Here's What You Need to Know About the State of Clean Beauty in 2021

Insights from Hairstory's first Sustainable Beauty Summit.

Photo of carrot, oil, and green leaves

Byrdie / Liz deSousa

"Clean beauty" is a category that is continuously evolving. Over the last few years, we've continued to see more brands prioritize eco-friendly ingredients, packaging, and production methods. With so much growth in clean beauty, it can be challenging to keep up with all of the ins and outs. That's why Hairstory decided to host its first-ever Sustainable Beauty Summit, a virtual event that explored sustainability in beauty. The event brought together the "who's who" in clean beauty. We're talking about CEOS, founders, and executives—like Beautycounter's CEO Gregg Renfrew, RMS Beauty's founder Rose-Marie Swift, and Credo's VP of sustainability and impact, Mia Davis.

During the event, attendees listened in on candid conversations about topics ranging from clean formulas to conscious consumerism. Over five hours, panelists shared valuable insights that painted a vivid picture of the current state of clean beauty. Ahead, we're highlighting a few takeaways that you should take note of. 

Clean Ingredients and Formulas

Though the beauty industry has made major strides in terms of using ingredients that are better for you and the environment, experts all agree that there is more work to be done. "I think looking at ingredient sourcing for one of our largest industries, the beauty industry could have a really significant positive impact," True Botanicals Founder Hillary Peterson says. "We need to look at the ingredients, sub-ingredients, what is contained in those ingredients, and how they're farmed. I think a lot of people aren't aware of how sourcing impacts farmers. And we should also look at how that's impacting climate change.” 

Glow Recipe's co-founder and co-CEO Sarah Lee echoed these sentiments and encouraged brands to think about clean ingredients and formulas holistically. "Clean is beyond just the ingredient list," Lee says. "It's the approach to beauty in general—the approach to how people shop and how we educate as a brand. We want to think about how we can affect it in every aspect of product development. This might be sourcing or how it affects our skin and the Earth. We want to be really cognizant of how we impact a community."

Conscious Consumerism 

Conscious consumerism refers to intentionally buying products that have a positive impact socially, economically, or environmentally. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there's been an interesting uptick in this consumer philosophy. Grove Collaborative's vice president of communications, Meika Hollender, says this can be attributed to one main reason: "People were spending so much time in their homes, and their kids were spending so much time inside. All of a sudden, we all became a lot more conscious, if we weren't before, about what are we using in our homes every day." Hollender says "clean" products across all categories have continued to steal market share from traditional formulas during the pandemic, noting efficacy and price point have helped propel them forward.

Greenwashing 

There are tons of beauty brands that are truly clean and sustainable (just take a scroll through our 2021 Eco Beauty Awards). But there is also a lot of greenwashing—a term that refers to marketing jargon. "I hate the term plant-derived," Made Safe founder and executive director Amy Ziff says, using it as an example of greenwashing. "It's not telling the whole story."

Made Safe is a non-profit organization working to combat that type of marketing. The company makes it easy for consumers to identify clean products and provides companies with guidelines to produce Made Safe-certified products. "Many other players will say, 'If we don't know about it, presume it's fine,'" Ziff says. "That's the way the game has always been played. We flipped the entire model on its head and said, 'No, go do the work. I applaud brands that have the courage to take a step in that direction. This is hard. You are a salmon swimming upstream. We've certified a couple thousand products, and we work with over 100 brands, and it is possible. We're moving the marketplace, and that's enormously gratifying."

Sustainable Packaging 

Experts say decreasing the impact of packaging on the planet requires equal effort from brands and consumers. "As a brand, we really believe it's our job to allow consumers to make their habits more sustainable," Cadence's founder and CEO Stephanie Hon says. "So, we encourage consumers to buy in bulk versus buying single-use plastic. The recycling system is not perfect, but for bulk bottles versus single-use, the propensity and likelihood of that getting recycled are much higher. And at the end of the day, if you are going to make that purchase, buy something that's going to last you a lifetime over something that you're going to have to throw out time and time again."

Trends

What consumers are looking for in their beauty products is rapidly changing. Spate's co-founder, Olivier Zimmer, took a deep dive into beauty and product-related search queries to uncover some of these recent trends. "When we look at those product-related searches, we're seeing a steep increase as consumers are getting more educated about sustainability," Zimmer explains. "It's less and less about questions like 'What is the definition, etc.' but now consumers are directly looking for items and products that could help them match their decisions." Through his research, Zimmer also found that overarching terms like reusable, refillable, waterless, and eco-friendly have had a positive year-over-year growth rate.

When taking a closer look at specific categories like hair and skincare, Zimmer uncovered intriguing data points. "Searches in hair right now is about products 'free of' something," Zimmer shares. "So, it is not necessarily about what a product will contain or how it is formulated. It is more about what it doesn't have. When looking at haircare, sulfate-free, silicone-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free are all topics on the rise right now. [Editor's note: While we prefer to judge what is in the product, we understand 'no-no lists' are popular and sometimes necessary.] When it comes to skincare, it seems that cruelty-free is the number one most growing topic. We also see fragrance-free is seeing huge growth, as well as alcohol-free' and silicone-free." 

Overall, Zimmer foresees a continued consumer shift towards clean beauty brands, pointing out that individuals are rallying behind companies financially that have eco-friendly values. "When looking at vegan beauty brands, we see that they have been outperforming the benchmark," the co-founder says. "Clean beauty brands have also seen an increase of 12.9%."

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