“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself”.
– Rachel Carson
For most of us, living a sustainable life is important. Our planet is under a lot of pressure as it is, and we can’t support our growing population if we keep leading such wasteful lives. Simple steps such as recycling, using our cars less, and buying local food can all help reduce our impact on the planet. However we rarely consider the impact that our beauty and hygiene routines have on the environment.
Between toxic chemicals, unsustainable ingredients, fossil fuels used, and non-degradable packaging, there is a lot wrong with the beauty industry’s impact on the planet. Fortunately, by being aware of these problems we can reduce our own impact and start to make real changes to the world.
Deforestation, palm oil and ‘natural’ skincare products
Many products that claim to be ‘natural’ use palm oils, but rarely do we see ‘palm oil’ on labels because it is listed often as glycerine, stearic acid or vegetable oils. These oils are inexpensive and durable, so they are used extensively as emulsifiers, cleansing and foaming agents, or even moisturisers. This explains why palm oil is so commonly used in personal care products.
According to research from the union of concerned scientists, “…most palm oil is produced on large industrial plantations, driving tropical deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. The harvested area of palm oil in Southeast Asia has tripled in just a decade. In Indonesia, palm oil area grew by 11.5 percent annually from 1997 to 2000, and by 15.8 percent annually from 2000 to 2007.” In late 2015 I travelled with my family to Sabah, in northern Borneo, to witness the severe deforestation and its impact on the wildlife and the local dwellers. The family we stayed with beside the Kinabatangan River shared how wild animals are being pushed away from the trees and towards the banks looking for shelter and food as a result of deforestation. Ironically this allows nature and animal lovers like us easily to see how wildlife lives. In fact, the deforestation of Sabah is at its peak, and as far as you could see, palm oil trees planted by man or burnt trees on bare land are visible all the way to the tip of Borneo. In Singapore, every year we suffer from the hazardous haze blown in thousands miles away from the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. It often reaches unhealthy or very unhealthy levels, schools are closed and no outdoor activities are encouraged. Many businesses are also affected during this period. The impact on the local regions is beyond comprehension.
The WWF reported in 2014, “Forests now cover 31% of the planet’s land area, and while over half of the Earth’s forests have been destroyed in the last 10,000 years, the majority fell in the last 50”. Furthermore, collaborative work between the University of Maryland (United States) and Google Earth* reveals that roughly 50,000 square miles of forest are erased every year – the equivalent of 36 football fields a minute. This is a shockingly painful truth, and each and every one of us is responsible.
This impact is due to the fact that palm oil is a monoculture harvested through completely destroying the plant. Palm farms need vast areas of rainforest to be destroyed, and the palms themselves are chopped down very regularly. The same holds true for oils like canola, or sunflower, which take up whole fields, destroying ecosystems. Contrast this with coconut or olive oils, where the plant stays up for many years, creating a hospitable environment for local wildlife. Choosing tree-fruit oils instead of palm oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil when making beauty products and cooking could help the planet. This is important as boycotting palm oil won’t stop deforestation. The landowners will instead move to other farmed goods. By consuming more sustainable crops that can be grown in a natural polyculture environment we encourage landowners to treat their land and the creatures on it with more respect.
Chemicals drained into the sea
We watch what we put into our mouths very closely, but we don’t pay as much attention to what we put on our skin. This is tragic as there are toxic compounds in many off-the-shelf personal care products that are weakening our skin’s natural defenses and even being absorbed through our skin into our bodies. In extreme cases these chemicals can cause toxic shock, such as tampons or certain hair dyes can. Even a short break from using these harmful products can radically improve our health.
Now, if that’s what these products can do to our skin, what damage are they doing to the plants and animals in our environment when we wash them down the sink? We should avoid some of these ingredients not only for health reasons but also for ethical reasons.
The UN Environmental Programme estimates there are 70,000 chemicals in everyday use across the world. Researchers from the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain note: “In recent years, an increasing concern about the presence of PPCPs (pharmaceutical and personal care products) in the environment and the unknown long-term effects on aquatic organisms and human health has arisen. Mass balance calculations indicate where efforts must be made in order to reduce the amounts of PPCPs being discharged into the environment. Due to the large amount of consumed in developed societies, significant concentrations of these compounds can be found in waste waters. However, conventional sewage treatment plants have been reported not to be an effective barrier to these substances because of their low concentrations and specific metabolic properties. Therefore, those compounds which resist the treatment processes commonly used in STPS (sewage treatment plants) or other transformations which can naturally occur in the environment, can end up in surface and groundwater, as well as in sediments and soils” to the detriment of the food chain.
In 2012 Natura Brasil found that eco-toxicity management was still under development and worryingly noted “We could not find fully established risk assessment tools, let alone a management framework for decision-making in a business setting; however, managing the environmental risk of ingredients and products is becoming more and more important, given the high volume and growth of chemical industry, and concerns for sustainability by various stakeholders including consumers, regulatory bodies, and manufacturers.” This shows that it is up to us, as consumers, to make informed decisions about what beauty products we use, as the companies are not doing their part.
Our recipes for homemade products are all biodegradable as 100% of the ingredients are truly naturally derived.
Plastics, labels and packaging
A study published on plastics in the environment and human health edition of the Royal Society’s demonstrates some of the effects plastic bottles have on the environment: “Product containers contribute to the environmental pollution of plastic. Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers and death.”12 Additionally, the ink used for labelling also negatively affects the environment, according to research published in Surface Coating International says, “legislative measures intended to protect the environment have led to changes for ink manufacturers, both in the way that ink is produced, and, more significantly, in the products that are available or being developed for printers.”
It is not a common practice for big companies to consider using biodegradable or renewable packaging. So if you make your own products naturally, you can minimise the consumption of plastics that are now being recycled or used as land refill. Once you learn that many food ingredients such as tea bags and rice water can be used to create skincare products, you can not only save money but also reduce chemical and plastic consumption and wastage in general.
Fossil fuels and Big Beauty
No, not as in “big and beautiful”, but as in “the big beauty industry”. Naturally, every big industry uses large amounts of fossil fuels. It’s easy to think of the vehicles being used to transport the ingredients to the factory and the final product to the bottling plant. But fossil fuel use doesn’t end there for the beauty industry. Each ingredient is typically made in a separate factory, building up transport costs. And these factories need electricity, which typically comes from energy plants burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels also go into making plastic containers, lubricants for machines, and even some ingredients, such as petroleum jelly.
By making beauty products at home you are protecting the environment: reducing waste, not putting toxins into the water, tackling deforestation, and reducing your carbon footprint.