t seek to generalize, and perhaps some of these investors do have good intentions. Time will tell. This phenomenon keeps accelerating and 2022 is proof of that with a record of acquisition. The late 2010’s also coincided with large retailers (both physical and online stores) incorporating a « green/natural » section. Sephora was probably the most notable one. It did not go unnoticed and when I found out about it, I felt the need to launch a blog series highlighting indie green beauty stores that deserve praise and support for they were the risk-takers, the dreamers, the pioneers in introducing green beauty brands to a larger scale of consumers.
Below is the introduction I wrote a few years ago to kickstart this blog series which to this day, still reflects my sentiment:
2017 was a breakthrough year for green beauty: a rising number of green beauty brands reached out “mainstream” beauty market, getting featured in established magazines and becoming supported by famous YouTube skincare gurus. It is not uncommon to see some of our favorite eco-brands standing on top beauty shelves now. Subsequently, after witnessing the growing demand for organic beauty, conventional beauty stores (both in online and brick-and-mortar form) started adding a “natural” section or at least stocked up on green superstar brands. While this is excellent news for organic/green beauty entrepreneurs and formulators (and I’m rooting for all of them) – it also raised a new issue, namely the difficulty for specialized organic shops to compete against the big retail monsters. How can a family-owned business stand up to a Sephora, a Space NK, a Neiman Marcus, a Cult Beauty, Urban Outfitters, an Asos, an Anthropologie, a Free People, or a Feel Unique? Could this be a David vs Goliath situation though? Only time will tell. When I see in my newsletter a highly popular beauty UK web store announcing stocking Tata Harper and proclaiming themselves as the pioneers in discovering this brand, I am appalled. Simply because Content Beauty (aka green heaven on Earth – see my post) has been stocking TH years before you saw those green bottles in every skincare shelfie. That is just one example, I could give you a dozen more. What makes me the most uneasy is the dissolution of green beauty stores. Is it a direct consequence of the growing interest of conventional stores in green beauty? I do not have the answer, as things are not black and white, yet I can’t help but think that in certain cases, it has ramifications.
This is bittersweet and the situation is quite complex. Organic/green formulators should be able to develop freely and get the success they deserve, which is already not an easy task since we have not shifted to an entire green cosmetics industry. While the “hippie” etiquette is slowly getting detached from organic cosmetics, the leverage that big corporations, such as l’Oreal, Unilever, or Estee Lauder, possess is still unparalleled in the beauty industry, so every time a genuine eco brand can rise is reason to celebrate. Yet, as I see the beauty industry give more significance to eco and indie beauty, I hope that it will only elevate the status of eco/organic stores and not bring them down. When I first started my green journey almost a decade ago, I could barely find any products, anywhere near I lived. It is only thanks to the pioneer eco stores that I’ve been able to fulfill my beauty needs. Year after year, more online specialized stores sprouted and today, I can shop for all my favorite green beauty brands in the comfort of my own home. To this day, eco stores are mostly found on the internet, but brick-and-mortar stores developing: Content, Credo, Follain, The Detox Market, and more recently, Amazingy, are just a couple of examples. The competition is hard. Large retailers have the marketing teams, the budget, the popularity, the establishment, and the network. How can a niche shop compete? Call me naive, but I then came to find something that organic/eco stores have rooted in them and that others lack. A soul. Behind every eco-online store, there’s a face and a story. A personal journey that turns into a collective human project. They started – not to jump on a trend – but to make a positive impact and pledge to offer products that are good for their customers and the planet.
Why also shop in specialized/niche boutiques?
- First and foremost, the service and expertise of eco stores are invaluable (and even more so when you start your green journey). The shopping experience feels very special.
- The curation. The amount of research done before stocking a brand to see if it meets organic/eco beauty standards is tremendous and every eco owner will attest to it. Also, every single product is either tested by the founder and/or some of their close team/family members. As opposed to eco stores, conventional stores do not necessarily (exceptions apply) have curators or buyers with a solid background and insight into green beauty. A conventional store won’t bother doing that amount of work. I’ve seen some of their “natural” section include brands known for their blatant greenwashing, such as Origins, Nivea, The Body Shop, and more.
- The proximity. It is not uncommon for customers to get in touch directly with the founder(s). Your opinion is thus valued and be assured that every little feedback is highly appreciated.
Of course, I want by no means to bash any business here, that is not the point and I’m not saying that conventional stores should stop going after green brands. I simply hope we can come to find a balance, one that enables organic/green brands to grow and succeed but also allow specialized eco stores to flourish and grow in their rights as well. You may say that such is business, with the survival of the fittest…but to me, organic/green beauty struck me as revolving around defying the odds and living according to your terms.
Today in 2022, I am quite disheartened to report that a significant amount of specialized niche stores (including pioneers with over 15 years of existence) closed down. The beauty industry is ruthless, and more than ever, the state and survival of the indie business are challenged.
A curious reversal of values, and transfer of legitimacy and influence.
I can’t help but think of this phrase « May we get what want, not what we deserve » uttered by Smurf, the cold-blooded matriarch in the TV show Animal Kingdom. A phrase that could also be said by companies such as Sephora or Ulta. Clean beauty has permitted Sephora and co. to gain and reap the benefits of the valiant, visionary, and humongous work that all the niche and indie retailers and stores started years, even decades before.
Sephora’s «clean » stamp of approval holds barely any value: a simple browse through that « clean » section, brings you to Laura Mercier, Dior, Milk, and a plethora of other brands. None of them are remotely close to what green beauty stood for in the first place. It is thanks to the pioneering shops such as Spirit Beauty Lounge in NYC (which unfortunately closed down a few years ago), Content Beauty in the UK, Mademoiselle Bio and Ecocentric in France, Green Soul Cosmetics in Italy, and e-stores such as Ecco Verde, Naturisimo, LoveLula (now closed), Najoba (closed), Amazingy in Germany, Reina Organics in the Netherlands (closed), The Green Jungle Beauty shop, and the list goes on. that we could get a taste of the extraordinary indie beauty gems.
Today the big winners are Sephora, Ulta, Target, Walmart, Selfridges, Galeries Lafayettes, Printemps, Farfetch, Neiman Marcus, and co. All those massive retail chains and department stores. Reina Organics introduced Josh Rosebrook, Mahalo, Axiology, and La Bella Figura to EU customers. Rayna, the founder of the e-shop used to wrap every order in royal blue paper, adorned with a black ribbon, never failing to make her customer feel special. That is a unique shopping experience. Content Beauty in Marylebone had all the dreamiest brands. Tata Harper, Lina Hanson, May Lindstrom, and the list goes on. Did you think Cult Beauty discovered May Lindstrom? No. Content Beauty in the UK and the amazing Imelda Burke curated exceptional brands before you could find them in every glossy magazine and celebrity beauty shelf. Those are just a few examples, I could go on for hours about the work that niche shops did.
The pandemic did not help. It only accelerated the mutation and widened the gap between indie companies and big corporations.
Following the « clean beauty offensive » from those big retail chains, some organic/eco beauty shops have also been led to make very difficult decisions: removing niche brands from their catalog to leave space for brands with proper notoriety (more fame = more sales) to keep their company afloat, because, at the end of the day, it’s about livelihood for the independent companies. Real people, who have families to care for, are left facing huge chains and companies that have decided to come for their work. Both indie brands and shops are in a delicate and challenging position right now, and they need our support more than ever. Some have fully gone online, removing physical stores to reduce additional costs.
FROM GREEN TO CLEAN
As the movement became more mainstream, and big corporations and large retailers jumped on the bandwagon, a new word started gaining momentum: « clean beauty ».
There have been various debates on the symbolism behind this term. Why did it shift from words such as green, all-natural, organic, or conscious to « clean »? What does « clean » mean? (insert Miley Cyrus meme here) . Clean as in, opposed to dirty? What is dirty beauty? The word has very little substance and the looser the word, the more confusion and greenwashing (or maybe we should say cleanwashing?) it provokes. Since « clean » has dethroned every previous appellation, you’d think that the term would suffice, but to my astonishment, these are words that I have recently seen floating around :
« cleaner-than-clean » « clean-ical » « ultra – clean » « superclean » « Mega clean ». It looks like we’re just months away from « Giga clean » and « Super duper clean » 😉
I’ve never been a fan of the term « clean » in the first place; I admit that I held on to “green beauty” like a dog to his treat haha. Alas, I know it’s of no use because “clean” is here to stay and that’s the way it is today. The direction of the train has changed, so I get off and reflect to see where I am headed next. I am fully aware that « green » also holds very little significance, but I favored it because it feels more evocative of plants and their derived ingredients. I’ll explain further what « green beauty » meant to me. Just like the term « fragrance » in cosmetics, « clean » is a catchall term. You can fit anything in there now. Clean is the point where green/eco beauty and mainstream ended up meeting each other; it has become a space of compromises, but only for the niche green beauty brands. Clean is the dilution of the green movement. The philosophy behind the movement has been removed and today it’s become a huge conundrum. A « paraben-free » brand can be put in the clean category now, even if that brand contains a list of controversial ingredients that you’d have never seen in a green beauty brand before.
Clean beauty is what now allows this stream of influencers and celebrity brands to jump on the cosmetics bandwagon. There’s a reason we see today an avalanche of celebrity ventures now and not 15 years ago. Tiktokers, influencers, and celebrities release brands and label them ‘sustainable and clean’ when they have not once expressed any interest or shown any credentials in those topics.
In 2022, « clean » is just an excuse to sell more. We have never seen such a vast emergence of beauty brands and in parallel, everyone labels themselves as clean and sustainable. Whilst the green beauty movement made me feel « at home », the clean beauty feels regressive, deterring from authenticity, and is ferociously focused on selling more. The clean beauty industry has become a race for releases and relevancy, where you need to keep bringing up new products to stay popular in the game. Brands keep coming up with new launches, whilst the intention behind the green beauty movement was to be conscious of releases. It was focused on filling gaps, not releasing products that already exist. Today the market feels saturated with pointless and « seen-before » launches. So much deja-vu. Some gaps can still be filled, but I am referring to generic launches (ex. how many more cream blushes with the same formulas and tints need to be released?)
In addition to that, « clean » has been formatting brands. I have witnessed brands go through total revamps, not necessarily for sustainability purposes, but to fit this « clean aesthetic » that is so constricted and impersonal. The amount of makeup brands with beige/neutral packaging or clear/plastic is staggering. It’s so easy to get brand names mixed up as many brands look and sound eerily similar today. Identities are being erased, we have fewer unique products and concepts. Clean beauty generated a homogenization: same lingo, same marketing, same visuals, same PR kits, same packaging, same formulas, same type of products, same models, same poses, same websites, same ads. What startles me the most is that clean beauty as marketed today, utilizes the same codes, we in the green beauty sphere were trying to detach from. It’s almost as if launching a clean brand today had a mathematical formula attached to it because it’s so formatted and rigid. Originality, diversity, and intuition do not seem to thrive as much in clean beauty as they did in green beauty.
The hyper-focus seems back to the messenger and not so much the message. We see an effort being put into how a brand is presented, but now what the brand embodies. When I see that even established skincare companies do campaigns and tutorials with models applying droppers straight to the face, I wince. They know that this is not a correct and sanitary way to apply a serum or oil, but since that technique is all over TikTok and IG, they do it because it is the latest trend. (I wrote for a publication on how to apply serum and oil – here)
I thought we would have more educational content provided with the prominence of clean beauty launches, but I was misled because not all clean companies care about transparency and bringing valuable information to their customers. Naya is an indie skincare brand and if you browse the website, you’ll find outstanding resources and educational tools. The website is packed with information useful to consumers. It’s the kind of effort and dedication that you don’t see in viral and hyped-up brands in the clean space today. A movement is no longer a movement once it becomes a corporation. Clean beauty is today a corporation. Clean beauty is so loaded with paradoxes, that it has become a challenging task to even start giving it a proper definition. As the brilliant Neige, from Green Beauty Directory shared with me in a conversation we had: « clean beauty is the new Bitcoin these days. » I think this sums it up well.
« No amount of (clean) makeup can mask an ugly heart »
Minus the term in a bracket, those words of wisdom belong to the late MUA Kevin Aucoin. What started as a benevolent, welcoming movement has turned into a ruthless business. The clean beauty market is extremely competitive, capitalizing on « sustainability » « inclusion » « self-love » « ethics » and « diversity » which sadly seem to have become buzzwords. When you start digging deeper, you realize that only a minority genuinely take those words at heart and are fully committed to those values.
Not a lot of sisterhood (another buzzword) either in this ultra-competitive space. You find beauty vultures looking to use formulas from smaller brands/niche brands or waiting for them to close down. Bigger companies that out of inspiration, and with no genuine passion, end up reusing entire concepts of smaller competitors. There is a highly notorious beauty company founded by a high-profile woman who released a clean » line and ripped off the formulas of an OG green beauty cosmetics line. And it’s the former who is now being retailed and sold everywhere. Formulations being copied, brand looks and names being ripped off, slandering campaigns, online feuds, calls for canceling x and y, bullying campaigns over social media, threats of big skin influencers on small green brands… should we pitch « The Real Housewives of the beauty industry? »
OG green beauty brands and pioneers have paved the way, but many ended up being blatantly copied, and today they don’t receive the proper recognition and loyalty they deserve. Those who have the connections (as in fame) now happen to be in a much more favorable position than those who have excellent products and a real vision associated with their brand.
In his speech, during the Fashion Group International award ceremony in 2015, the luminous Alber Elbaz said: “We designers, we started as couturiers, asking: ‘What do women want? What do women need? What can I do for a woman to make her life better and easier? How can I make a woman more beautiful?’. And now, we have to become image-makers, creating a buzz, making sure that it looks good in the pictures. The screen has to scream, baby. That’s the rule. Loudness is the new cool, and not only in fashion, you know. I prefer whispering”. I find this quote accurate in our IG and TikTok-crazed society where indie brands to keep up with Gen Z, need to triple down on efforts, dedicating a lot of time to make « buzz-worthy visuals and videos » when that time could be spent on other aspects of their business.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the biggest greenwasher of them all?
Since clean beauty is a massive blur, all the greenwashers have struck gold by joining this clean beauty corporation. There is so much marketing spent on trying to appear green instead of providing change.
Grazia, Marie Claire, Elle, and Vogue still use in 2022 « chemical-free » which out of all words, is the most pointless; the same applies to YSL Beauty and other major big brands, but surprisingly, the full blame is directed towards indie brands, pointed out as the perpetrators of greenwashing or fear-mongering as if they had the platform and influence of the aforementioned brands and companies. The double standard and power imbalance are extremely uncomfortable to witness and not fair.
The fight against greenwashing will only be impactful when pressure on big groups like L’Oréal and Unilever grows stronger and steadier. These are the ones who should be held accountable for they are mega consortiums and hold tremendous influence. Small and medium businesses are not given the support and tools (same for individuals) to solve the current environmental issues, The responsibility lies with governments, institutions, and the approx. 100 companies that are causing over 70% of global GHG emissions. Yet, it’s independent brands and self-employed entrepreneurs that are getting more pressure with added taxes, restrictions, and absurd political measures currently implemented. Elle Magazine ironically launched Green Star awards to « highlight eco-friendly companies » which ends up in praising Shellwork and Procter & Gamble’s latest « sustainable » projects. It is utterly cynical.
In addition to that double standard, I see a lot of condescendence in the wellness and beauty space: a detachment from reality, with celebrities being entitled to pass for authority in the beauty and wellness industry. Fame does not equal legitimacy. Humility and respect seem to be completely foregone.
I struggle to conceive this industry as an authentic space :
- When the infamous Kardashians have become « clean » authorities and steal independent businesses’ formulas and products.
- When Goop built a part of its business with blatant cultural appropriation (such as Ayurvedic and TCM healing modalities) and has turned beauty and wellness into a highly elitist club, where health is somehow strictly tied to costly procedures and spaces. Note: I’ll always be happy for the indie companies I know, who rejoice over being on Goop’s radar if it genuinely helps them grow and sustain their work. Both sentiments are not mutually exclusive.
- When Allure, Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and co. continue to highlight and promote twisted beauty standards, whilst also going after every little new trend, stripped from journalistic research and work.
- When celebrities or big influencers launch supplements and cosmetics, taking business opportunities and customers from independent brands that have been working consciously and diligently, thus stripping them from their main income.
- When it’s more about following every TikTok trend instead of creating content in tune with your philosophy and brand.
- When the design, marketing, and follower base determine the actual worth of a company.
- When the look prevails over the philosophy, message and quality.
- When selling void in recyclable packaging is still labeled « sustainable and clean » whereas in reality, it remains wasteful.
- When we call for self-love and embrace our « flaws » and yet push for filters and fillers, even doing product demos using filters…
- When we release tons of new stuff and skip education, keeping key information away.
- When artisan brands that have been at the forefront of the green movement close down because they can no longer keep up with this ultra-competitive and disingenuous space where no distinction is being made between a fabricated, hyped-up brand and an earnest, thoughtful indie company.
I could go on, but the aforementioned points keep taking a bigger place. None of them make sense to me.
FEAR-MONGERING AND SHAMING ONLY CAUSE MORE DIVISION AND CONFUSION.
Fear-mongering is a lousy tactic because when you create a fantastic product, the product will speak for itself. When you have faith in your brand, you don’t need to bring in fear. Tapping into fear-based marketing makes little sense, but it’s not the only problem: tricking customers with wooly claims about the environment is also absurd and dishonest. I’d rather see a brand not even say a word about « their commitment to environmental issues » than a cynical and cunning brand, pretending to care about pollution and waste, and releasing new products almost on a monthly basis. No matter how « clean » they are. Same when H&M drops a conscious section of a « sustainability page » on its website. It is a farce.
The phrase « correlation does not mean causation » is often thrown around by parties that solely blame green beauty brands, but there’s no need to shame people who have chosen to look for alternatives. Some people don’t feel comfortable using certain ingredients, it’s their choice and should be respected, just like some don’t care the slightest about what they put on their skin.
Unilever recently recalled dry shampoos, including Dove, a champion in greenwashing. The latter keeps switching its packaging, adding more green hues, and playing around with the clean labeling. The recalled aerosol dry shampoos contain a high level of benzene, an amount that is potentially cancer-causing. Subsequently, you can’t blame consumers to lose trust and have doubts in the cosmetics industry when product recalls occur frequently. You can’t also blame green brands for fear-mongering as long as you have companies that do lie about the « safety » of their products.
Mold is a concern, but one can look or enquire about conservation systems that are not parabens. If alternatives exist, consumers should not be shamed for their choices, regardless of their decision. I have removed personally parabens, opted for different conservation systems, and respect the expiry dates. Hence why I don’t buy multiple products at once, to keep a reasonable amount of products and ensure to avoid letting anything go to waste. This is my opinion, it’s not out of fear, it’s a decision that I have made level-headedly. I have faith that this is best for me.
Meanwhile, some people who used to be all « green » end up loosening up their standards to use conventional products, get also heat and criticism. Regardless of what choice you make nowadays, you are being judged. I don’t subscribe to that attitude, I long for more benevolence and a place for healthy discussions. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves. If you don’t want to use fragrance. Fine. If you want to use fragrances. Fine too. People dealing with specific allergies do rely on brands disclosing full INCI lists (incl. free-from lists) but you also have brands that for instance, label themselves as EO-free, and instead of just leaving it as it is, end up demonizing essential oils to boost their sales. However, essential oils can have therapeutic and skin-enhancing properties when aptly used and premium-sourced.
It’s the lack of nuance that I find disconcerting because life is full of layers and systematically making every experience and decision into a polarising debate is stressful and toxic. Everyone is free to choose what’s best for them and it’s up to no one to impose their thinking over someone else. It’s deplorable to see consumers being infantilized, kept in the dark, deceived, and despised. Why does this industry (like many others actually) keep shaming consumers, guilt-tripping them, and having assertions over their personal choice?
SCIENCE AND ANCIENT HEALING TRADITIONS ARE NOT INCOMPATIBLE.
Nowadays, when you take an interest in holistic practices, you’re labeled as an « anti-science » and while there are always extremes, most people do not hold such antagonistic views.
Social media and our modern-day Doxa are thirsty for a Manichean view of the world, savagely removing any place for nuance. Science is not binary and we’re discovering new information every day while also realizing that certain previous theories and data are no longer relevant and even dismissed/inaccurate. It’s a never-ending and bumpy, journey of learning and unlearning. You have disagreements within the scientific community and FDA approval does not automatically and irrevocably confer total safety.
TCM, Ayurveda, and African healing traditions are rooted in science. I find it rather preposterous to dismiss centuries and centuries of knowledge being passed from generation to generation, just because we won’t find studies on « med pub ». Certain wellness habits from our ancestors which could qualify as « common sense » practices can now be scientifically proven to be effective. We start seeing studies acknowledging the medicinal properties of various botanicals. However, just because a Western Study has not been done on them does not negate their properties and value. Herbs have been used for centuries in foreign and indigenous cultures, and by our ancestors. But the phrase « not enough studies have been conducted » or « little to no studies back it up » does not always match the reality: just because there’s no scientific paper on something does not mean that it is ineffective per se. Seeing things from a Western prism should not invalidate how health, wellness, or science are considered in other parts of the world. In China, they have numerous studies on Chinese plants and their healing properties; those medicinal herbs are a key component of their health care system, unlike our Western world where the pharmaceutical industry is prevalent and drugs are favored. I am not here to say which is superior. I believe in a combination of both. What we do lack, however, is the knowledge and data to determine and assess possible reactions due to interactions between Chinese plants and allopathic drugs.
There’s also another aspect that is often overlooked: indie beauty brands do not have the funds necessary to get clinical studies to assess the efficacy of their products. Usually, this is a service that brands owned by investors or brands belonging to bigger groups’ portfolios can reach for. So this attack that indie beauty brands resort to gimmicky, and lofty marketing claims feels rather unfair. In cosmetics, there’s also a relationship of trust established between the brand and the buyer: established, famous brands can sell what they want now because they have grown a «cult following», but strangely enough, no one is calling them out. We all have different expectations and needs when it comes to beauty and health, there will never be a brand that federates us all.
That lack of nuance also remains prevalent on a much bigger level. Within the scientific community, you have diverging conclusions and opinions. Even when they have the same scientific background and went to the same schools. What makes us choose one side over the other then? What makes one opinion more « legitimate » than the other? I can’t help but make the parallel with what we all experienced those past two and half years. When some health professionals and members of the scientific communities questioned the sanitary policies installed by a handful of experts, they were instantly vilified, blacklisted, and labeled « conspiracists ». Now 2 years later, there’s a growing consensus regarding the absurdity of certain measures.
So I find the systematic scapegoating of indie brands that promote a healthier lifestyle far-stretched and odd, especially as amongst the indie beauty founders, you’ll also find qualified chemists, MDs, herbalists, trained aestheticians, and skin professionals.
Acting with faith, not fear.
Green beauty is being blamed for fear-mongering, and indie companies are usually the first to be thrown under the bus, but the big corporation is still not held accountable for greenwashing and fear-mongering.
Whilst the fear-mongering may have come on both sides of the spectrum, it is the large companies that continue to take sustainability and ethical practices for pure marketing purposes. The fear-mongering has also been prevalent in the mainstream industry which has been manufacturing its new « clean « image. It is Garnier that plasters all over his packaging that it’s’ made with ‘98% natural ingredients’. Same for Bourgeois, l’Oréal, and co. Of course, natural does not mean healthy. When you go foraging and encounter mushrooms, you’re not going to eat them because some are poisonous. So yes, « natural » can be toxic, literally. But this is where common sense comes in, we are capable of looking at things from a broader perspective and using nuance.
Lavanya is the luminous founder of « Boxwalla », a subscription box company that caters to curious minds and soulful hearts, threading beauty, literature, and art harmoniously thanks to astute curation. In a post, she expressed with the utmost sincerity how she felt about the evolution of the industry and has also been one of the primary companies in general (but particularly in the subscription box space) to offer green cosmetics.
« I’ve eschewed labels, because labels go from being umbrella terms, to shorthands that lose nuance, to ultimately being non-informative. » But more importantly, I’ve eschewed the disturbing fear mongering that has always become an integral part of the green/clean beauty space . (…) Plant-based sincere does not need the crutch of fear-marketing. It can actually stand on its own » There has been a push back from influencers and chemists i the conventional beauty space, against this problematic message of clean, non-toxic, suspicious, villains etc. Which has made some brands and retailers double down on their fear-based messaging and other stow away their fear-based language for another day. However, while holding the green/clean beat accountable, one can’t forget the ‘original sinners’, the creators of the original kind go fear mongering – fear of aging, fear of not fitting in certain beauty standards, fear of not being a certain color. And so I find myself sitting at the intersection of these two spaces and not subscribing to either ethos. »
What Lavanya brilliantly names « the intersection of these two spaces », is a sentiment I can echo, because I no longer feel a sense of belonging in any clear-cut space.
I’d also like to point out that our definition of fear alters. I am not afraid of parabens or mineral oil-based ingredients, I simply believe that if there are efficient and reliable alternatives, then I’ll opt for these. My body, my choice, as we say. Simply because I think that our body goes through a lot while we are on this life journey. Exposure to environmental pollution daily is inevitable and without falling into psychosis, one has the right to find ways to limit any toxin exposure – be it in cosmetics, food, house, or relationships. This is an individual journey and everyone gets to do what feels best for them.
Not everyone has access to lymphatic massages, not everyone can go on wellness retreats or spas, not everyone lives in a home that feels safe, not everyone has moments where they can decompress and relax, calming their nervous system, not everyone has immediate access to pesticide-free food and clean water, not everyone has enough mental or physical strength to take better care of themselves, not everyone has access to quality doctors, not everyone has the time to think about all these things because they are in survivor mode. So tiny steps in reducing exposure to any type of toxins are already an accomplishment.
For me, opting for cosmetics and body care products is part of a desire to treat myself with more care and kindness. I was not guided by fear on this journey, but guided by faith. When I was dealing with excessive hair loss from antibiotics, chronic stress, and infections, I was far away from all these holistic approaches, but I ended up reaching a culprit in frustration upon seeing no improvement in my condition. I had no choice but to look for alternatives since allopathic medicine had its limitations in this case. What helped me manage and reduce my sinus issues? Acupuncture and elimination diet, after years of antibiotics and going from one ENT to another with little result. What was the first shampoo that provided some benefits and reduced excess shedding and tackle the sebum production for my hair? Rahua Voluminous shampoo. I had tried every in the pharmacy or the drugstore before. Klorane, L’Oreal, Garnier, Head & Shoulders, and dermatologist-approved hair products did nothing except aggravate my situation. So I experienced a significant difference when starting to be more curious about holistic alternatives. I feel better by using green beauty products and I see results. Simple as that. Fear has nothing to do with that.
WHAT GREEN BEAUTY MEANT TO ME AND WHAT IT TAUGHT ME
Green beauty as I knew it and experienced it was not about fear-mongering. It was a movement meant to question things. The freedom to question, to think differently, away from the current diktats. One could say that green was punk haha.
Feminine magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Marie-Claire, and co. have made for decades a tentacular business of curating a vision of femininity that is painfully uprooted and distanced from reality. Subsequently, anything and anyone not fitting the « Vogue and co. » standard appeared unappealing and irrelevant. They manufactured a woman that is detached from her roots, her heritage, and her unique beauty which makes her look more artificial than humane. Not to mention this relentless push to get readers to buy more instead of encouraging them to tap into their inner richness and beauty. There’s got to be a balance, but that’s not what those types of media promote.
As opposed to obsessing over erasing wrinkles and stretch marks, switching to products that were made in small batches, with care, and with gentle ingredients changed my mindset: I learned to see my face and body as they were, leading me toward a journey of self-love. Self-Love through self-care. Those green brands I grew up with never claimed miracles and unattainable beauty promises, the core message was to honor your body and skin by taking a moment to nourish it. Green beauty brought me closer to my femininity, to my well-being: it was my introduction to reconnecting with myself. Green beauty was via the appeal towards more plant-based ingredients and less synthetic components, a way to feel more in tune with nature. Every individual is unique and beautiful in their way, that’s the message of the green beauty movement. Green beauty had a more grounding and accessible approach, allowing people to tap into their power and peace instead of force-feeding them an impersonal beauty ideal. It led me to embrace at my rhythm and on my terms, my unique features and stop comparing myself to others. I saw my skin as it was, and learned to treat it with gentleness, patience, and kindness. It was about nourishing, not punishing. Green beauty never capitalized on insecurities, the way clean beauty does today.
Green beauty meant liberation, it meant freedom. It meant self-expression, with a respect for the community. It was rooted in ancestral beauty traditions and introduced me to multiple cultures and rituals from all over the world. Indie and green beauty is diverse beauty. Green beauty has always been part of a holistic mind/body/spirit philosophy. Had I not discovered it, I’d still be lost to pharmacy products, buying tons of stuff, all for the sake of perfect « Vogue » skin. What may be curious to some, was uplifting to me: the « spiritual/vibrational» dimension in green beauty. The focus was not just on a « result-driven » or « science-powered » product, it went beyond that aspect, by incorporating an ideal: products that were made with love, by people with a genuine desire to provide something for the skin and the planet. Believe it or not, I do feel a difference when using such brands.
I used to have this Roald Dahl quote as the credo of my blog for many years because it truly described what green beauty was about to me. It went beyond « products », it was an opportunity to re-claim our vision of beauty and bring it into a broader perspective.
Perhaps, browsing EWG was not the best way to start, but sharing my journey online and looking for products void of certain controversial/suspicious ingredients took me on a much-bigger adventure: it led me to be active, to look for information, to question things as opposed to giving in to a passive approach and believe everything I’m served or told for absolute truth. This journey has led me not just to accept myself, but to take better care of myself, physically, and mentally.
Whilst I go through an array of conflicted emotions over the current state of the beauty/wellness world, I hold no regrets nor resentments: I am immensely grateful that I got immersed in the early days of green beauty, post-adolescence, during those crucial formative years as a young woman, because it is this alternative movement that I knew as the « Green beauty movement » that repaired the skewed and warped conceptions of beauty that I was fed with, which had only brought me shame and disappointment.
ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END…TO ALLOW GREATER THINGS TO TAKE PLACE
As the clean beauty space as it is being portrayed and behaving in the past few years, feels increasingly foreign to me, I have to be entirely honest with myself: I can’t become an active participant in it, and without any self-pity, I am also not being invited to be one. (translate: I am not cool enough for clean beauty today hehe) With the takeover of green beauty by media, organizations, and conglomerations that do not align with my values, it almost feels like I am embarking on a new journey.
However, my vision has never been clearer and I know what I want to do moving forward.
My wide-eyed, naive and possibly idealistic view has been altered. The green and sustainable industry is not immune to mistakes, wrongdoings, and bad representatives. Nevertheless, I pledge to focus on the positive, on the uplifting news and I seek to open up, removing any inhibitions on the wellness and sustainability talk. More than ever, I will continue to support independent, mindful businesses and entrepreneurship because a world that is overall more sustainable and fair depends heavily on the ability of independent companies to exist and thrive. Monopolies play a significant part in all the ethical and environmental issues the world is facing. In terms of beauty, if I must « choose » a label, then I’d tell you that I’ve grown fonder of the term « slow beauty » which would align with the existing slow fashion and slow food movements. The latter originated in Italy as an alternative to the invasion of fast-food ventures and encouraged local producers to grow organic food, and promote a culinary culture respectful of the pace of nature and traditional cooking traditions. But labels don’t mean much, unlike intentions.
I will remain committed to maintaining and nurturing a space that is allowing more simplicity. (Simplicity does not equal lack of efficacy or sophistication). More gentleness, harmony and thoughtfulness. More genuine relations and interactions. More grace. More clarity, openness, sincerity, and understanding. More empowerment. I want to highlight people, projects, and things that are embedded in values such as education, joy, passion, dedication, empathy, and freedom. A sustainable lifestyle does not result in the accumulation of objects and apps. It comes with a focus on human and social development. Growth and sustainability can be compatible but there’s a pace to it. This era of over-consumption is unsettling and in a way, it’s been designed as a frantic distraction from focusing on what truly nourishes us. Don’t get me wrong, it does not stop anyone from enjoying nice things, and treating themselves – especially if they support companies that are fully invested in what they are doing with outstanding ethics and craftsmanship. The good old « quality over quantity » adagio.
I chose to pour all my heart out in this humongous post so that I can turn this page, allowing things that align with me to enter my life. I held on for too long to the green sphere as I knew it and that is no longer a reality, which is why I felt increasingly lost and confused. Thank you to those who have followed my journey since the beginning, to those who came along the way, and to those who just arrived. Connecting and interacting with you never ceases to bring me joy and expand my horizons. I am not here to speak ill of anyone or throw anyone under the bus, it took me years for my thoughts to fully mature into this post. I accept the state of the industry as it is today, and it’s on me to continue to grow and stay connected to what aligns with my values.
I long to reunite rather than divide. So while I won’t try to fit into an industry I feel now foreign to, I will continue to support companies that do embody values I believe in, regardless of labels. You choose what terms resonate the most with you. I can only encourage you to elaborate, use your critical thinking, open up, and share in-depth what your purpose and message are. Think of your vision of beauty, health, wellness, and sustainability.
WHERE IS SMELLS LIKE A GREEN SPIRIT HEADED?
The quest is no longer towards green beauty, clean beauty, ultra clean whatever the new term is. Today it’s no longer relevant that I share and try every single brand that pops up as opposed to 9 years ago when the space was so little. Now, I’ll devote my blog page to companies and products that stand out and make a difference. I was hyper-focused on discovering new things at the beginning of this journey, now it’s about recentering, discernment, and curating consciously. It is about finding the people that do things with love, soul, care, and integrity and treasuring them. Highlighting artisans, innovators, and dreamers. Brands that fulfill my heart, bring genuine joy, provide a real service, and created by passionate people. Brands that make people dream, and think, with a story (and history).
In short, it all goes back to the soul. I want to feel the soul, the energy, the high vibrations, the joy, and the love. Those are the driving forces for me. I’ll do my very best to navigate the journey, and if I am misled and fooled along the way, I hope that I can realize it as early as possible and re-calibrate. I intend to do my best. I want to appease, uplift, and encourage independent thinking and if certain things need to be questioned, have the ability to do it in a gentle manner (and add a touch of humor lol)
« Understand me.
I’m not like an ordinary world.
I have my madness,
I live in another dimension
and I do not have time for things that have no soul. »
– Charles Bukowski
Recently I came across this poem and while it is attributed to Charles Bukowski, I don’t know the exact source so I’ll stay cautious, however, the words resonate, especially the last line as to why I felt the need to write this lengthy post. « I do not have time for things that have no soul » Here’s to more soul, more joy, more clarity, more values, and more love.
In Part II of Coming Clean, I dive deeper into my blogging journey, the ups and downs, and the transition I’ve made from blogger to working as a writer and creative sidekick for mindful companies. The post will be up soon.
Thank you wholeheartedly for taking the time to read (you’re a legend!); as usual, your thoughts and feedback are deeply appreciated.
It’s the best article I read in a very long time if ever! Liz your depth, authenticity, and beautiful soul is what we all need.
Just outstanding beautiful and real.
Love Vered xo
Love you Vered! Thank you for being who you are, for being one of the trailblazers and pioneers in this space.
Incredible post. And I cannot help but replace so many of the beauty specific names and terminology with those equivalent members of the food world.
It really does all come down to what the mission is- like I say, anybody could make what we make. They could make it cheaper and more efficiently and have way better distribution. But, what do they want to do? Who are they? Who they are is who they have proven themselves to be for decades- and I’m not into it.
Thank you for chipping away at such a huge, near universal issue- I hope consumers take this to heart, because we take them, and the rest of the world, to heart.
Thank you Emma for taking the time to read and for writing those beautiful words. Grateful for people and companies like yours. Much love your way.