The Beauty Industry: Products for a Healthy Glow or a Compact for Harm?

In my recently published book Deeply Responsible Business, I write about business leaders since the 19th century who have acted responsibly, often by putting the welfare of their communities above the idea of maximizing profits.

I make a sharp distinction between conventional corporate social responsibility (CSR) and deep responsibility that seeks to make society a truly better place. I argue that driven by virtue and spirituality, deeply responsible business leaders have followed three practices:

  • They chose industries in which products and services were truly useful and contributed to human flourishing.
  • They interacted with stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers, and government officials, with purpose and humility, and never in exploitative and harmful ways.
  • Finally, they believed that business had an important role in contributing to the vitality of their communities.

Working on the book got me thinking about responsibility in the beauty industry, an industry I have written about at length. The question of whether the industry is responsible has received scarce attention, which is unfortunate because of the industry’s large size and relentless growth. The worldwide beauty industry has reached $625 billion in sales by 2023, of which the United States and Western Europe represent about 20 percent each and China a further 16 percent. Has this been a responsible industry? Let’s break it down.

Rating the beauty industry on usefulness

One way to answer this question: Ask whether this industry contributes to human flourishing. The fact that almost all past societies used beauty products suggests these items had some socially productive purpose, perhaps broadly related to the human desire to attract and reproduce. And in general, many people have appreciated the ability to use makeup and creams to enhance their appearance.

At the same time, the ingredients employed in making early craft beauty products were often hazardous. The beauty industry’s employment of basic chemistry since the 19th century can be seen as improving safety to some degree.

“Brands often set their own rules, and many are able to make claims that their products are ‘natural,’ which may lead consumers to believe they use safe, organic ingredients when they may not.”

Yet not all chemical products were or are safe, and the industry has been notably reluctant to welcome external regulation. US-based companies have been particularly adept in lobbying against regulation of potentially harmful ingredients. A report in 2019 noted that the European Union had banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals used as ingredients for cosmetics, while the US had outlawed or curbed only 11.

No international standard exists for how much product ingredient information companies must share with consumers. Brands often set their own rules, and many are able to make claims that their products are “natural,” which may lead consumers to believe they use safe, organic ingredients when they may not.

Have beauty companies acted with purpose and humility?

A second characteristic of a deeply responsible business is to interact with other stakeholders with purpose and humility, rather than in exploitative and harmful ways. The beauty industry as a whole evidently fails to qualify, at least in regard to its interactions with consumers.

From the 19th century onward, the industry has always been a huge spender on advertising, encouraging women in particular to buy multiple products. In 2022, cosmetics and toiletries were one of the leading advertising categories worldwide, amounting to $7.7 billion, or six percent of the total global advertising spend. Even more importantly, the industry’s extensive advertising has been characterized by excessive claims about the miraculous impact of its products and the magical qualities of its exotic ingredients.

Plus, the messages contained in the mainstream industry’s marketing were more clearly irresponsible in at least two respects.

  • They excluded certain demographics. As the industry emerged, it privileged the features of white people. While there is now a much greater push for ethnic diversity, much of the advertising by mainstream companies still primarily focus on white women and leave others out.
  • They favored the young. In addition, from the start, the industry was also preoccupied with age and insistent that any woman beyond her mid-20s (or in some cases even younger) had a problem that needed addressing. Making generations of women afraid of the natural process of aging was deeply irresponsible.

In addition, while the industry has employed large numbers of women, as companies scaled, women rarely led them. In 2023, only one of the top 10 global beauty companies, Bath and Body Works, had a female chief executive.

Finally, the environmental impact of the beauty industry, like its fashion counterpart, has been overwhelmingly negative. Beauty packaging currently amounts to over 120 billion units every year, and much of it ends up as waste. Widely used ingredients, including chemical preservatives, can cause changes to the biochemistry of aquatic life, including the plankton population, and can have toxic effects on humans.

While many beauty brands have set environmental goals, for instance, to move away from single-use plastics and provide more transparency around ingredients used in products, the industry’s efforts have been spotty and inconsistent.

Beauty’s place in the community

A third characteristic of deeply responsible business leaders is that they support communities. They invest in particular cities, creating jobs, but also invest in educational and cultural facilities that make communities better places to live.

“In many ways, the beauty industry has monetized people’s anxieties about how they look and has also had a toxic impact on the natural environment.”

In the beauty industry, the most successful companies were largely based in major fashionable cities, primarily New York and Paris, which had no need for beauty companies to engage in community-building. The industry celebrated the global relevance of New York and Paris, rather than the beauty ideals of local communities. The industry was a driver of global beauty ideals, not of local communities.

In many ways, the beauty industry has monetized people’s anxieties about how they look and has also had a toxic impact on the natural environment. For these reasons, I believe the industry does not qualify as “deeply responsible,” at least not yet. Even in the absence of government regulations, the industry can take steps on its own to become more responsible—if its leaders choose to take action.

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