Green Cosmetics Focus: Supply Chains & Raw Ingredients

As the cosmetic industry goes greener, making sure the ingredients that we’re using are both sustainably and ethically sourced is paramount. While we’re certainly taking strides to demand transparent manufacturing, the natural beauty industry, as well as consumers, have been more focused on using ‘natural’ ingredients rather than ensuring their sustainability.  I find that time and time again, people equate natural as good, synthetic as bad, but in what context are we talking about? If it’s the environmental and social impact of an ingredient, it seems that we’re forgetting - the whole supply chain has an impact, from initial sourcing of raw materials all the way to how we as consumers use and dispose of the product, or how our water treatment facilities are able to deal with the ingredients used. It’s simply not so cut and dry, especially when, natural ingredients are often the culprits for huge environmental impacts as well as slavery at the bases of the supply chain. In this post, I’ll take you through some basic definitions, some of the issues regarding sustainability and social impacts of cosmetic ingredients, how we’re moving forward as an industry to address these problems, and how you can help. Note, I’m clearly not opposed to natural ingredients, as my own business is a natural cosmetic business - it’s just important to do things right.

Disclaimer, this article is focused on raw ingredient sourcing and the supply chain. The end of product life and how it’s ingredients impact the environment post-consumer is another important consideration that I only will briefly touch upon.

What is sustainable?

Sustainable: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Brundtland Commission, 1987

Sustainability sounds simple but when put into practice ends up being anything but. With respect to sourcing raw materials, if they’re sustainable, they should still be there for us in 50 years if we change nothing with how we’re sourcing. If an ingredient is sustainable for us today, it should also be able to withstand our changing climate, which will only become more important. A sustainably harvested ingredient won’t be disruptive to its surrounding ecosystems and will be harvested in a way that will ultimately help serve the communities that are doing the harvesting. Slave and child labor is clearly something that doesn’t fit into sustainability. As such, economic sustainability is an important consideration.

When it comes to actually producing the product, how big is the carbon footprint there? How much energy and water is needed and how is waste managed at the end of the day? Is the packing compostable, biodegradable or recyclable? Is the product biodegradable? Triple Bottom Line is an accounting framework coined by John Elkington (1994) that looks at the social, environmental and financial impact of a product or ingredient. This framework is a great way to evaluate sustainability.

Issues regarding sustainability and social impacts of raw cosmetic ingredients and their supply chains

There are so many inherent risks with most supply chains, especially when the ingredients are coming from impoverished regions. These include environmentally destructive harvesting and slave and/or child labor, which can often lie right at the base of a supply chain. At the end of the day, whatever ingredient your using, the only way to ensure its sustainability is to have a good understanding of your supply chains. Below are 2 hot-topic cases that apply to the sourcing of cosmetic ingredients.


Mica: A mineral that adds a sparkle effect to many cosmetic products, very commonly seen in makeup. This ingredient isn’t just limited to the cosmetic industry, it’s heavily used in a number of other industries including technology, cars, paint, construction, etc. Today, most of the mica is sourced from India, where child labor has remained prevalent for mining of the mineral. Jharkhand and Bihar are responsible for roughly 25% of the world's production, and according to a report by the NGOs SOMO and Terre des Hommes, about 20,000 children work in the mines there. The huge problem of poverty in these regions makes children especially vulnerable as the families need more income in their households.

While outright boycotts for this ingredient is probably not the right move since so many poor communities depend on the mica mines for their income, even for larger businesses, ex. Lush (opted to remove mica from all of their ingredients in 2014) it’s extremely difficult to ensure ethical sourcing given all of the challenges. There are a few initiatives like “child-friendly villages” (a joint initiative by the National Resources Stewardship Council and the Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan) that may help offer a solution, but a lot more work needs to be done. These are issues that manufacturers should be aware of as they (should at least) carefully monitor their supply chains.

Palm Oil: The most heavily used vegetable oil out there, used across many industries for its low cost and versatility. Today, over 58 million tonnes are produced annually, with 85% coming from Indonesia and Malaysia. In the early days of palm oils popularity, companies would freely clear rainforests to make room for their palm plantations, resulting in huge amount of biodiversity and wildlife loss as well as carbon output, since burning was an easy way to clear-cut. Social issues are also quite prevalent with this crop. As a result of all of these problems, it would be easy to say that a boycott for the crop would be best, however, most organizations, scientists, and businesses working in this sector agree that that’s not the answer. For one, palm oil is one of the most resource-efficient crops out there (i.e. requires less water, not as hard on the soil, etc). If we say no to palm, we’ll have to say yes to another crop, which won’t have the same sustainability potential as this crop. At the end of the day, we would really just be shifting the problem. The sector also employs about 6 million people worldwide, 2.2 million of which are smallholder farmers living at the edge of poverty. There’s a good chance that a lot of people would die of starvation if we stopped using this crop altogether.


Palm oil can be harvested in a sustainable way, including no deforestation or exploitation - the communities and farmers that are doing the harvesting just need support. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 to bring various players in the sector together to work together to help address unsustainable palm. One of their initiatives is to help train the smallholder farmers to understand more sustainable harvesting. Sustainable palm can ultimately be a huge win-win for everyone involved. While sustainable palm (certified by the RSPO) isn’t perfect today, it’s definitely moving in the right direction. To continue on their positive path, I think that industry support will prove very important. Again, if manufacturers are using palm oil, they should be vigilant to ensure they’re sourcing in a sustainable way, which may include, in this case, opting for RSPO certified palm.

Other examples of commonly used cosmetic ingredients where sustainability has been an issue include Sandalwood, Frankincense, Vetiver, Olive, Argan, many clays, many other essential oils, etc.

Steps in the right direction

Today, there are so many organizations working to improve these issues along with legal acts that are coming into place to ensure sustainable supply chains. Some of these acts include the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, The Nagoya Protocol, and the Modern Slavery Act, although many haven’t quite made their way to Canada. If you’re interested to learn more I recently sat down with Anne from ChainPoint software. They use software to map out the supply chain of an ingredient or product and help identify problem areas. I also sat down with Andrew Wallis, the founder of Unseen, the organization responsible for the modern Slavery Act. Their Interviews can be found here (Anne) and here (Andrew) (coming soon!).



How you can formulate or purchase more sustainable products

For formulators, getting information from your suppliers about your ingredients supply chain is key. Are the ingredients being sourced in an ethical and sustainable way? How are your suppliers demonstrating this to you? Do they have certification available? How reliable is their certification? It may be worthwhile to think about support from other businesses and organizations out there, for example, supply chain mapping or consultation from an organization that will work towards no slavery in your supply chain. If you opt for the consultation route, evidence-based perspectives are important. For consumers, it’s a bit difficult but my best suggestion would be to get to know manufacturers and the ingredients in your cosmetic products. Do their values align with yours? How do they ensure that their ingredients are sourced ethically and sustainably?

If you have any questions, queries, conundrums or concerns, leave them below in the comments, on The Eco Well's Facebook page or shoot us an email!


Bessou, C., et al (2017) Sustainable Palm Oil Production project synthesis: Understanding and anticipating global challenges (No. CIFOR Infobrief no. 165, p. 8). Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia.

Bengtsen P & Paddison L. (2016) Beauty companies and the struggle to source child labor-free mica. The Guardian.

Bliss, S. (2017) Natural resources: Child labor in India's mica mines: The global beauty industry. Geography Bulletin. 49(3):23.

Cannatelli, M. D., & Ragauskas, A. J. (2017). Two decades of laccases: Advancing sustainability in the chemical industry. The Chemical Record. 17(1):122-140.

Ivancic, H. and Koh, L.P. (2016) Evolution of sustainable palm oil policy in Southeast Asia. Cogent Environmental Science. 2(1):1195032.

O’Driscoll, D. (2017) Overview of child labor in the artisanal and small-scale mining sector in Asia and Africa.

Vecino, X., et al. (2017) Biosurfactants in cosmetic formulations: trends and challenges. Critical reviews in biotechnology. 37(7), pp.911-923.