Clean beauty or dirty marketing tricks: How can you tell if a beauty brand lives up to its green credentials?

Clean, natural, non-toxic? We ask sustainability journalist Lizzie Rivera for a definitive guide to ethical beauty. She uncovers the reality behind the greenwash...

Clean beauty or dirty marketing tricks: How can you tell if a beauty brand lives up to its green credentials?

I was at a 40th garden party on Saturday night, shimmering in a copper sequined jumpsuit. I didn’t get too close to people for two reasons. The first, as you can probably guess, is Covid. The second being that my ‘natural’ deodorant wasn’t quite doing the trick as weather was as changeable as, well, the Government’s lockdown policy.

The matter was not helped by the fact that I’ve stopped using washing powder and conditioner for the clothes – that I now wash less regularly – because I want to minimise my contribution to pollution of the waterways. Plus, I wasn’t wearing perfume because a report that found products like perfumes, hairsprays and deodorants can be as much a cause of air pollution as car emissions in industrialised cities was front of mind.[1]

Add to this that I was wearing a two-year-old foundation and not a shimmer of bronzer to highlight my cheeks – because the local shop that sells a newly discovered ethical brand I wanted to try out had sold out – and you start to get an insight into how my beauty sustainability efforts are coming at considerable lifestyle cost.

Life was so much easier when I didn’t think about a brand’s impact. When I unthinkingly exchanged my hard-earned cash for multiple layers of pretty packaging telling unchallenged sweet little lies.

Now, apparently, I belong to the group of 88% of consumers who want brands to do more to help them make a difference, according to a survey by sustainability agency Futerra.

I also count myself as the one in five who doesn’t know how to check a product’s sustainability credentials; and the one in three who doesn’t understand ingredient lists, as reported by The Courage To Change Report, commissioned by the British Beauty Council last year.

And I write about sustainability for a living.


In a 2017 national independent survey, 76% of respondents felt misled by the labels on cosmetic products, reports the Soil Association’s Campaign for Clarity.

And it’s not just consumers. I spoke with multiple beauty experts for this article and showed them a number of brands that made convincing claims of being ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’. I asked, were these brands good or bad?

Not one expert could give me a definite yes or no.

“Where’s the story? Where’s the honesty behind these brands? How do they substantiate their claims?” asks Lord Newborough, founder of luxury British sustainable skincare brand Wild Beauty [2].

Greenwashing – when a company claims to be more eco-friendly than they actually are – is rife in all industries, and beauty is no exception.

“We’re concerned that people are paying extra for so-called ‘eco-friendly’ products and those businesses which are genuinely investing in going green aren’t getting the recognition they deserve,” says chief executive of The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Andrea Coscelli.

The CMA is currently setting out what ‘green’ claims businesses are allowed to make, with the final guidance due to be published in September this year, but legislation is realistically a couple of years away. [3]

“The English language is a wonderful thing,” says Graeme Hume, founder of organic skincare range, Organii [4]. “The people who really abuse it are marketers. They’re not interested in integrity – they’re opportunists.”

And there’s a lot of opportunity to be had. Worth £28.4 billion in 2018, the British beauty industry makes up 1.3% of the country’s GDP, according to ONS Stats.

Future Market Insights reports that global sales of natural cosmetics reached £25 billion in 2019. [5]

So, what does ‘natural’ mean, exactly?

Well, quite.


The most concerning aspect of beauty marketing is that there is no regulation when it comes to use of the word “organic” or “natural”.

This means brands can use the word organic, even if organic products make up just 1% of their product. They can also claim to be natural if one ingredient comes from a plant and the bulk of the product is made up of petrochemicals.

As such, the only way to really tell if a brand is genuine, without visiting them yourself, is to look for certification, from a respected third-party certifier that insists on audits.

In the UK, the main ones to look out for are:

COSMOS Organic:

COSMOS Natural:


Soil Association Organic:

All of these certifications not only regulate what goes into the product, but also restrict the use of petrochemicals. They have policies on GM, packaging standards and animal testing.

There are differences between these standards; there’s much discussion between beauty brands about whether the difference between natural and organic certifications should be made clearer to consumers, for example.

But, regardless of these debates, every beauty expert agreed certification is the only way to verify a brand’s claims.

As a consumer without the desire or knowledge to look up every ingredient, a trusted certification feels like an essential first step.

“Of course, there are some great products out there that don’t have certifications – it isn’t cheap to certify, which may be a barrier for a small brand,” advises botanist Dr Paul Richards, founder of Soil Association certified Herbfarmacy [6].

In this case, the brand should be communicating not only a list of ingredients, but also where these are sourced from and how they are farmed, ideally providing photo evidence of this.

Herbfarmacy’s honest organic skincare range is made from herbs grown on their five-acre farm in Herefordshire, and their brilliant website communicates a level of detail all brands should be aiming for, certified or not.

Something to look out is pseudo-labels. These are icons that brands add to their labels that may look like a certification, but are not linked to a third-party certifier.


Synthetic vs. natural is the big debate when it comes to ingredients.

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that fossil fuel-based ingredients have a significant carbon footprint and cause harm once they are washed off into our rivers and oceans.

For example, oxybenzone used in sunscreen is said to be destroying coral reefs around the globe. Researchers found a single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water — about six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools — is enough to be deadly. [7]

Mineral sunscreens, as sold by the likes of Organii [8] are one alternative to consider.

This section could contain a whole list of ingredients to avoid. But then it would have to advise you to look into how the alternatives are produced – to make sure they’re not just a substitution for greenwashing sake.

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s automatically ‘good’ – palm oil being an obvious example.

The Soil Association’s Beauty and Wellbeing report states that:

“Over the past 50% years, palm oil plantation growth has come at the expense of tropical rainforest and peatland, destroying ecosystems and pushing wildlife such as the endangered orangutan to the brink of extinction.”

As such, some brands source genuinely sustainable palm oil, some claim to source sustainable palm oil, and other brands claim to be “Palm Oil Free”.

“The question is, is what they are replacing it with really any better?” asks Organii’s Graeme Hume, who points to the environmental destruction linked to one palm oil alternative, commercial almond tree production in California. There's also reports of chained monkeys being used to collect coconuts in some coconut oil production, which is a serious animal welfare issue.


Unsurprisingly, animal cruelty is a top concern for UK consumers. While testing on animals for cosmetic reasons is banned in Europe, China requires cosmetics to be tested on animals, by law. Peta keeps a list [9] of brands who comply with this, to sell to the lucrative Chinese market. China’s rules are changing. However, it raises the question whether even the UK and Europe operations of these brands, and their subsidiaries, can really be deemed to be ‘vegan’ or ‘cruelty free’. In fact, the CMA proposes that one of the six principles that environmental claims should follow includes that businesses: “Must not omit or hide important information: Claims must not prevent someone from making an informed choice because of the information they leave out.”

A big question for me is the people in the supply chain, who are barely – if at all – mentioned in the reports I have read. Do you know who makes your shampoo? If it’s ‘natural’, who farmed those ingredients? Where is it packaged? Under what working conditions? And how much are they paid?

This is shockingly under-reported.


Packaging meanwhile, gets all the attention. Materially speaking, the impact of packaging is significant. Each year, around 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetics industry, according to The Courage To Change Report. Should we be looking for products that come in glass bottles over plastic? Or recycled cardboard? Or recyclable cardboard?

Well, that depends. Glass can be recycled more easily than plastic, but it’s significantly heavier, which can mean higher carbon emissions in transportation. Also, glass in the shower is not the best idea from a safety point of view. Producing cardboard packaging is also energy intensive, and as demand soars, this is not the simple solution it seems to be at first glance.

The question is, how much packaging do we really need? Are ‘naked’ products or refillables viable options? A better question, undoubtedly, would be: do we really need all these products?


Many reports insist consumer purchasing decisions are increasingly informed by sustainability concerns. I would question how do consumers truly know what’s sustainable and what’s not?

I don’t believe we can. I don’t even know if, after reading countless reports and speaking to countless experts, I’m any wiser in a genuinely helpful way. I can’t definitively tell you what to look for or how to differentiate between honest and misleading sustainability claims.

I could name a handful of brands I trust after conducting this research, but the list of who I don’t trust would be a lot longer.

The only thing I can tell you, with certainty, is brands may be able to trick people, but they can't trick nature; and clever marketing is stalling genuine progress in the beauty industry.

I’d say your best bet, when looking for genuine sustainability in beauty, is to start with looking for third-party certifications. Even then, I’d say take some time to look into the certification to ensure it truly aligns with your values.

Alternatively, you could go to parties without any deodorant or make-up and without washing your hair or clothes. I know from experience it’s a great way to keep people at arm's length, and once you’ve lost your inhibitions a little, a fantastic conversation starter.

With thanks to Lord Newborough from Wild Beauty by Rhug Estate, Graeme Hume from Organii, Dr Paul Richards from Herbfarmacy, Fiona Campbell from Soil Association Certification and Ana Ledesma from Natrue.











Photo Credits:

Image 1 :Ika Damn

Image 2: Brook Lark

Image 3: Katherine Hamlon

Lizzie Rivera

Life was so much easier when I didn’t think about a brand’s impact.

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