Are synthetics more sustainable than natural ingredients? The short answer: sometimes. The truth is, sustainable sourcing goes much deeper than synthetic vs natural – it’s a seriously in-depth process that looks at how our ingredients impact the planet, people, and animals now and in the future.
Keep reading to learn more about how we evaluate ingredients for sustainability, and why in some situations, a safe synthetic is the most sustainable option.
A FEW DEFINITIONS FIRST
Sustainability: The ability to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
To us, sustainability is this definition + more. To us it means, #donoharm to people, planet, or any being on this earth. It means looking at our impact on the planet as a whole – today and in the future. There must be a sustainable, ethical way to create a product, or we won’t make it.
Natural: An ingredient derived from nature. Many natural ingredients do require some processing in a lab, but must be minimally processed to be considered natural. Keep in mind, animal-derived ingredients are also considered natural since they come from nature and are not created in a lab.
Synthetic: A lab-created ingredient or a natural substance that is heavily processed. Synthetic ingredients are often identical to natural ingredients on a molecular level.
HOW WE EVALUATE INGREDIENTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Sustainability is at the core of everything we do. We vet every ingredient using the questions below to find the most sustainable options available. Natural, organic, earth created ingredients are always our first choice, but if a natural ingredient fails on the following sustainability requirements, we look to safe synthetics. Keep reading to learn more!
Is it renewable?
Some ingredients are rare, threatened or just entirely non-renewable. In this case, instead of wiping an ingredient from the planet altogether with over-harvesting, a safe synthetic version may be more sustainable.
How much water is used to produce it?
Some natural ingredients take a mind-boggling amount of water to produce at scale. If a safe synthetic (or another natural ingredient), can perform the same function but uses much less water, that ingredient would be more sustainable and preferable.
Vanilla bean for example – it takes 15,159 gallons of water to produce a pound of usable vanilla. In this case, it may be more environmentally responsible to choose either a more sustainable natural ingredient, or if there’s nothing comparable for scent, then a safe synthetic option.
How much of the plant is used? How much waste?
Ideally, every part of a harvested plant would be used. Most of the time though, only a tiny portion is used and the rest of the plant is discarded – a wasteful and inherently unsustainable practice. So, if an alternate plant is available that uses every part, that would be preferable. Or, if the natural options are incredibly wasteful, it may be worth looking at safe synthetics.
What is its effect on the planet when grown/harvested?
Many ingredients are made with GMOs or need heavy pesticides and insecticides for growth – substances that can degrade the soil, poison waterways, and harm animals, people, and other plants. In this case, a safe synthetic might be preferable with all other things considered.
Also, there is only so much usable land to grow plants, and for extremely popular, land-heavy crops, there just isn’t enough land on the planet to meet the demand. So, either we don’t use this ingredient and choose a more sustainable natural ingredient, or we look to safe synthetics.
Palm Oil is an ingredient that while natural, has massively destructive effects on the planet, communities, and animals. This is all a function of the current unsustainable growing methods, and it could potentially be made sustainable in the future with an overhaul of current practices. But for now, it’s a sad example of natural gone wrong.
How does it impact people/local communities?
25% of the world’s Mica is produced with child labor. It also has a high potential of contamination with toxic heavy metals. In this case, we choose a safe synthetic version unless we can verify the natural mica was produced without child labor. And we always test for contamination when we do use ethically sourced natural mica.
Palm oil is another natural ingredient that’s rife with unethical practices like forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking.
Is it animal-derived?
If the choice were between a safe synthetic ingredient or an animal-based ingredient, we would choose vegan & cruelty-free always and forever. Don’t forget, animal products are still considered natural. Eliminating lives for disposable beauty products is the opposite of sustainability.
How does it affect wildlife/ecosystems?
Beyond the obvious ethical concerns of killing animals for cosmetic ingredients, disrupting any level on the food chain can have massive effects on an ecosystem and the way it functions. Countless sharks have been killed for squalene found in their liver. Sharks are essential to maintain the health of our ocean ecosystems – trading off the long-term health of our oceans for a cosmetic ingredient is definitely not sustainable.
Bees are another big concern. Honey, beeswax, and bee pollen are natural ingredients used in countless cosmetics. Since bees pollinate one-third of our food supply, without them, we wouldn’t have much to eat. Again, trading our long-term food supply for a cosmetic ingredient makes no sense.
This is why we use synthetic beeswax when needed. It’s chemically identical to natural beeswax except is made in a lab and has zero impact on bees.
Is it non-toxic?
Not all natural ingredients are non-toxic. This is our #1 priority - it must be safe for use today and over time – sustainability means keeping people safe now, and over time. If we can’t find a natural ingredient that is safe (and free of contamination), we will look to a safe synthetic version.
What happens when it’s disposed of?
A great example of this is glitter – sure, it looks fabulous glistening on your lids, but what happens when it’s washed down the drain or thrown into a landfill? These tiny aluminum-wrapped plastic pieces wind up in waterways, carry bacteria, harm fish and wildlife, and take about a thousand years to break down. Here’s where a natural, biodegradable alternative is essential.
We use ethically sourced crystal powders and synthetic/ethically sourced natural mica to create the shimmer and shine in our products.
To learn more about we choose between natural or synthetic, read our blog.
WHAT DOES A TRULY SUSTAINABLE NATURAL INGREDIENT LOOK LIKE?
An example of a super-sustainable, earth-friendly natural ingredient: hemp! Hemp captures carbon emissions, every part of the plant can be (and is) used, it heals and regenerates the soil for future crops, it uses very little water, it can grow almost anywhere (even in damaged soils), and it uses almost no pesticides or insecticides.
We use Organic Hemp Seed Oil in our Joshua Tree Palette.
SUSTAINABILITY BEYOND INGREDIENTS
Choosing the most sustainable ingredient is essential, but sustainability also extends to packaging. Our packaging is 100% recyclable and made from recycled materials whenever possible:
Our eyeshadow palettes, blush palettes, and highlighters are made of 100% recyclable FSC certified paper, recyclable aluminum pans, and water-based soy inks. All components can be recycled in your standard recycling bin, making them zero-waste!
Our Radiant Ruby Lip Crème is the first 100% recycled plastic liquid lip component that's also 100% recyclable. By using 100% PCR recycled plastic, we create 25% less carbon emissions than virgin plastic. The outer box is made from FSC certified paper and water-based soy inks that are completely recyclable.
Our packaging materials are also chosen with sustainability in mind:
- FSC Certified cardboard box - fully recyclable
- Sugar-based sticker -biodegradable
For instructions on how to recycle every ĀTHR Beauty product, read our blog.
HOW TO KNOW IF A PRODUCT IS SUSTAINABLE
Sustainably-minded brands will have lots of information on their sourcing, production, and packaging. They know where their ingredients come from, actively vet and choose the most sustainable options available, and are happy to share that information with you.
If you aren’t sure about an ingredient’s origins or if that product is created in an ethical way, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions! The more we expect transparency, the more transparent the cosmetics world will become.
Here’s to loving the planet as much as we love our shadows and shimmers, and to leaving it in better condition than we found it.
- ĀTHR Beauty