Products or people? Who should we be thanking for our ‘holy grails’?

Products or people? Who should we be thanking for our ‘holy grails’?

By Melody Triumph

We shouldn’t have to lose our independence and abandon our principles, just to maintain and beautify our bodies.

What is the cosmetics industry

To really explore our relationships with cosmetic products and companies, and how they affect our ability to maintain and beautify ourselves independently, live more ethically and be more sustainable, it’s important to know what the cosmetic industry actually is, and what it does for us.

Products produced in the cosmetic industry are things such as foundations, blushes and bronzers. They also include hair care (shampoo and conditioner), skincare (moisturisers, cleansers) and other products that would relate to personal hygiene and also treat superficial body issues such as acne and eczema, through the use of “cosmetic” (now meaning, topical and superficial in the sense of measurement of depth not quality) products.

The state of the industry today

In 2019, Brits spent approximately 33 billions pounds on personal care, and globally the cosmetics industry is currently worth 500 billion dollars (300 BN pounds). In 2019 skincare (a branch of the cosmetics industry) made up 40% of the total global cosmetics market, and grew in popularity as consumers shifted from beauty products to skincare products. For many people, makeup started to feel less necessary as they were spending more time indoors, and skincare due to the increase in ‘maskne’, skincare products became more necessary but also acted as a way to de-stress in a time that has been stressful and uncertain for all.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with these big numbers and the growth of the cosmetics industry. From the understanding given above, it is clear that cosmetic treatments often become forms of medical treatments, catering to skin diseases and also aid in mental wellness too. Many of us have had to deal with unexpected acne breakouts during COVID-19 – including myself – which has led to endless scrolling on Reddit’s Skincare Addiction and binge watching dermatologists, esthetician and skin care enthusiasts on Youtube like Dr Dray, Dr Alexis Stephens and Gothamista. There is definitely a need for them. The only concern with these numbers is what it says about our reliance on corporations to sustain ourselves and how that in turn affects our ability to live out the principles of being more sustainable and ethical.

We are all too ignorant

Many of us are very unaware of the production processes that produce our favourite products (and clothes). We don’t know how much water it takes to produce our shower gels, we don’t know who is making our body butters and we don’t know the conditions they are made in and how much these invisible workers are being paid.

Now, the conversation around making more ethical and sustainable consumer decisions is a privileged one. Often the most accessible and affordable resources come from questionable brands, so those who are not financially privileged can help by consuming less, spreading awareness and staying educated. A good hour of skimming articles, running through statistics can give anyone a general understanding of the amount of ugliness that occurs to create our favourite beauty products.

Being out of touch with these processes makes us disillusioned to who is actually creating the products and therefore who our allegiance should go to. Brands don’t make products, people do. Being more aware of who is making our products will enable us to be more conscious of their working conditions and livelihood. We know that consumers are popular, just by the ever increasing popularity of veganism, and its transition into the mainstream. The same can happen with the cosmetics industry. An increased awareness of the production process within the cosmetics industry can push consumers to demand for more ethically sourced resources, ethical working conditions and also products that take an intersectional approach and cater to everyone.

Being an independent and resistant consumer under capitalism

A reliance on brands skew where our appreciation should be going, and makes us less likely to be concerned about working conditions and ethical and sustainable practices. We become entranced by a big brand’s marketing and longevity in the industry, beautiful packaging and forget that it’s just an overpriced cream full of irritating and sensitising fragrance, to the point where we are unable to be independent consumers. We shouldn’t solely rely on formulations to maintain our bodies. What if the company gets wound up? Or what if they change their formulation because they wanted to improve it, or the current one wasn’t making enough sales? What will you do? Will you go and spend more money searching for your new holy grail, only for them to change the formulation again or discontinue the line?

Understanding the production process of our essentials, reveals the ingredients that are actually helping us. It shows us that we can make some of these products ourselves (e.g. DIY body scrub or hair oil) and allows us to resist capitalism and not depend on corporations to maintain our bodies.

Ignorance steals independence

In 2017 Nivea launched a colourist campaign advertising their new cream across West African countries. If that cream became someone’s “holy grail” (e.g. it kept their skin soft without any allergic reactions), it may be difficult for that person to resist colourist marketing (something that is not only prevalent across African and Caribbean countries, but countries in Asia too). because they are dependent on Nivea to upkeep their skin health. However, if the person is aware of the questionable practices of the brand and that shea butter is the key ingredient to making that cream their “holy grail” (thus being aware of the ingredients and the production process), they would be able to abandon the product, boycott the brand and either buy from an ethical company or  go directly to the source and make a product themselves.

Our ignorance of the production process of these cosmetics, who makes them and where they are made, focuses our attention on the brand and makes us dependent, rather than the workers and resources used to create them. If we had a better understanding of where the products on our top shelves come from, then we would be more invested in ingredients, processes and people, and be able to make more ethical and sustainable purchase decisions, without having to compromise our need to maintain and beautify our bodies.

Ways to purchase more sustainably and ethically could buy from local brands, try and move towards low-zero waste and research the company you are purchasing from. You can try making your own products. For example, buying shea butter and coconut oil and mixing it to make your own body butter. You can also buy from brands that push for recyclable and sustainable packaging, and less consumption such as ‘Krave Beauty‘ founded by Liah Yoo.

If your skin does need a retinoid or a BHA to stay acne and pain free, try to limit the amount of products you use. Brands such as ‘Krave Beauty‘ push for this, and looking for messaging that is similar to theirs such as #PressReset and not buying 20 different products that may end up irritating it rather than helping it. For example, many of us have realised we only need a cleanser, moisturiser (or oil), sunscreen and a product that helps with cell turnover (an AHA, BHA or Retinoid product) to maintain healthy skin.

Looking forward – a new kind of industry

If we can make our products ourselves, or at least know the specific ingredients we need to give us our desired glow, we can easily switch to ethical and sustainable brands that focus on the welfare of their workers and the planet, or even make our own products, because we won’t be blinded by the clout of the brand, and be informed consumers able to make independent and conscious decisions about the products we purchase.