Green self-claims have proliferated in the cosmetics business. Many with no scientific evidence to back them up. To address this worrying trend, the EU will extend the Ecolabel scheme to all cosmetics in October, using more robust criteria thoroughly checked by NGOs.
Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the impact of their actions on the planet, and labels play a major role in their purchasing behaviour.
Today, three out of four products in the EU display an environmental claim or label. In the case of cosmetics, the number of green labels that claim to be natural, clean, eco-friendly, sustainable, etc., can be dizzying.
How to tell which labels truly respect the environment and which ones are directly pushing us to 'greenwashing ourselves'?
We talk about 'greenwashing' when companies claim they are protecting the natural environment although they are actually not.
This practice has notably gained ground in the cosmetics business. According to the latest research of the European Commission, 42% of green claims are potentially false or deceptive in sectors such as cosmetics, textiles and household equipment. Moreover, more than half of the green trademarks analysed provide insufficient information or offer no actual evidence to support their green claim.
Cosmetics industry giants like L'Oréal have developed their own benchmarking label - from A to E - to classify their products according to their environmental impact. These ranking systems can be very helpful to guide users when they cover all products within a sector - and when based on scientific consensus and are independently developed.
However, what the French multinational does in practice is to compare only its own products (Garnier-L'Oréal) with its own criteria. For example, their score takes into account the impact of emissions from people taking the shower but leaves out key environmental parameters like 'human toxicity'.
Self-developed schemes of this kind, and even marketing techniques considered more naive, such as highlighting the presence of plants or using vague wording like 'pure' or 'natural', are creating a deep distrust towards environmental claims.
EU figures show that although most consumers are receptive to green claims when making their purchase decisions, 61% find it difficult to understand which products are truly environmentally-friendly. Moreover, 44% of European consumers say they do not trust this type of information.
Third-party verified schemes seem to be the only way forward to tackle this wave of cosmetics greenwashing.
The EU has been working for years on the development of rigorous labels to empower both consumers and manufacturers in the green transition.
More than 80% of consumers who know the EU Ecolabel trust it, according to a Eurobarometer survey. In recent years, this certification has also gained attention from producers, doubling certified products from 40.000 to 78.000. Recent statistics from March 2021 show that it continues to grow despite the COVID-19 crises and Brexit.
Scientists, industry, and NGOs have recently been involved in the revision of the EU Ecolabel for cosmetics, which is currently only available for rinse-off cosmetics such as gels and shampoos.
As part of the EU Ecolabelling board, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has been successfully advocating for extending the scheme to all cosmetics with stricter environmental requirements. It is expected that the new outcome will be adopted and published in October 2021.
Besides excluding microplastics, the new EU Ecolabel will bring more ambitious requirements for aquatic toxicity, biodegradability and verification of sustainable sourcing of palm oil.
"The revised criteria, recently endorsed by Member States, make the EU Ecolabel a good guide for consumers that are interested in the impact of cosmetics on the planet", says Blanca Morales EU Ecolabel Coordinator for EEB and BEUC.
These new criteria not only bring good news to eco-conscious consumers, but also to those who are increasingly using apps to avoid hazardous chemicals in cosmetics. The new EU Ecolabel for cosmetics will tell us which products are free of endocrine disruptors, allergens and sensitising chemicals, including highly toxic fluorinated PFAS, which can stay forever in our bodies and the environment.
New EU Ecolabel follows in the footsteps of its Nordic counterpart for cosmetics, the Nordic Swan, a certificate widely recognised and successful in the Scandinavian market.
The European Commission is already taking some positive steps to protect consumers from greenwashing, but it must not slow down.
Following the new ecolabel scheme, the EU must develop a white list of trustworthy labels based on strong principles (criteria publicly available, third-party verification, stakeholder consultation, etc.) and only allow the use of voluntary labels or logos that meet these criteria.
Similarly, a blacklist of confusing, vague or misleading claims should be developed by the Commission to reveal deceptive marketing targeted at consumers. It is crucial to develop robust governance and market surveillance systems. Evidence to support any green claims should be made available before entering the market. Creating a database to register green claims and make use of the 'product passport' would simplify market surveillance and significantly increase transparency.
As part of the efforts to continuously strengthen ecolabelling, the EU could increase fiscal incentives for making it more attractive for the industry. There is still potential to reinforce the benchmark of environmental excellence for best-in-class products and expand it to more product groups and services.
The European Green Deal is not only a political roadmap but also the promise for many Europeans to live greener lives. We expect more ambitious initiatives from the EU institutions to help us through the green transition - not through the green hoax.