Three years ago, I sat in a crowded restaurant with two intelligent, well-educated women and expressed my deep reservations about green beauty. I spoke to the point of tears, and my relationship with one of those women never recovered. At the time, the movement known as green beauty was gaining momentum. Positioned as a voice of truth, it put extreme focus on the ingredients being used in beauty products.
I argued that the entire identity of green beauty (a segment of the industry in which products are primarily formulated from naturally derived ingredients) was being built on the exclusive concerns of upper-middle-class white women. Among other issues, the products were, at times, laughably expensive, and available only in limited shade ranges. I also argued that the narrative of toxins in beauty products was misleading and short-sighted, and I was frustrated by my colleagues’ inability to share my perspective.
I’ve worked in beauty for 16 years, and I’ve had many roles – hairstylist and salon owner, makeup artist, content creator, studio owner and creative director. I love this industry, even with its considerable challenges, to my core. Looking back, I’m not sure I could have predicted just how massive and baneful green beauty would become.
What began as a grassroots, public-health movement about concern for toxicity and environmental impact quickly morphed into a highly marketable and rarely scrutinized e-commerce machine. And, after years of growth and millions of dollars invested into green(er) product formulations, marketing assets, influencer campaigns and e-commerce platforms, we still haven’t figured out whether there is any real validity to the notion that conventional beauty products make people sick.
We don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the mountain of scientific uncertainties in relation to the negative claims being hurled at conventional beauty. We don’t acknowledge how difficult and expensive it is to research ingredients, and we fail to reference the enormous number of contributing factors linked to human disease in general. It’s much sexier and far more convenient to blame our beauty products.
In the beginning, I stifled my feelings because I wanted to belong in the industry. I wanted to contribute to the conversation and our environment in a positive way. However, as both a professional and a consumer, I found myself inundated with a long list of concerning backstories. I witnessed an overwhelming number of founders explain that they began creating beauty products as a direct result of having suffered deeply traumatic health scares. It is not my intention to minimize what I’m certain were difficult personal experiences, but there’s a part of me that can’t ignore the gravity of using such bewildering and painful ordeals as the reason to sell millions of dollars worth of lipstick.
The original architects of green beauty may very well have inadvertently harnessed the most powerful purchase motivator in the history of marketing – the notion that you might die if you don’t buy their products. It’s no wonder that some green-beauty brands use fear as a marketing tool, when they themselves were motivated to start a business by it. Fear is a form of control. When consumers are scared, they make reactive, impulsive decisions, and the marketer is bestowed little accountability as a result. When it comes to green beauty in particular, I believe the past few years of incessant fear-mongering have infected the most basic ideas women have about themselves.
I felt like a solitary voice in a sea of privileged hysteria, until I began receiving messages on social media from women all over the world who feel increasingly inferior as a result of their participation in the green-beauty movement. That’s because there is a big difference between what is said and what is implied. Privately, green-beauty professionals will tell you with sincere conviction that life is about balance – that living the perfect green life is not only inherently difficult, it’s impossible. And yet, green-beauty marketing as a whole implies perfection as the standard, with sickness and death as likely consequences for failing to meet it.
Green-beauty brands are extremely effective at storytelling: They create a narrative about the problem because they want to sell you a solution – regardless of whether that solution is credible. They are quick to expose the poisonous effects of preservatives (both Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have said parabens in cosmetics have no adverse effect on human health) but will avoid the subject when asked how they intend to protect their customers from pathogenic bacteria. They are passionate about revealing the dangers of synthetic ingredients without ever admitting that some natural ingredients – such as coloured pigments and various natural clays – have the potential to be just as harmful when inhaled.
The lack of regulatory supervision by various government bodies is constantly vilified by the green-beauty community. It’s a highly hypocritical position, because it is unlikely that the majority of indie beauty brands would remain financially viable if stricter cosmetic regulations were in place.
I can’t tell you the number of times green-beauty brands have frivolously marketed products as “sun care” moisturizers, without having adequately tested whether they safely protect consumers from damaging sun rays. They are careful to avoid calling them “sunscreen” products, which are considered drugs in North America and therefore subject to very strict and expensive regulatory testing. I often ask myself whether these brands recognize the irony in their actions. They are directly benefiting from the very lack of regulatory oversight they so passionately disagree with.
Increasingly, the women around me are not only anxious about their health; they are burdened by an undeniable pressure to keep up appearances. An entire generation of women is obsessed with being clean, not just physically, but spiritually and mentally as well. Consider, for a moment, the weight of what that means. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my contributions to a movement that continues to ignore the crushing ramifications of exclusivity and divisiveness.
There are times when I feel as though the original activists of green beauty failed us. Rather than running for influential government positions to create change, they started selling products for profit. It pains me to write this article because I realize – with a genuine sense of humility – that I didn’t run for government, either. I’ve always believed that beauty can be a powerful vehicle for social change. For that to happen, some brands might have to abandon various aspects of their cemented dogma. On some level, they might have to admit they’re wrong. I wonder now, whether the green-beauty community will ever be able to forgo its monetary gains for a fundamental, proven truth.
Those feelings I experienced early on, that something was wrong with my industry, they are still with me. The role that women have played in recent events around the globe is not lost on me, either, and I can’t help but wonder about all the ways we’re limiting each other, with all of this pressure and disapproval and paralyzing fear.
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