Fast fashion has grown to saturate much of the fashion market. It made trends readily available to the masses at a fraction of the cost of designer items, and turned companies like Zara and H&M into multi-billion-dollar enterprises.
Of course, with that level of mass production came many environmental costs ranging from pollution to supply chain issues, compounded by eco-related labor issues. Fast fashion proved itself to be ethically questionable, although companies have begun making amends for their past environmental missteps. Brands have begun using more sustainably sourced materials, creating clothing recycling programs, and reorganizing their supply chains to be eco-friendlier.
As fast fashion has started cleaning up its act, a new frontier has emerged: fast beauty. Fast beauty companies like Kylie Cosmetics, Winky Lux, and Deciem, churn out products at a pace never before seen in the beauty industry. Typically in beauty, products are developed over a very long course of time with a chemist to ensure quality is met. With fast beauty, products are produced very quickly with immediate customer satisfaction uppermost in manufacturers’ minds.
A representative for Kylie Cosmetics declined to answer this reporter’s questions, but indicated that sustainability would be addressed as the brand evolves.
Fast beauty may not result in—as fast fashion does—discarded clothing in landfills across the globe, or burned adding to environmental damage. WinkyLux is known for making very small products, which allows them to avoid overproduction and decrease risk of inventory loss. (WinkyLux did not reply for further comment at the time of this article.) Deciem has said that they are working on a project to shed light on ingredient and product safety. They also said they promise to “keep it clean.”
According to Meredith Holland, a sustainability consultant with experience working in renewable energy and international climate change research, the global cosmetics industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year, contributing greatly to the growing plastic waste and ocean plastics problem.
Deforestation and diminished soil viability are environmental impacts associated with the fast beauty industry, because of the farming practices used to source ingredients, such as palm oil that hasn’t been ethically sourced.
Another problem with fast beauty products is the amount of plastic they use. Even if they were to have a biodegradable container, a lot of plastic usage goes into beauty products from the spoons to scoop out products, plastic packaging around the box, and the stickers that come on products.
“There will be issues if companies are moving at a very fast pace and if they haven’t prioritized sustainability,” said Dr. Christopher Helt, a specialist in home and beauty care at Sustainability Consortium. “If a company doesn’t make sustainability a priority from the get-go and take a fast pace with whatever they are doing, there’s a risk of shortcuts contributing to environmental impacts.
“If you start out with sustainability as a pillar, and are focused on products that are safe and ensuring the supply chain is transparent, that’s a different story. A lot of big players in the beauty field would like to move as fast as the fastest company out there, but if you would ask them why they aren’t, it’s because of reasons like prioritizing a certain amount of transparency and doing things sustainably.”
The worst of fast beauty takes shortcuts with ingredients and using less sustainable raw materials. Ingredients that can pose certain environmental hazards, like palm oil, are easy to formulate but come at an environmental cost.
Tara James Taylor, senior vice president of beauty and personal care at NielsenIQ, told The Daily Beast, “Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults are considered to be sustainable CPG (consumer packaged goods) shoppers. Overall, this segment tends to be younger, college-educated, and possesses disposable income. This group’s usage of goods and services are significantly affected by their concern for the well-being of the world around them, as well as their own internal health.”
Sustainable shoppers evaluate corporations based on their transparency and involvement in environmental and social justice issues, and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, said James Taylor. About a third of shoppers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable CPG products. “We can expect other consumers to follow suit as calls for a sustainable world becomes increasingly pressing, and additional sustainable brands emerge to satisfy a diverse range of beauty and personal care needs.”
Holland said that fast fashion and fast beauty were alike “in that they make products available to consumers as quickly as possible. This drastically reduces the turnaround time typically required from product conception to launch, to capitalize on current trends. This leads to overconsumption by consumers and environmentally damaging production ingredients and practices used to facilitate the warp speed time to market.”
However, in fast fashion’s case, the dying and manufacturing of fabric is a very dirty process, said Holland. “Often in fast fashion, the clothing is made up of synthetic materials derived from plastic. Even though fast beauty uses its fair share of plastic for its packaging, it uses far less than fast fashion, comparatively, when taking into account the plastic that makes up most of today’s clothing.”
A major drawback of fast beauty, Holland said, was its shorter shelf life than fast fashion products, “leading to consumer waste based on product expiration dates. Other than discarding one fashion trend for the next, there's no ‘expiration date’ on a clothing item.”
Then there is the question of how to dispose of fast beauty containers sustainably, said Holland. “Small containers are hard to clean, multi-compositional packages need separating at the material level, color and opaque plastics have low demand in the recyclables market, and the small size of the caps, pots, wands, and trays of makeup and skin care fall through the cracks at recycling facilities.”
Holland says to never rinse fast beauty goods down the drain. Doing so only sends the chemicals the product is made of right into our surface water.
Inevitably, fast beauty has an environmentally friendlier nemesis: clean beauty. Azadeh Valanejad, a blogger and sustainable fashion and clean beauty advocate, points to the ‘greenwashing’ of brands who claim to be green, but are often far from so. “There needs to be more advocacy and education of the dangers of fast beauty because once people are made aware, there will be a much bigger call to action,” Valanejad said.
To bring awareness of the issues with fast beauty to the general public, Valanejad says that education is the most important answer.
“In 83 years, the FDA has not updated their cosmetic regulations,” Valanejad said. “Organizations like the Environmental Working Group are in the business of trying to educate consumers on the quality of their cosmetics. You can search a brand on their website and they will break it down for you and give it a rating. The smaller the rating number, the cleaner and more eco-friendly it is, the higher the rating, the more dangerous it is. They break down every ingredient for you and tell you why it is harmful.”
Valanejad believes that it is possible for fast beauty to go the clean and environmentally friendly route. “It’s really not that hard to make a clean product, but companies have to be more transparent,” she said. “The first step is removing fragrance. Fragrance is one of the most harmful things you can have in a product. Anything with fragrance in it that says they are eco-friendly is one of the most immediate signs of greenwashing.”