Can Beauty Brands Encourage Less Consumption While Selling Stuff?

In a recent New York Times article, fashion writer Vanessa Friedman described “sustainable fashion” as an oxymoron because sustainable “implies ‘able to continue over a period of time,’ according to the Cambridge Dictionary” and fashion “implies change over time.” “Sustainable beauty” is similarly an oxymoron. Beauty brands are trying to promote sustainability while jumping on ever-changing trends and producing increasingly more stuff. We wonder whether the beauty industry can reconcile those contrary aims. So, for this edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we decided to ask 17 beauty entrepreneurs, executives and experts the following question: Can indie beauty brands seriously encourage less consumption as they try to build businesses by selling products?

Rachel Roberts Founder and CEO, Oyl + Water

As long as a brand is built within the capitalist business model, it will have to play by many of the same old rules in order to survive and especially if its goal is to grow. This includes new product launches, promotions, etc. If a brand's aim is to promote less consumption, there are many ways to authentically communicate their values while also being a for-profit business.

First, if their business is actively aiming to reduce waste and lessen their environmental impact, they will likely have a deeper connection to the source of origin of their ingredients and materials and will use only as much as they need. They will choose low- or zero-waste packaging and materials. They may create fewer products or multi-functional products—and they can certainly offer creative refillable and recycling options.

The conversation around using less is rightfully aimed at the consumer, but businesses have an opportunity—and I think a responsibility—to provide solutions, to create products and to innovate processes, so that what they sell and what their consumers buy is less wasteful from the start. This is not simply a conversation about buying less stuff. That's essential, but so is shifting the paradigm and evolving the business model. These two pieces need to evolve together.

Lorraine Dallmeier CEO, Formula Botanica 

We can’t ignore the fact that our consumption and production levels need to change if we want to build a sustainable beauty industry, but I’m only seeing indie brands currently discuss this topic. As the head of sustainable development for one of the world’s largest cosmetics brands told me last year, “We’ve simply never even talked about consumption.” The topic of consumption appears to be entirely off the table in any mainstream beauty conversations about sustainability, so I expect to start seeing many more indie brands lead the way.

It may seem like a contradiction in terms to drive lower consumption while building a product-based business, but I feel that the indie sector is far better placed to reduce consumption overall while still prospering as in general indie brands play less on consumer’s insecurities to drive growth.

Indie brands have historically often been ahead of the curve in terms of customer needs, and we’ve certainly seen this when it comes to sustainable beauty. Some of the most innovative sustainability projects I have seen in the beauty industry so far started with indie beauty brands such as refilling schemes or solid beauty formulations.

Many brands in the indie sector are already embracing low or no packaging, which is leading to the creation of longer lasting, multipurpose formulations. We’ve seen the mainstream beauty industry work hard to try and catch up with the messaging spearheaded by indie brands over the last decade, and this is now also starting to happen with respect to longer lasting formulations. I recently attended an industry trade show, and all the big ingredient suppliers were proudly showcasing a huge variety of different ingredients used to create solid formulations.

Why buy 30 formulations when you can buy three or four really effective products that cater to a multitude of needs and last longer than many of the other products on your bathroom shelf? This formulation ethos is far more in keeping with many indie brands.

Tiffany Buzzatto Founder, Dew Mighty

It feels a little like going against the grain to encourage customers to buy less as a beauty brand, but, if you take sustainability very seriously, this is fundamentally important. Fighting overconsumption is natural for us because we don’t believe that layering 20-step routines and offering more choices that are incrementally different make for better skincare.

In every closet or drawer, a girl has her favorite go-to pieces, and when we find these items, we want them to last as long as possible. We feel the same for beauty. Think about it, would you switch your most loved outfit for 20 Shein shirts that wash and fall apart after wo wears? I know I wouldn’t.

This means supporting slower business growth based on creating products of higher quality and perceivable performance is key. Brands who are in this business for explosive growth riding a trend won’t be able to authentically build a business on less consumption, but other indie brands, similar to us, will.

We truly believe in our philosophy of “use less, dew more.” We encourage using what you have first before purchasing new, trying our zero-waste samples without containers to ensure no returns of barely used product, and spending much of our time on social media channels and in-person events to help educate around the effects of material choices and our mission of reducing waste. Profits are essential for a brand to grow and survive, but we don’t plan to sacrifice our ethos for a quick buck.

Kate Assaraf Founder, Dip

Absolutely, beauty brands can encourage less consumption. Dip is living proof of this. I think the “Shark Tank” glamorization of owning a beauty business, making it huge and scaling it into oblivion is slowly going out of style. Encouraging less consumption is the main crux of Dip as a brand, and so far, it is working. The consumer thirst for buying less is catching on as the ugly backstories of manufacturing waste, greenwashing or exploitation are starting to bubble to the surface.

We made the intentional choice to make the Dip conditioner bars last a very long time, instead of shrinking them to match the typical usage of the shampoo, which runs out faster. It can last some women a full year. We also put the largest shampoo bar that we are aware of out on the market. We encourage our customers to buy better, buy less and shop secondhand—and even further encourage our customers to buy less clothing through our Dip Your Shit campaign, and our revenue continues to grow month after month. Our customer appreciates our stance against Amazon and big box as a growth strategy. Oddly enough, this opposition to large chains is driving our growth.

We are no longer in a world where hyperconsumption, huge gifting suites and disposable mini samples are considered cool either. People want to find products that last a long time and do what they say they are going to do. In times of inflation, rising costs and material shortages, it's a great time to start rethinking robust assortments, scaling back to your heroes and creating formulas that are multipurpose.

Aubri Thompson Founder, The Rebrand

Sustainability starts with product design. Indie brands should be selective about which products we choose to develop and sell. Secondly, we need to communicate clearly to our customers about which products are actually necessary for skin health versus nice-to-have or trend-based products.

Liah Yoo Founder and CEO, KraveBeauty

A for-profit company that sells products cannot encourage less consumption and that shouldn't be a goal. However, I believe the industry's problem is promoting hyperconsumerism, and the solution to it is more brands collectively committing to the utmost intentional production and encouraging customers to commit to conscious consumption. What the beauty industry should start focusing on is how the growth is achieved.

People will always need skincare, and as long as you sell a type of product that people would have bought anyway, replacing unsustainable demands with more sustainable demands, and you didn't create insecurities to just sell, then growth can be a “good” thing.

However, if growing means creating new demand that didn’t exist before or selling unnecessary products, then it is harder to legitimize. I believe that indie brands can grow this way with integrity, and if more customers demand to keep more companies accountable by asking the why behind each product development, that's a win.

Mia Fiona Kut Founder and CEO, Luna Nectar

Yes, indie beauty brands can absolutely encourage less consumption while simultaneously selling products. I'm a firm believer in our responsibility as a beauty brand to create a culture of less consumption and mindfulness when it comes to sustainability, and this comes down to the brand values, messaging and marketing that we put out there.

There has already been strong feedback from our customers that this is the direction they want to head, and it's up to brands to maintain higher standards. This is what will create change within the beauty industry as a whole.

Brands can start by emphasizing few-step beauty routines instead of 20-plus step routines that we've seen in the past, less packaging, recyclable packaging, and offering quality, science-backed products that you need to use less of to create the most potent results.

Brianne West Founder and CEO, Ethique 

Indie brands can definitely encourage less consumption even as they build their business. Ultimately, a great deal of unnecessary waste from beauty products is generated by the industry, not consumers. Overconsumption is heartily encouraged by marketing concepts like shelfies, hauls, time-limited sales and seven-step skincare routines. Avoiding perpetuating these notions can go a long way, much further than berating consumers.

That doesn't have to be to the detriment of growth. Structure your promotions so they encourage consumers to try something new from your range rather than bulk-buying more of one item than they can use. Offer opt-in samples as a gift with purchase. Let your customers pick whether they want to try a trial size of a body butter or a face wash—or nothing at all. Don't encourage overly complex beauty regimens for no reason. Focus on well-made products that work for multiple purposes and the rest will follow.

Dion Nash Founder, Triumph & Disaster

Not only is it possible for beauty brands to encourage less consumption, this should be a core tenant of a responsible, sustainable cosmetics business. Poorly formulated products made with “filler” ingredients to enable unrealistic price points are the “fast fashion” of our industry.

Educating consumers and key stakeholders to the value of sustainably formulated products, brands whose products last three or four times longer than the cheap alternatives, therefore reducing overall consumption, and yes brands that use sustainable practices throughout their business, from ingredients to manufacturing and packaging, these are the key components to driving more responsible consumption.

Additionally, the industry across the board needs to be petitioned to align its practices and thinking to enable less consumption. A simple example is product labelling requirements in the EU and other territories, where multiple languages need to be on the outer packs or on pamphlets added to the product, thus requiring additional space or outer cartons to house the product, only for the purpose of fulfilling labeling needs.

[The] process could be completely eliminated by the use of a QR code and allow brands to sell products without outer packs and wrapping. This is just one example that would allow brands to reduce waste and therefore consumption overnight.

Melodie Reynolds Founder, Elate

I absolutely believe that this is possible. In fact, I built my whole company around the idea that we could ask people to buy less and use what they have until it's gone before refilling, that by prioritizing people and the planet, we could pave the way towards conscious consumerism and possibly even, dare I say it, conscious capitalism.

Although it does seem counterintuitive to be trying to fight waste with a company that makes a product that you need to buy, we focus on striving for more responsibility in our marketing, in our manufacturing, and in our business practices. We know that if we did this collectively as an industry, we could truly make a difference.

Thierry Mandonnaud Founder, Abyssian

It's not an easy task indeed to educate people about the importance of consuming and shopping less while indeed selling products, However, here at Abyssian, we think it's part of our duty to make people more aware about those over-consumerism issues.

We believe that by making simple and clear choices as a brand you can have an impact. For example:

-Encourage buying good quality not cheap quantity.

-Design your product to be refillable, reusable and recyclable, even made of recycled materials in our case.

-Encourage your community to buy what they really need and not impulse buy. Focus your product range on specific problem-solving and [being] less cosmetic.

-Promote shopping with purpose.

-Make conscious marketing efforts on specific days to help create awareness and fight over-consumerism. For e.g., close the website and offer no discounts in retail stores on Black Friday, World Environment Day, etc. It has an impact on our sales, but we believe that it is the right thing to do, and we should encourage it as much as possible and hope our community will support us for doing so.

At the end of the day the consumer chooses which brand will grow with their money, so we should have the right attitude as a brand and be the change that we want to see happening in the world.

Veronica Brinkmann Founder, Studio Brinks

Absolutely! We all have a responsibility to encourage sustainable practices, and indie brands are not exempt. The most cutting-edge beauty companies are adopting policies around sustainable packaging, some even reaching zero-waste. For example, Plus body wash comes in packaging that completely dissolves in the shower.

Millennials and gen Z are at the core of conscious purchasing and make up over 75% of the beauty market. It's becoming increasingly important for indie brands to sell products that make consumers feel good about purchasing from them.

Jayme Jenkins Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer, Everist

It is hard. Less consumption is the only way out of this environmental crisis that we're in. This is one of the reasons why our Everist innovation is focused on elevated eco essentials, products that fit into a minimalist beauty routine. We believe in less is more and providing better alternatives that are still high-performance and uniquely sensorial. There's no way around it—we all need less stuff. Our thinking is to make the stuff you do need to buy better and something that you truly love.

Jennifer Lee Kapahi Founder, Trestique

Indie brands like Trestique are small enough to think outside the box and make change faster when it comes to packaging decisions, supply chain and shipping/branding materials. Offering our makeup in "forever cases" that allow you to reuse and refill endlessly definitely encourages less consumption and less waste for consumers.

Indie brands have the power to inspire and to change a customer's purchase decision because the founders are not only driven by profit, they are filled with passion to make the world a better place!

Amy Zunzunegui Founder, WLDKAT

Absolutely! As a beauty brand, we recognize that we make packaged goods that get used and discarded, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it thoughtfully. At WLDKAT, we manufacture our formulas, unit cartons, shipper boxes and most of our labels in the U.S. to reduce the consumption of carbon, this biggest culprit of climate change.

Our boxes are all 100% post-consumer recycled paper, which reduces deforestation (consumption of forests). The majority of our plastic components are 80% to 100% post-consumer recycled content, which limits the consumption of virgin plastic.

We created our formulas to be more concentrated, which requires the customer to use less on each application, and we also speak to double uses on the majority of our products. Finally, when we send PR and influencer boxes, we mainly use recycled packing material, and the majority of the time, we do not include anything but the product. Zero excess is our policy.

Tina Hedges Founder, LOLI Beauty

There is an inherent tension being in the consumer product business while supporting the consume-less underpinnings of a sustainable, purpose-driven company.

My approach is simple in that people still need solutions to their problems (in our case, skincare concerns), so let’s offer multipurpose products, and by doing so, we diminish the amount of products the consumer is purchasing overall.

Instead of buying six to nine skin and body products, with one to three of LOLI’s solutions, they can meet all their needs. The bonus is that our products are also water-free and, therefore, more concentrated, so overall the consumer can do so much more with less.

Nicole Acevedo Founder and CEO, Elavo Mundi Solutions

Absolutely! The key to success for any indie brand looking to authentically engage sustainably minded consumers is to ensure that they are offering authentic solutions to existing and future burdens on our finite natural resources.

Consumption occurs at several different levels in the consumer goods market. It can refer to how the product itself is meant to be used, but it also refers to how the materials to make the product are sourced, how the product is manufactured and packaged, the transportation required throughout the lifecycle of the product and expected end-of-life outcomes for all components of the product.

Reduction of consumption at any or all of these levels can significantly impact waste reduction and help create brand loyalty for consumers that want to feel that they are part of the solution.

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