Home » Sustainable beauty gains momentum in the MENA

Sustainable beauty gains momentum in the MENA

by Mohammad Ghazal

Away from glossy magazine covers, long lashes and lipstick, the reality of the beauty industry is not quite so pretty. Cosmetic waste and pollution remain high, and many products continue to contain chemicals that are harmful to us and the planet.

However, in the Middle East, which has some of the highest spending on beauty globally, the tide is beginning to change. Consumers are demanding more environmentally conscious products from naturally-derived ingredients. Sustainable beauty is on the rise.

Beauty’s ugly secret

The beauty industry, at large, is a leading source of single-use plastic, it uses harmful chemicals and contributes to coral reef and wildlife destruction. It’s also responsible for hugely unsustainable resource consumption, and for some of beauty’s biggest players, emissions are on the rise.

By 2027, the cosmetics market is projected to be worth more than $784 billion. If it continues along this perilous path, the consequences for the planet are huge.

Currently, the industry ploughs through 120 billion units of packaging every year, with 95% of it simply thrown away. Moreover, despite some regulatory attempts to phase out microbeads, they’re still present in many beauty products. Of course, the impact of plastic pollution is no secret, either: severe damage to wildlife, marine species and ecosystems, chemical contamination, and health risks.

Beyond plastic pollution, beauty is also a big user of palm oil. Its versatility and low cost mean it’s found in 70 per cent of all cosmetic products, from lotions to lipstick. And while organisations like the RSPO work to certify palm oil products’ sustainability, there are questions about whether they can ever truly be sustainable. After all, palm oil production continues to be responsible for large-scale deforestation, human rights violations and social conflict.

Aside from their huge environmental impacts, many cosmetic ingredients are also dangerous for human health. From parabens in mascaras and foundation to octinoxate in lipsticks and nail polish, these ingredients have been linked to hormone disruption, allergic reactions and even cancer.

Changing purchasing behaviour

In recent years, consumers have gradually been adapting purchasing behaviour to align with their personal beliefs. That said, COVID-19 was a particular catalyst. Not only did it turn consumers’ focus to health and wellbeing in the Middle East, it also reinforced awareness of social and environmental sustainability, according to PwC. Its research revealed that 75% of Middle East consumers now buy from companies that are environmentally conscious, compared with 54% globally.

This trend is here to stay, too. “Consumer attitudes in the MENA region are shifting positively towards clean, green, and blue beauty. There is a growing awareness of the importance of using environmentally friendly and sustainable products,” said Nerissa Low, founder of Liht Organics. She noted that consumers are becoming “more conscious” of the ingredients used in their beauty products, “the impact on their health and the environment,” and “actively seeking brands that align with their values.” “In the past few months, we have seen a rise in inquiries and rampant adoption of clean beauty products,” she added.

Gen Z and Millenials are leading the way here. A new ESW Study found that almost 60% have stopped purchasing products from brands without environmental credentials. First Insight, meanwhile, found that three in four Gen Zs now prioritise sustainability over brand name.

But the industry is waking up to consumers clocking on, and in recent years, there’s been a wave of beauty brands making big green claims. However, there’s no regulated definition for what can be classified as ‘clean’ ‘green’ or ‘blue,’ meaning there’s a higher risk of greenwashing.

According to Low, greenwashing is “extremely prevalent” in the beauty industry. “Some brands may make misleading claims or use deceptive marketing tactics to appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are.”

Further, Low notes that in the region, there is a “growing need” for regulation and industry-wide pledges. This, she said, would address issues around green claims and the terminology used by beauty brands.

“Clear regulations and standards can help prevent greenwashing and ensure that brands are held accountable for their sustainability claims. Industry-wide pledges and collaborations can also promote transparency and encourage brands to adopt more sustainable practices,” she added.

Disrupting the status quo

Back in January, research from Carbon Trust found that none of the ten largest beauty companies have an independently validated net zero target, with three failing to even commit to one publicly.

But, in the MENA, things are beginning to change, with more companies focusing on ethical and sustainable ingredient sourcing, saying no to toxic chemicals, and prioritising environmental protection.

Low’s company launched in 2019 as the first organic makeup brand in the Middle East, and it’s built on the tenets of sustainable beauty.

“Sustainable beauty, to me, means creating products that prioritise the health of the skin while minimising harm to the environment,” said Low.” Indeed, Low’s products are “not only safe and beneficial for the skin,” but also produced with a “strong commitment to cruelty-free and vegan practices.”

“We are proud to be certified for our environmentally safe methods and recognised for our green efforts, ensuring that our brand aligns with the principles of sustainability in every aspect. We go beyond the surface level of using organic and natural ingredients,” she said.

Low says this commitment to sustainability extends to every step of the production process – from responsible ingredient sourcing to using eco-friendly packaging materials. Low shared that its organic ingredients, for example, are grown using biodynamic farming methods to preserve the land.

Further, to minimise waste and reduce the company’s carbon footprint, it offers hybrid as well as refillable makeup. Indeed, research shows that a whopping 70 per cent of industry emissions could be reduced by switching to reusable bottles.

It’s also created reusable packaging to “reduce wastage” and invested in FSC-certified paper for its boxes to “preserve biological diversity” and “benefit the lives of local people.”

Low is in good company, too. Increasingly brands in the MENA are showing that beauty can and should be more than skin deep.

Brands like Peacefull, for example, are selling products that are gluten, paraben, sulfate, fragrance and cruelty-free. Elsewhere, conscious beauty e-tailers like ELUXURA are making sustainable products more accessible. We’re also seeing more clean beauty boutiques, such as Beirut-based Lynn’s Apothecary. These outlets are stocking up on products informed by ethical approaches and sustainable practices.

Indeed, sustainable beauty brands are undoubtedly on the rise, with projections that the clean beauty industry in the GCC alone is set to reach $2.6 billion by 2025. But there’s still work to be done to convert consumers, and identifying barriers to adoption is a key step here.

Cost has been identified as a potential challenge. Research in Saudi Arabia found that despite a high level of awareness of organic cosmetics, with 81.8% agreeing they’re better environmentally, only 48.1% were willing to pay extra, despite 56.4% preferring to use such products. Other research has found that consumers struggle to trust brands’ sustainability claims.

Here, to convert conscious consumers into customers while combating greenwashing, transparency is key. Low echoes this sentiment and says that companies have a role in educating consumers.

“We aim to combat greenwashing by being transparent about our ingredients, certifications, and sustainability practices. We focus on constantly educating consumers, and how they can differentiate between what is truly clean and what is greenwashed as ‘clean beauty’,” she said.

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