Green Cosmetics: The Definition Undergoes Broadening but Consumer Interest Remains High
by Donald A. Davis
Green as distinct from "natural," has come a considerable distance since it first achieved recognition in Western Europe in the late 1960s, and in the United States in the 1980s. In what was then West Germany, the expression assume political significance and even became the name of a recognized, and at least briefly powerful, political party. Four years ago, during the negotiations to finalize the European Community, "Green" activists exerted enough influence on ecological concerns to bring changes to the EC's Cosmetic Directives. Green forces under whatever label are credited with what amounts to a forthcoming ban on animal testing that last year became part of the EC's Fourth Cosmetic Directive. That ban may be regarded with favor by at least one element of the cosmetic industry (those who market "natural" cosmetics, whose fate seems somehow inexorably linked with lack of animal testing), but it hasn't drawn raves from suppliers who feel compelled to test their ingredients for teratogenicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity -- none of which can be detected by using alternative in vitro cosmetic test methods.
Based on the Green Party in Germany and elsewhere, one could logically make the assumption that concerns over the environment, pollutants, clean air and water, safe (sufficiently tested) products and foods, and protection against birth defects all are prime considerations. The motivating force in Green's growth of influence in Germany, says Jacqueline Ottman in "Green Marketing: Challenges & Opportunities for the New Marketing Age" (published by NTC Business Books, Lincolnwood, Ill.) was a series of disasters during the 1980s: decimation of the Black Forest by acid rain, accidental release of toxic chemicals into the Rhine River, spread of a nuclear cloud from Chernobyl, etc. In the U.S. there were environmental disasters, the worst being the Exxon oil spill in Alaska, but these were not enough to give birth to a new political party -- or even to shape the agenda of the two major parties during the 1992 Presidential campaign or the 1994 Congressional races. In fact, the outcome of the latter can be construed as a defeat for the environmental protectionist forces, since the winners have promised to trim the powers, staff, and budgets for regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, and even the Food & Drug Administration.
There is, however, an undeniably active movement to market Green products, with some companies (especially in the cosmetic business) having established what amounts to a complete "Green philosophy" that covers the entire range Of ingredients, formulations, packaging, advertising, and general image. For some smaller competitors, the stance clearly was adopted to give distinction to their companies against those of their giant competitors -- as happened with musk oil in the 1970s and aloe-based cosmetics in the early 1980s. Green became first a marketing tactic, then with time it evolved into something approximating a religion, with nearly every public act of the company closely geared to saving, nurturing or restoring the environment. Sponsorship of programs to plant trees, clean up streams, restore to pristine beauty parks or highway borders all were taken on by cosmetic companies, Where materials of natural origin seemed to be in short supply, marketer companies ventured into procuring new oils or whatever from Amazon natives or by organizing expeditions to Africa or Indonesia. Though on a small scale, there was about some of these efforts the inevitable echo of the missionary or colonist, broadened by the "religious" fervor of management.
Of course, Green as a concept in cosmetic product formulation is neither new nor startling. Caswell-Massey had been almost single-handedly carrying the message for decades, selling cucumber-based soaps and pineapple hair rinses from the shelves of its Lexington Avenue apothecary shop" to a special clientele. These at first were more curiosities than market groundbreakers, more "natural" or botantically, based formulas than products embracing the Green image. As is pointed out in a preface to the Ottman book, "the 'green revolution' is about more than simply marketing products as green. It's about ensuring that those products genuinely are green; ensuring that the entire company is green. This process doesn't begin in the marketing department, it ends there." But what justification can there have been for so profound a change in corporate awareness of the environment as a marketing strategy? Ottman opines that the Three Mile nuclear power plant disaster, the Exxon oil spill, the depletion of the ozone layer and other indications of threats to the global climate all combined in the late 1980s and early 1990s to create an environmentally wary consumer, one especially responsive to products and market concepts that seemed to be responding to those concerns.
Quickest to catch up to this change in attitude were marketers of environmentally sensitive products (chemicals, petroleum or household chemicals), in the main because they felt the ripples in the marketplace. S.C. Johnson is a case in point, its aerosol business having suffered serious erosion in the early 1980s because of consumer reaction to the ozone depletion scare. Of course, that company suffered undue punishment, since ozone depletion was blamed on chlorofluorocarbon propellants, years after S.C. Johnson had switched entirely to propane/butane propellants. This example of guilt by association (and what should be done to avoid it) later served to shape the policies of other companies, such as Procter Gamble's moves early in this decade to use recycled plastic detergent bottles and to down. size by selling concentrated formulas in smaller bottles (and which converted to the Air Spray dispensing mechanism for two of its hair products in the early 1990s).
Some segments of the cosmetic industry already had a head start on the Green Game, since the business had experienced at least two waves of natural products: botanicals and fruit-based formulas in the early and mid 1970s, and a second similar but stronger phenomenon that began in the mid-1980s and has carried through to today. In both waves some of the stimulation came from Europe, where plant-based ingredients in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, marine-derived ingredients (including phytoplankton and algae derivatives from companies such as SECMA and Alban Muller) in France, led to the creation of many interesting new concepts.
Also providing strong motivation to copying during the second wave from Europe was The Body Shop, which used the Caswell-Massey concept (in spades!) to develop a wide range of products in simple packaging for sale in stores devoted to the concept of "natural" or "environmentally friendly" cosmetics, bath products, and fragrances. Stripped-down bottles, sparse secondary packaging, and the stripped down approach that seemed to suggest minimalist waste of resources were part of the picture, as was the carefully nurtured image of a company philosophy that would encourage harvesting of wild crops by native peoples. That pristine, environmentally friendly image worked to build worldwide sales beyond $700 million, until the gap between what the company seemed to be and what crusading journalists discovered beneath the well polished veneer suffered some significant erosion last year, topped off by publication of a wide ranging indictment in Business Ethics by writer Jon Entine.
Others have taken up the Body Shop challenge, the most successful having been Bath Body Works, which in two years succeeded in passing The Body Shop's U.S. sales (and even its number of shops). There were at least ten other imitators, all keying their product lines to botanically- derived formulas, stripped down packaging, images of blue sky and green forests. And that was just in the Body Shop genre of mall or street front shops selling directly to consumers.
On other fronts Green triumphs were to be found in Aveda Corp., Minneapolis, a marketer of products to salons, and Tom's of Maine, Kennebunk, Me., whose toothpastes, deodorants and mouthwashes were aimed first at health food stores, later at chain drugs. The management of both companies is heavily committed to using natural ingredients, encouraging recycling, and spending to encourage ecology. In fact, Tom's of Maine may be unique among all cosmetic companies in its dedication of a tenth of its pre-tax profits to charitable causes (75 percent to conservation and recycling). A couple of years ago, the company helped its town of Kennebunk initiate its first recycling program. Aveda also makes major money pledges to environmental programs, but also has broken ground in another way, developing the technology to produce "natural" permanent waves and botanically-augmented clay masks for the skin. Among name brand prestige cosmetic companies, Lauder's Origins (with about $40 million in wholesale volume) appears to be the standard- setter, at least in terms of disgorging a steady stream of new products with the Green took. Origins president William Lauder told an interviewer recently that his company has introduced at least one product a month for two and a half years, and it plans eleven in the first six months of 1995. A mint shampoo, a kohl eyeliner, and a relaunched color cosmetics line have been recent additions.
If Origins, Aveda, Tom's of Maine and the Body Shop crowd typify the Green Movement, there are other manifestations that may go un-noticed by a casual observer. In the early fall, Wella Corp. seemed to create a stir in the hair color business with Living Colors, described as "the world's first all-natural haircolor granules." The 11-shade line depends on organically-grown herbs ("there are no chemicals or added ingredients") that work into the hair shaft by being absorbed to produce a staining effect that lasts six to 12 weeks. A Wella competitor, Clairol, reintroduced its Herbal Essences line with all sorts of natural augmentation: marigold, angelica, rosemary, sage, jasmine, chamomile, wheat germ oil, vitamins, sunflower extract, rose hips, and more. Continuing with the theme, Clairol introduced the Natural Instincts conditioning hair coloring, yet another try toward recapturing the environmentally friendly consumer. And Avon Products, no slacker in the industry's consecutive waves" of natural formulations, unveiled Avon Naturals, a line of personal care products featuring such exotic fragrant ingredients as yarrow, rosehips, linden blossom, bilberry and mimosa (as well as more common constituents like lemon, eucalyptus, spearmint and clover).
There were also pace-setters among retailers. For a time in late 1994, J.C. Penney seemed to go out of its way to cater to Green Movement marketers like Smith & Vandiver (Watsonville, Calif.). The retailer and marketer tested a program called Refillables in 50 Penney stores. This line includes botanically-based glycerine soaps, hand and body lotions and bath and shower gets in PET containers the consumer is urged to either recycle with empty soda bottles or return to the Penney stores for refills. Penney was also the first to play host to earth preserv (all lower case), a Houston-based company that may have been the first marketer conceived as a Green image cosmetic corporation, its principal selling "hook" seeming to not any special product or line, but recyclable packaging components, plants-derived formulations, and flowery/woodsy scents. In fact, to emphasize how Green the company actually was, its inaugural press conference was held at a riverfront restaurant outside of which was moored a New York City garbage barge!
There was an element of excess in earth preserv's efforts to maintain distance from the rest of the industry. For instance, its ceo Keith Waldron boasted that the company's formulas contain no regular preservatives (instead using substitutes "naturally derived from milk and benzoin tree gum"), no animal byproducts or synthetic surfactants in the soaps, nothing but titanium dioxide in the sunscreens, no surfactants (such as as disodium laureth sulfosuccinate) in the shampoos, and no synthetic humectants (such as diethanolamine and dimethicone copolyol or petrolatum) in its moisturizers. This drew from the newsletter Cosmetic Insider' s Report the observation that it all seemed the company was playing "oneupmanship on all the company's competition in that segment of the business" especially in packaging so many products in tall aluminum aerosol cans with screw-on metal caps, "the notion being that they can be recycled with beverage cans. " That flies against the fact that in most metropolitan areas, aluminum cans, pie plates, and foil are diverted to landfills, since they are incompatible with the highly publicized beverage can recycling operations.
Preservatives pose a particular problem for Green Wave cosmetic marketers, not the least because plant-derived components often go through an extraction process that adds to bacterial load. That "natural" formulations boasting of no preservatives (and with the oft-included claim about not having been tested on animals) present a "significant biological hazard" is suggested in the newsletter Microbiological Update (published by Microbiological Applications, Islamorada, Fl. FAX 305-664-8597). That publication's january 1995 issue notes that there are two alternatives to synthetic preservatives: (1) formulation with minimum available water by upping salt content or going to a water-in-oil formulation, both enhanced by adding alcohol, fragrances and essential oils; or (2) using natural compounds as preservatives, especially a new Boots Microcheck compound called Myavert C, which combines lactoperoxidase, glucose oxidase, and glucose.
There are other equally expensive alter, natives, including asceptic filling and use of antioxidants, ascorbic acid, and those few essential oils that have given evidence of biocidal or biostatic activity; but in point of fact preservatives have been a major stumbling block to true Green Wave products. Off odors, emulsion breakdown, erosion of actives such as sunscreens, and discoloration of product are just a few penalties that have been suffered by marketers who underestimate the role of preservatives in this class of products. Obviously, there are many more companies who prefer to orient themselves over onto the Green side of the marketing aisle, and they cover a broad gamut of market segments: direct sale, mass and prestige retailers, discounters, health food stores, beauty and skin care salons. Way back into the 1970s, health food stores played host to marketers of hair and skin products based on jojoba, aloe vera, and fruit and vegetable extracts. That mix has evolved into a more sophisticated list in the ensuing 20 years, to a point where even alpha hydroxy acid-based skin items have assumed the mantle of Green products. These materials are called "fruit acids" to conceal the fact that they are chemically derived from "natural" feedstocks such as sugar cane, citrus fruits, and milk. In fact, anything that can be loosely attributed to nature or conserving natural resources or avoiding waste or not adding to the ecological problem of waste disposal contributes to the Green image.
A case in point here is salvage of other marketers miscalculations, which is strongly evidenced in this context by The Clearing House (based in Reno, Nev., with a large warehouse in Chicago). When a major marketer restages the packaging for a complete line or a profitable product, or pulls the rug on a slow-mover and begins selling it as discontinued stock in odd-lot discounters, the marketer is left with what amounts to thousands (or even tens of thousands) of immediately obsolete containers, pumps, caps, compacts, and other packaging components. The Clearing House buys up these components and where necessary, puts them through a de-lithographing process to give them a pristine or virginal look. These are then sold at considerable savings to other marketers, some of them small Green marketers. The problem for both the seller and the buyer of these "second life" units, of course, is that there is little chance for "bragging rights" about saving landfill space or recycling of yet another sort.
Of course, there are ways the yet-to-be-Green portion of the cosmetic industry is being "blind-sided" into complying with ecological demands formulated by eager regulatory agencies and state government. California' s air quality regulations, with strict percentage levels for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and its attempts to mandate percentages of recycled or recyclable plastics used in cosmetic containers are two cases in point. Laws in that and other states relating to discharge of pollutants into the water or air, national legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System work to punish or at very least hamper marketers of non-Green products. These and myriad other concerns relating to the environment have prompted the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association to publish "The CTFA Environmental Manual: A Guide to Laws Affecting Consumer Product Companies." That a 280-page volume would be needed by an industry making relatively safe, surely innocuous products would seem to suggest that Green works in two directions, and that legislators and regulatory agencies have responded to Green concerns in rather profound ways.
In some rare instances, components that seem to fit the parameters of Green fail to hit the finish mark as truly ecologically friendly. The liquefied propellants (mainly propane and butane) that since the late 1970s have replaced chlorofluorocarbons as aerosol propellants would appear to fit the Green definition, in that they are vented directly from the ground in oil drilling operations. But they are classified as VOCs in that they contribute to smog and the formation of ground level ozone (and thus bad air quality in highly populated areas). Some essential oils, balsam and some varieties of pine oil, are sensitizers or allergens -- again providing proof that "natural" doesn't mean "safe." So-called fruit acids are said by the FDA to be acceptably innocuous at less than 10 percent, but less than predictable (and therefore better administered by professionals) at higher percentages.
The Green Movement has put unexpected pressure on suppliers to come up with new components. One major supplier of fragrance compounds, faced with countless requests for "natural" (non-synthetic) fragrance materials, has adopted a policy of refusing to enter submissions of that description. The explanation (i.e. excuse) runs along these lines: "natural" blends represent serious problems relating to price projections, assured availability, and consistency of feedstocks, thus making it unlikely that a compound a few months or years down the road will be reminiscent of what is supplied today. Similarly, suppliers of rare botanicals like yarrow find themselves hard-pressed to come up with a steady supply. This has paved the way for the springing up of a myriad of new suppliers and the branching out of the lines of existing suppliers into new botanical sources, including those overseas in developing countries.
SOME OF THE PLAYERS
As with the aloe vera phenomenon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there are literally dozens of marketers espousing the Green message in cosmetics. In the salon business, besides the aforementioned Aveda, there is Sebastian International, Redken (now part of L'Oreal), Matrix and Nexxus -- all of which have either all or a good portion of their products in "natural" garb. Especially big in direct sale is Garden Botanika (Redmond, Washington), whose extensive product line, is all packaged in relatively plain cosmetic jars and bottles. The catalog wobbles somewhat on its description of the "natural" sources of lipsticks and makeup, saying they are "blended with botanicals" and "inspired by nature's softest shades and richest hues." Borlind of Germany Inc. (New London, NH), U.S. branch of a German company headed by Annemarie Borlind, boasts of awards from the National Anti-Vivisection Society, the Humane Society, and ecological groups for its non-animal testing, for its 80 percent recycled paper packaging, for its containers made of SAN, said to be a biodegradable plastic. Ingredients cover a wide range: jojoba, macademia nut oil, babassu oil, olive-oil-based squalane, chamomile, aloe vera, cucumber, rosemary, horsetail, caffeine, camphor, butcherbroom plus a new marine plant derived derivative called superphycodismutase (SPD), which comes from a special seaweed that grows around the islands near Brittany. The company, incidentally, claims its ingredients are 100 percent free of toxins, pesticides, allergenic substances, radiation and other pollutants, that they are biologically degradable and are based on Black Forest spring water. Talk about friendly!
Pevonia Botanical Skincare, sold at exclusive spas and resorts, also uses seaweed (though not of the same origin) and ingredients like "natural black mud," amino acids, ginkgo, mucopolysacharides, shea butter, soapwort, mandarin oil, corn flower, hops, petitgrain, tangerine, cyprus, and grape seed and hazel nut oils. Laboratory CA Botana (San Diego) adds to its Ambrosia foot care line an herbal moisturizer, a peeling cream enriched with jojoba, almond, vitamins and herbal extracts, and a second moisturizer with camphor, thyme, euchalyptus, and menthol. The previously mentioned Emerald Forest adopts the name Rainforest Skin Care for a line that uses an Amazon constituent called copaiba (with vitamin E), and andiroba oil (another from the forest). Freeman Professional, salon line from Freeman Cosmetics (Beverly Hills) vies with the other Green salon lines with Aromaesentials, a line that includes a Kiwi and Bilberry Alpha-Hydroxy Facial Soap, a toner, and lotion. Lily of Colorado (Denver) markets 14 botanically-based products, the latest being a moisture mist and a botanical enzyme exfoliant mask.
Following the lead of a New England rival, Autumn Harp (Bristol, Vt.) adds Un-Petroleum Lip Jelly to its Un-Petroleum lip care line, again leaning to "100 percent all-natural fruit flavors" in formulas that use vegetable oils and beeswax. Substitute for petrolatum is a combination of olive, wheat germ, peanut and coconut oils. Pastels International Inc. (Pacific Palisades, Calif.) introduces Skinergy, an AHA line that combines those materials with "infused botanicals" and AloeBare, a depilatory that uses natural resins instead of traditional adhesive strips, as well as AHAs (making it the first depilatory with those materials). Even companies that didn't start out Green have evolved over time in that direction. A case in point is Key West Fragrance & Cosmetic Factory (Key West, Fla.), which now can boast of a majority of its products with a "natural" theme, either with aloe, vanilla, or another botanical.
WHITHER NOW, GREEN?
Despite the bandwagon enthusiasm for Green among so many cosmetic executives, skeptical market watchers and cosmetic scientists aren' t quite ready to wholeheartedly and fervently embrace Green as the wave of the future. Many appear to have reservations about preservative efficacy, about consistency and assured supply of plant constituents from overseas, about the tendency by small marketers to puffery and exaggeration about either what ingredients are included (in meaningful amounts) and precisely what they may be reasonably expected to deliver in the way of benefits to skin or hair. It is probably significant that so much of the market activity is being generated among small- to-mid-sized companies, a large number based in California and therefore with what amounts to a regional tendency toward adopting selling principles that are slightly out of the mainstream. Lots of name brand cosmetic giants have Green or "natural" ingredients in their formulations, but none DCI can name has made the phenomenon almost a religion as has been done by Aveda.
Those caveats notwithstanding, what sort of future can be seen for Green marketed cosmetics? Based on public opinion polls quoted in the Ottman book ("Green Marketing" the consumer seems eager and willing to (a) pay more for "natural" and/or ecologically helpful products, and (b) continue to become more confident about using them. Though credibility of some of the claims made is not probed, it is clear that a series of Green catchwords and phrases connote benefit or visions of safety and efficacy even beyond those foreseen when the Green Wave commenced to build. And it is fortuitous for those companies oriented toward Green that what they advertise and sell dovetails so neatly with ecological concerns about acid rain, warming of the earth's atmosphere, holes in the ozone layer, pollution of water and soil, closing of landfills and alternative garbage disposal, and so forth.
As with the bandwagon for alpha hydroxy acids, the Green Wave seems to be gathering momentum without the necessary technological underpinnings needed to prove what individual products or ingredients can actually do. It is true that the Aloe Research Council has at last come forth with findings about what constituents may be expected in aloe extracts. French suppliers like SECMA have narrowed down the benefits of marine plant extracts from specific areas, assaying them to determine maximum levels of beneficial constituents. DCI has just learned that Mary Kay Cosmetics is embarked on a project with PhytoLife Sciences Inc. (Dublin, Ohio) to use PhytoLife's electromembrane fractionation separation technology to isolate biologically active constituents of terrestial and aquatic plants. The process, according to PhytoLife's Dan Dawson, works at ambient temperatures without the use of chemicals that can break down or dilute the constituents. This will permit the isolation of components from several plants and their blending into a single cosmetic formula, a far cry from current approaches with most botanical constituents.
But these are examples are rare indeed (the PhytoLife project came to light just last month, the SECMA work and the new Boots "natural" preservative late last year). Without more solid technological advances of this type, Green could founder for lack of meaningful new skin and hair products.