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Your Beauty Products May Involve Human Rights Abuses

A new report details how many concerning ingredients the beauty industry actually uses in its supply chain.

Some consumers are seeking transparency in the beauty industry Blanchi Costela/Getty Images

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There is a burgeoning desire among consumers for transparency in the beauty industry, but because of a lack of safety regulation and Food and Drug Administration oversight, companies and consumers have taken things into their own hands. The so-called clean beauty industry is growing in leaps and bounds as new indie brands launch products free of ingredients that they deem to be potentially dangerous to people’s health. Mainstream retailers like Sephora, CVS, Target, and various department stores have all recently created departments or programs to highlight products with what they consider to be safer ingredients (many are natural), largely as a result of consumer demand for them.

What is missing from the narrative right now is transparency about the sourcing of these natural ingredients, which are also used in mainstream cosmetics. A new report has highlighted how murky and fraught with potential abuse this process really is.

Verisk Maplecroft, a UK-based global risk analysis and data company that works with large companies to asses their “reputational risk,” released the report on Friday. It covered a number of commodities — meaning raw materials that are farmed or mined — that commonly appear in beauty product ingredient lists, such as cocoa, copper, and carnauba wax.

After analyzing data about these ingredients, the company scored each commodity according to environmental, social, and governance risks for the sourcing of each component. This included problems like child labor, wage and working hour issues, trafficking, government corruption, land grabs, and water pollution.

Verisk Maplecroft

The reality of ingredient sourcing is sobering

The company decided to look at the makeup category specifically and chose five subcategories to highlight, face cream, foundation, mascara, blush and bronzer, and lipstick, according to Meagan Norris, a Verisk Maplecroft commodities analyst who compiled the report. To come up with the subsequent raw material ingredients to highlight, Norris went to Sephora’s website and searched within each makeup category, pulling out the top sellers. She then analyzed the ingredient lists of 25 products, running those raw ingredients through her company’s database. Commodities and extracts made up 30 percent of the total ingredients.

The results are pretty concerning. Rated on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 being low risk and zero being extreme risk, about half of the ingredients earned a high-risk rating in the 3.8 to 5 range. The report’s authors found “there was at least one high-risk commodity in each product’s ingredient list.”

One big ingredient of concern is cocoa, which shows up as cocoa seed butter or cocoa fruit powder on cosmetics ingredient lists. In two of its primary countries of origin, Ghana and Ivory Coast, there is “a ton of social risk,” Norris said. The most prevalent factor is child labor.

Child labor has also been identified in the farming and production of shea butter, vanilla, copper, and silk “in the last five years in at least one of their major producing countries,” the report noted.

Carnauba and carnellia wax, derived from a palm tree and a shrub, respectively, pop up in many beauty products, including lipstick and mascara. Both are associated with what Maplecroft called working-hour violations in Brazil and Mexico.

Some mined ingredients, like mica, are associated with child labor and what the report referred to as “forced labor.” Mica, an ingredient that adds sparkle to makeup, was present in 100 percent of the blush and bronzers, 60 percent of the foundations and lipsticks, and 40 percent of the mascaras that Verisk Maplecroft assessed.

In 2014 Lush, a UK-based company known to use natural ingredients with a focus on sustainability and transparency, made news when it decided to remove mica from its products after discovering it couldn’t ensure that child labor wasn’t used to procure the ingredient.

Finally, there are potential environmental issues, like deforestation and water pollution. Deforestation has been a well-publicized issue linked to the production of palm oil, which is used in both food and personal care products. Yet more innocuous-seeming crops like wheat, oats, and barley (found in facial creams and foundations) have been associated with water pollution in France, Australia, India, and China.

Daneger/Getty Images

Implications for the beauty industry

The fashion industry has been undergoing a reckoning, as a result of high-profile cases involving low-wage factories abroad, growing environmental concerns, and dangerous conditions for workers. Now it may be the beauty industry’s turn.

The food industry has already taken heat for using some of these ingredients, like cocoa and carnauba wax. Gummy bear purveyor Haribo got into trouble after a 2017 German documentary alleged that slave labor was involved in the production of carnauba wax, a prominent gummy — and lipstick — ingredient. These issues are “equally important for cosmetics, but not as widely reported in that area,” noted Norris.

Change tends to come when consumers ask for it, as evidenced by the clean beauty movement and also the push to end animal testing for cosmetics. Bills addressing cosmetics safety based on ingredients have languished without a vote for several years, and none of them have addressed supply chain abuses, only safety related to the ingredients. Because of the complexity of supply chains, though, this is going to be difficult to tackle since companies use hundreds of ingredients. But that doesn’t mean they should not attempt it.

Donna Westerman, the head of consumer and retail at Verisk Maplecroft, believes some of the onus should fall on the big multinational companies with multiple beauty brands in their portfolios. She said they can “be a change agent and focus in on that transparency [in the] supply chain,” which she acknowledges is a daunting task. “But you have, at the corporate level, the ability to impact so much because you own so much,” she said. Some companies have initiatives in place to start addressing some of these problems, like Unilever’s Sustainable Living and Values initiative and L’Oreal’s Sustainable Sourcing program, but many companies do not.

There is also the bigger picture to consider after the raw ingredients leave their place of origin. As illustrated in a piece about the life of a lipstick, products can pass through multiple countries and distributors before reaching a shopping cart on Sephora’s website. Each layer is vulnerable to possible human rights abuses, said Westerman.

It remains to be seen if customers will harness their empathy and outrage the way they did with animal testing. What is clear, though: The beauty industry still needs a lot more transparency.


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