The Society of Cosmetic Scientists organised a very interesting symposium on the subject of sustainability in cosmetics recently. Quite a lot of interesting stuff came up and I’ll be sorting out the juicy bits from my notes for you over the coming weeks. One of the speakers was Perry Romanowski of the Beauty Brains. He pointed out something that might not be obvious.
If you want your cosmetic and personal care formulations to be sustainable, clearly desirable, the obvious thing to do is to make them from crops grown specifically for the purpose. This isn’t too difficult to do. A lot of the materials the industry uses, particularly things that are used in large quantities can be and usually already are made from agricultural sources. In fact a large proportion of the stuff in those bottles is and always has been plant derived.
So as we are already pretty green to begin with, can we get greener still? Well how about using how about growing the feedstocks organically? That sounds good. But does it really make sense? Given that we are looking at a world population of 9 billion people by 2050, aren’t we going to need that land for food crops? Organic farming, sadly, doesn’t produce as big a volume of food per square metre. Whether organic farming is viable as a way of producing food is a whole other issue, but I think the case for using organic sourced materials in cosmetic products is pretty weak.
The two reasons people have for selecting the organic option is that conventional food contains pesticide residues and doesn’t contain as many nutrients. I don’t personally think that there is much to fear from pesticide residues in food nowadays anyway. The nutrients idea is a bit more plausible, though there is not much evidence to support it. But as we don’t eat cosmetics it doesn’t really seem relevant.
Perry has a pretty good solution. Why not use hydroponics? Hydroponics, where you effectively grow plants in highly controlled water tanks, would certainly free up agricultural land. With a bit of plumbing, some genetic modification and some imagination it is easy to imagine a factory that could be situated anywhere with sufficient sunlight producing very large quantities of highly usable feedstocks for further processing into cosmetic raw materials. This would be low energy, carbon neutral, totally sustainable and would take up very little space on a crowded planet. In fact the best location would be in a city where there are good communications and plenty of people around who are looking for jobs. I don’t want to oversell it, but by fine tuning the plants grown could be made to produce exactly the raw materials needed avoiding both waste and the need for further chemicals to chemically modify the raw materials.
This doesn’t fit into some perceptions of what is green. For many environmentalists technology is the root cause of the environment’s problems. I think this is the reason a lot of people are highly suspicious of technological solutions, especially genetic modification. The Soil Association and Greenpeace are both opposed to the use of any kind of genetic modification.
And deeper down a lot of people seem to have a feeling that we need to save the planet by avoiding things and cutting back. We are being greedy and we need to pay nature back. These are quite noble feelings, but unfortunately they don’t offer much in the way of solutions. Perry’s suggestion would mean that we can have products that are just as effective as we can make them and yet don’t require any sacrifices in product quality. Yet at the same time it frees up land for agriculture and wildlife. Somehow it seems like a free lunch.
Hydroponically sourced raw materials are currently only a twinkle in Perry’s eye. But if we get the choice I can’t help feeling that this is the way to go.
Many thanks to puliarf on Flickr for the use of the picture of a lavender field