How hard does it need to be to shop ethically?!

As part of my ongoing challenge to become a more conscious consumer, this month I’m reviewing the skincare I use and searching for more consciously minded, ethical brands.

Skincare is a massive area, so I’m narrowing it down to cleanser, moisturiser and foundation. Right now I’m using Liz Earle, L’Oreal, Olay and Max Factor.

I started with identifying how ethical or conscious my existing choices are, as in an ideal world they’ll be great and I can carry on using the products that I already like and have found to work for me :-)

So cleanser first; I use Liz Earle and frankly it’s hard to fault them. They don’t test on animals, they source responsibly, they are UK based, and their ingredients are all natural. So, I’m happy to carry on using their products (plus they work amazingly, and their cleansers in particular regularly win beauty awards). Bosh, one down.

I’m currently using a couple of moisturisers, one from L’Oreal and one from Olay, and it became very clear very quickly that judging these two was going to be a much harder job.

Let’s start with L’Oreal. According the Ethical Consumer site, they’re not so much. As a company they score 5 out of 20, with the rationale for this score including: operating in countries that consider to be governed by oppressive regimes, e.g China, Vietnam, Russia, plus apparently the L’oreal group still tests some products on animals, and finally, they’re a part of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (which is regarded by Ethical Consumer as “an international corporate lobby group which exerted corporate influence on policy-makers in favour of market solutions that were potentially detrimental to the environment and human rights. “)

The first thing I realised shortly after reading this brand summary is that I’m probably not as ethical as Ethical Consumer are, and neither are the majority of Uk consumers likely to be. Can I really advocate not buying products because they operate in countries like China and Russia? These nations are key players in today’s world and it’s unrealistic to expect that large corporations won’t operate there.

I also checked out the L’oreal site to sense-check some of the claims made by EC, particularly around animal testing as it’s so easily avoidable today. According to their site “the Group no longer tests on animal, anywhere in the world, and does not delegate this task to others.” However, they do have to point out that “in China, the regulatory authorities carry out within their evaluation centers animal tests for finished cosmetics products before these are placed on their market. We think these tests are unnecessary but we cannot prevent them. We are working in close collaboration with the different Chinese regulatory authorities to bring rapid change to the regulatory framework of cosmetics products which requires animal testing, so can be recognized the many alternative methods that are already validated in many other countries.” The fact that the Chinese continue to test on animals, and in some cases actually insist on it comes up time and time again when you start to really dig into various cosmetics companies sites, L’Oreal are by far not alone.

Now onto Olay and Max Factor, both of which are part of the P&G stable which overall has an Ethical Consumer rating of 6, based on being good on environment and sustainable palm oil sourcing, but less so on use their use of toxins (specifically micro beads) animal testing, supply chain mgmt, and anti social finance.

However, I’m also aware that P&G are working hard to become more sustainable, with their company vision including a series of 2020 targets in areas including product design, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use, recycling and social impact.

Whilst this all looks good, and I believe that in becoming a socially and environmentally responsible organization is a massive and complex undertaking for large organization, which is understandably going to take time to get right; my primary realization as I’ve gone through this process is that it’s almost just too hard to decide whether I feel that the products I’m using are ethical enough. I don’t know what good is supposed to look like, outside of the question of do they or don’t they test on animals. For example, if a brand’s water usage reduces 20% per year, is that good progress, or slower than acceptable progress???

What I’ve taken out of this is that whilst I could carry on using my current roster of products and is feel relatively fine about doing so (as I do believe we have to give credit to large organisations for trying to improve their behaviour in the broader stakeholder ecosystem) the only way to be certain that the brands I’m buying are truly ethical is to go organic. In effect, I’m now making the purchase process more difficult for myself, and yet it still seems like the easier option when compared to trying to make an informed choice!

A key implication of this month’s challenge for brands and marketers therefore, is that they really need to get better at making their commitments to ethical behaviour simple and easy to understand. As consumers, in particular at the younger end of the population, begin to demand more ethical products, they may, like me, end up giving up on the more ‘corporate’ brands and going all-organic, in an effort to take some control over their own purchasing choices. If brands can simply demonstrate their efforts to reduce environmental impact, to reduce animal testing and to improve working conditions much clearer, they will much better be able to retain customer loyalty in the future.

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