/ Alter Agents

The beauty industry now has its own green ‘seal of approval’

December 3, 2015
Environmental Working Group has launched EWG Verified, a label that will help consumers spot products that meet stringent ingredient and transparency requirements
The beauty industry now has its own green 'seal of approval'

Unlike the food industry, the personal care industry has very few consumer labels. The new EWG Verified label will help consumers spot products that meet nontoxic ingredient and transparency requirements. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

It may soon be easier for shoppers to find beauty products without toxic chemicals. The Environmental Working Group nonprofit launched a new label this month called EWG Verified, which certifies personal care products as free from chemicals of concern.

The program is an extension of the group’s work with the Skin Deep database, which for more than a decade now has given tens of millions of visitors information on the chemical contents and relative safety of their favorite cosmetics and shampoos.

Before now, the personal care industry has mostly shied away from eco-labels, in spite of rising interest in non-toxic beauty products from consumers and the increasing popularity of eco-labels for other types of consumer products.

The number of eco-labels on consumer products across industries has grown from a few dozen in the 1990s to more than 400 today. The labels have helped some companies justify price premiums, but have also served to confuse consumers in industries like food where a large number of labels with varying degrees of credibility – ranging from baseless “all natural” claims to more rigorous organic certifications – can make it difficult for shoppers to separate the green from the greenwashed.

On-package labeling could become a common practice as retailers like Walmart and Target roll out programs vetting the chemical ingredients in personal care products.

“Eco-labeling is a critical step in the regulation of the private sector, and third party labels are generally more trustworthy than the industry’s self-certified labels,” says Xinghua Li, a professor of media studies at Babson College, who researches green advertising. “The cosmetic industry needs it just as urgently as the food industry: products we put on our skin are just as important as the food we put into our mouths.”

An increase in eco-certification programs could be good for the personal care industry even if it doesn’t equate to more on-product labels. In a recent study on the value of eco-labels, UCLA researchers linked the rise of eco-labels to the price premium they can help command, but pointed out that the certification processes behind various labels alone can also deliver benefits to companies. The researchers cite the wine industry as an example because so many vineyards go through eco certification programs but opt not to use the companion eco-labels on their bottles.

“We find that consumers are not willing to pay a premium for wine eco-labels, but that certified though unlabeled wine enjoys a significant premium,” writes Magali Delmas, the lead author of the study. Delmas adds that eco certification may lead to improved production processes, which in turn help to produce a higher quality product that can be sold at a price premium.

That could be a template for personal care products, too. Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research for EWG, says she hopes consumers will recognize and trust the EWG Verified label, which will then persuade more personal care manufacturers to stop using toxic chemicals. “We thought it could be useful for consumers to see something at the point of sale, but also we were hearing pretty frequently from companies, asking if they could use our logo on their products to indicate that they had scored well in the Skin Deep database,” she says. “And we thought, ‘Hey that’s good idea, let’s make some criteria’.”

Criteria for using the EWG Verified mark are slightly more stringent than those for scoring green in the Skin Deep database.

In the database, EWG checks product ingredients against available studies and government databases on chemical toxicity, then assigns a score of one to 10 to each product based on more than a dozen criteria related to its relative hazard and how much information is available about the product and its ingredients. Products in the 0-2 range are marked green for “low hazards”; those with a score of 3-6 are yellow for “moderate hazards”; and products scoring 7-10 are listed as red for “high hazards”.

To qualify for the EWG Verified seal, a product must not contain any of the ingredients on EWG’s lists of restricted and unacceptable ingredients. Companies also must fully disclose all ingredients on the label (and not use any catch-all terms like “fragrance”, for example) and must prove they are adequately preserving their products without using toxic chemicals.

The new seal doesn’t mean the Skin Deep database is coming to an end, however. EWG will continue to run the database because not every company – or every product within a company – will be eligible for the EWG Verified mark. Most sunscreens and products containing popular facial cream ingredient retinol, for example, do not meet the criteria for EWG Verified.

“The database is also necessary for showcasing bad actors in the market – those that are scoring red or yellow – and differentiating those brands and products from those that are rating green,” Leiba adds.

Healthy Lifestyle Brands, a brand management firm that works with various wellness-focused businesses, is administering the EWG Verified mark. Companies have to pay to apply for certification, but EWG wouldn’t disclose the fees. The money will help pay for EWG’s ongoing research into ingredients and will cover the costs of administering the program, according to EWG spokesperson Monica Amarelo.

EWG Verified has launched with two brands: Beauty Counter and MyChelle Cosmetics. MyChelle chief marketing officer Kimberly Heathman says she expects the EWG Verified seal will help attract new customers. MyChelle plans to market its EWG Verified affiliation on its website, marketing materials and product packaging.

Rebecca Brooks, a marketing consultant and founder of the market research firm Alter Agents, says the label will help brands differentiate themselves even if they do nothing more than put it on their products. “Consumers will see it as an official label, so even if people don’t know EWG, it will stand out to them,” she says.

Brooks says it could also help cultivate customer loyalty, especially given her firm’s research showing that brand loyalty is waning these days. Factors such as prices and product reviews tend to sway millennials more than they do brand-loyal boomers. More certification programs for personal care products could emerge if EWG Verified proves to be successful in boosting sales for its participants.

However, a label boom in the personal care industry could be problematic for both the companies in the EWG Verified program and consumers. More labels could confuse consumers, water down the value of EWG Verified and leave companies once again struggling to differentiate themselves, according to Brooks.

“If I were a brand that was going to pay EWG to get verified, I would want some certainty that the marketplace won’t become crowded with other stamps and labels that would make my EWG marker irrelevant,” Brooks says. “So there’s a certain onus on them to promote and push to consumers about their label, what it means, and why it matters.”

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