All I Ever Wanted Was Green Skin

To semi-paraphrase Gordon Gekko, when it comes to an ever broader swath of the skincare market, green is good.

At least that’s the assumption an industry-watcher could make when scanning the 2011 list of finalists for the much-coveted Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) Beauty Insider’s Choice Awards. In category after category, products featuring a preponderance of natural ingredients were in it to win it when the august governing body would reveal all during its annual power lunch at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in late May. Ranging from up and comers like Yes To and Korres to behemoths like Origins and Burt’s Bees, the green-leaners would have a prime seat at the table.

All I Ever Wanted Was Green SkinAnd as further indication that the natural faction is here to stay, CEW even added a new prize this year, the Eco Beauty Award. “It’s a response to the growing importance to consumers of products’ environmental impact on the planet,” says CEW president Carlotta Jacobson, noting that it was Givaudan, the world’s leading fragrance house and a major proponent of sustainability in scent creation, that approached CEW with the idea.

As sponsor of the new award, Givaudan in turn outsourced the vetting to The Natural Step, a non-profit “founded with the vision of creating a sustainable society.” Making the shortlist: Teensy tiny players with rock-solid eco cred, including Amala and Vapour Organic Beauty, as well as big guns Aveda and Body Shop. Having been on the front lines of the business for decades, first on the editorial side, at Harper’s Bazaar, and now in her high-profile role at CEW, Jacobson can spot an industry shift at 50 paces. “We’re seeing more and more beauty brands focus on sustainability to offset environmental impact,” she says. “And our hope is that recognizing those companies and products will encourage the industry to take steps towards sustainability.”

Yet while certainly laudable, sustainability in and of itself isn’t enough to make the cash register ring. Nor, necessarily, is the “green and natural is better for your skin than harsh chemicals” argument. Especially not in this still-beleaguered economy. According to an Earth Day 2011 piece in The New York Times, spending even an extra 50 cents on, say, the environmentally friendly version of Fantastik, holds far less appeal among American consumers when money is tight.

Green skincare is doubly challenged. Not only does it sometimes cost a bit more than its chemical-laden cousins, it’s also saddled with a whopper of a perception problem: That ingredients derived from plants simply aren’t as effective as the synthetic numbers cooked up in a lab.

Witness a multi-page eco beauty story in this April’s issue of InStyle magazine. Headlined “Does It Really Work?: Green Edition,” the splashy exposé covered the waterfront, from aluminum-free deodorant to anti-aging serums, in a decidedly skeptical fashion. “Sure, we all want to be more green – especially when it comes to what we’re slathering on our scalp, lids and lips,” writes the reporter. “But despite the enormous boost in what’s available (the eco beauty category is up by 11 percent since 2007), natural products that perform as well as our favorite standbys are hard to come by.”

No doubt media chatter like that is one reason why Mary Beth Peterson, the new U.S. president of Jurlique – a finalist for the CEW Eco Beauty Award – is attempting to shift the brand’s marketing message from hyper-natural to ultra-effective. “The U.S. consumer is more interested in how the product works,” Peterson said recently. “The opportunity is to break through in that regard and draw from the technology.”

Still, at least one big natural player – Burt’s Bees – is having its cake and eating it, too. Once a niche brand with a small cult following, it was acquired by the Clorox Company (CLX) in 2008 for a staggering $913 million, and now commands major space at mass retail, as well as a hefty share of mind among beauty junkies – eco-conscious and otherwise. And according to Celeste Lutrario, vice president of R&D for the company, that mainstream success has everything to do with improved product efficacy.

“Natural technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the last five years,” says Lutrario. “Natural products can now fairly compete with synthetics in both aesthetics and performance, and that’s because they actually have one benefit that synthetic products do not: They’re filled with nutritive ingredients. Every plant oil, nut extract and fruit contains nutrients – vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids, anti-oxidants – that are required to keep the skin functioning and healthy. Instead of a chemical based primary formula that exists only to effect a certain reaction on the skin, or a specific look, feel and scent, natural formulas have a base of nutrient-rich botanicals.”

Clearly green brands that have the R&D muscle (and budget) to overcome formula challenges are at a distinct advantage. “We’ve been able to deliver aesthetics that consumers expect,” notes Lutrario, “such as foaming in cleansers and rapid absorption in creams and lotions, that are similar to synthetics but gentler in most cases.” Not that every eco-minded beauty brand needs Clorox-level corporate backing to find success. Take Tarte Cosmetics, for example, a much beloved indie line that has stayed true to its earth-friendly, no-harsh chemicals mandate from the get-go. Under the banner of “High-Performance Naturals,” it offers an array of popular beautifiers, from its famous Cheek Stain to a cache of products made with clay sourced from the Amazon rain forest.

“Since I started the company out of my one-room, rent-controlled apartment over 10 years ago, I’ve always cared about the ingredients in my formulas,” says Tarte founder and CEO Maureen Kelly. “It was more of a personal preference than a business decision at the time. I really wanted to wear natural makeup that was good for my skin, but also efficacious.”

Since that late-1990s launch, Kelly has become much more determined to spin her own eco-mindedness into solid profits, and to telegraph her core message – that beauty products can be both green and really, really good – in a more concise, direct manner. “In 2007, we underwent a re-branding and updated the information on our packaging, displays and website to really reflect our natural position,” she says. “It was our responsibility to educate the consumer about our mission.”

And at the end of the day, education is – and will continue to be – the eco-friendly fuel that powers the green-beauty engine. Knowing that a plant-based miracle cream is at least nearly as potent as the option laced with retinol or beta hydroxyl acid, and is whipped-up with fewer of the more irksome synthetic ingredients, will help women structure their budgets with more confidence. Ultimately, it’s about choice. Green is good, especially when it’s part of the bigger beauty picture.

Dana Wood About Dana Wood

A beauty journalist for over 20 years, Dana Wood has served as Beauty Director for both W and Cookie magazines and has written for numerous national publications including Glamour, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and Self. She also spent several years in the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal as Assistant Vice President, Strategic Development. Her first book, Momover: The New Mom’s Guide to Getting It Back Together, was published in 2010 by Adams Media.