I was listening to ‘The Forum’ yesterday, a radio program from the BBC’s World Service which brings together global thinkers to debate topical issues.  This weeks edition was about Corporate Social Responsibility and it got me thinking about change in the cosmetics industry!

Those of us who have walked the corporate walk will know that CSR is becoming big business.  We have to walk the walk, talk the talk and live the ‘green dream’. Sounds great in theory but in practice many of big decisions that corporations make stem from their accounts department rather than from their community heart and when big business and shareholders meet it’s all about the dollars – financial growth is ALL important.

Listening to the comments during the above debate this was clearly still a sore point for many. We all want change we have to overcome a massive brick-wall of inertia to really implement it.  When it comes to the crunch, putting financial growth second or third down the list to saving the planet, living in a more sustainable way and giving something back just doesn’t cut the mustard.

If we bring the debate down to the level of the cosmetics industry we can have a number of possible outcomes:

  1. We continue as an industry to make more products, further segment the market and offer more choice as a way of getting more dollars out of our customers. However, we do this using “Green” principles and make sure we help to clean up our mess.
  2. We make products with less ingredients but better functionality and promote the one-size fits all mentality as a way of reducing environmental impact.  We promote these as “green” and charge more for them thus creating a lucrative “green” market.
  3. As an industry we talk about the VALUE of good cosmetic products and we educate and discuss with the  public  the benefits of buying products that last, that are multi-functional, that give meaningful results, that have little environmental impact. We advocate buying less but buying well.

All three of these outcomes would move the industry to a more earth-friendly position but not all of them would lead to “Greener” outcomes:

For scenario one even thought the industry is going green and ticking that Corporate Social Responsibility box it is still endorsing the ‘buy lots and value little’ mentality that has been with us for the last thirty years. We are what we buy and we want to be more and buy more.

Scenario two is getting there as manufacturers are really thinking about HOW they make and market products BUT they are keeping those deep thoughts to themselves – DO we really want the tail to wag the dog?  This approach may also fall short of the mark as purchasing behaviour has not been addressed.

Scenario three is getting closer as we now have VALUE and EDUCATION coming into the equation. If we as an industry truly VALUE our resources, time and products we will make better ones, ones that work so well that you need less. Once more we are taking the time to educate, to inform, to discuss this strategy with our public. 

Scenario three could well give rise to a transformational relationship between the consumer and the producer. Yes it is always worrying to decentralised control and no, you can’t please everyone but openness, honesty and common sense should still be worth investing in. But what about the dollars? If  we tell people to buy less we will make less and sell less?  That comes down to the V word again. If we truly value our resources we should not give them away. That doesn’t mean that the industry becomes elitist and charges a fortune for everything. It means that we offer true VALUE for money at every price point. We produce locally where possible, we are thrifty with our resources and we are smart about our supply chain and marketing. 

Offering products that are “VALUE” driven means that they valued by the company AND the public. Once more, when backed up by open debate, education and consultation the VALUE is fully understood by all stakeholders and the “Green Circle” can be completed.

It is possible, even highly desirable to achieve financial growth while consuming less. This is the challenge of our time.

Back to the forum and I was also interested by one comment from a marketer about “Green Inertia”.  It seems (and I am one of these) that even those that BELIEVE that there are limits to growth  (See the Club of Rome, 1972) are slow to change their purchasing habits.

We know that using 10 cosmetic products a day is not as sustainable as using 3 or 4.

We know that local produce is best but it is not always available at our hypermarket.

We know that there really is no good substitute to that hairspray (that we don’t NEED but we WANT) but we buy it anyway.

So if we forget the CORPORATE for a moment, how do WE become socially responsible?

One comment was that we still display our worth through our purchases – nobody knows how low our household emissions are but we can all see what car we drive. 

If we drive a fancy car people will instantly know that we are successful, if we wear designer clothes people will know that we have “made it”.  If we have shiny hair, clear skin and manicured nails (men and women) people will think that we have everything under control. And this is true but is it sustainable?

How ever much we want to embrace change, move with the cheese and take each day as it comes – suck it up love – we can’t JUST do it.  This is not because we are lazy or even that scared it is because our brains favour simplicity and changing habits of a lifetime don’t come easy!

Think of how hard it is to resist that biscuit at elevensies? You’ve been enjoying it since you were five but now at 45 you could do with cutting down on the sugar. It’s not easy.

Think of how much harder would be to drag the three kids and your re-usable bags around the town and surrounding villages in search of home-made honey,  free range eggs, locally butchered meat and hand-made soap.  The supermarket has all of this in one place and you’re busy.

The key to overcoming the ‘Green’ inertia is to keep it simple and to measure success in baby steps. We all know what we should do and many of us do have the option to do the right thing but before we can be A grade conscious consumers we have to overcome our biological inertia – our human limitations.

As you see, the question of how to create a sustainable cosmetics industry is not a trivial one. Further to that, the question of how to develop a highly motivated and active public to engage in sustainability is another. It’s about simplicity, collaboration and the passing over of some control.  That doesn’t come easy to business or to us as individuals but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

The only way to eat an elephant is piece by piece.  Let’s make ourselves comfortable as this will be a long ride.