Understanding Retailer Labels for Clean and Green Cosmetics

Elizabeth Heath

Oct 20, 2021 · 4 min read

As consumers are more and more attuned to the climate crisis, animal welfare, and the risks of “forever chemicals” and other potentially harmful ingredients, retailers across the consumer market are responding with their own “seals of approval” – their own and third-party labels they’ve verified as sustainable, eco-friendly, clean, or green. The personal care industry, especially, has taken the lead in introducing clean cosmetic and beauty products that consumers can feel good about using. And for rising beauty brands that want to reach eco-conscious consumers, earning a big retailer’s green label can be a really big deal when it comes to sales.

Who’s Taking the Lead When it Comes to Clean Beauty?

In the US in particular, cosmetics retailers are responding to consumer shifts in the market, and the apparent little or slow action on the part of the federal or state governments to make policy changes with regards to ingredients. For example, the US list of restricted ingredients for cosmetics is just 11 items long, compared to the EU list, which contains more than 1,300 banned ingredients. (In the US, only California has passed legislation banning ingredients beyond the FDA’s 11 items.)

In the absence of meaningful government guidelines, big beauty retailers like Sephora and Credo have created their own sets of standards for clean beauty. And in doing so, they use their clean, eco-conscious beauty ethos as both a marketing position and an environmental and social statement, and they ostensibly help concerned consumers make easier and better choices.

An Overview of Retail Requirements for Clean and Green Certifications

Saying a beauty product is green or sustainable is a lot different than proving it. For small brands operating without the benefit of a large lab or regulatory compliance staff behind them, the onus is on them to verify their product’s eco-creds. And if the goal is to break into coveted retail stores like Sephora, Ulta, and Whole Foods, that means meeting each retailer’s requirements for ingredients, manufacturing processes, and packaging.

Let’s take a look at a few of the major clean beauty retailers, and what standards brands have to meet to be included in their programs.

Sephora. The retail beauty giant has two green labels, Clean at Sephora and the more stringent Clean & Planet Positive Sephora, for which third-party brands can qualify. For the Clean at Sephora label, products must be formulated without ingredients from a list of more than 40 different categories, including parabens, phthalates, and microplastic beads – and the list is continually growing. The Clean & Planet Positive program, introduced in 2021, requires that brands commit to clean energy practices, sustainable sourcing, responsible packaging, and environmental giving.

Ulta. The Conscious Beauty by Ulta Beauty program is a multi-pronged approach to cultivating and promoting eco-conscious products and brands. It includes a Clean Ingredient label for brands that adhere to the “Made Without List” of ingredients. There are other labels for Cruelty-Free and Vegan products, those made with Sustainable Packaging, and for companies that give a portion of their profits to charitable organizations.

Two other big pieces of Utla’s green branding are Loop by Ulta and the Credo Collection. Loop by Ulta partners with brands to package their products in reusable containers — when consumers are ready to reorder, they return their empty containers in exchange for new product, to create a waste-free recycling loop. The Credo Collection is a set of products, available in stores or at Ulta.com, that have been vetted by Credo, a leading arbiter of clean beauty.

Credo. As the largest clean beauty retailer in the US, Credo sets a high standard with The Dirty List of more than 2,700 ingredients that it bans from the products it sells. The Credo Clean Standard extends beyond ingredients, to include sourcing and fair labor practices, animal welfare, and product transparency.

Whole Foods. Long a leader in sustainability along the retail food chain, Whole Foods also has a set of standards for the personal care and beauty brands it sells. While there’s no specific Whole Foods label for personal care products, the company states that by virtue of being sold in-store, consumers can be assured that products meet its Beyond Clean Beauty standards. These include a list of banned ingredients and require that any brand or product that claims to be organic have this status verified by an independent certifier.

Earning a Coveted “Green Label”

For small brands approaching these big retailers, earning one of their green and “clean” seals of approval is a process. By starting with a clean beauty product and allowing for some flexibility in formulation, up-and-coming Beauty Brands can apply for different retailer certifications with the advantage of already being all the way – or at least part-way – there in terms of formula. If green beauty is part of your brand ethos, then sustainable sourcing and packaging, and clean, cruelty-free ingredients are probably already pillars of your product development plan.

Remember that there’s a big difference between these retailer approvals and third-party certifications, such as organic or “leaping bunny” (cruelty-free) certifications – which can also vary from country to country. While retailers may limit their requirements to an ingredients list or self-reported information from the brand, certification bodies normally require significantly more documentation on ingredients, origin, method of production and sometimes will oblige brands and manufacturers to submit to an on-site audit – a very rigorous (and costly) process.

Given that the Clean at Sephora label, for example, might translate to more sales than other, more stringent certifications, it looks like more and more brands, formulators, and manufacturers are opting for this consumer and retailer-driver approach when developing new “clean and green” products. The field of clean beauty is certainly a work in progress, and it remains to be seen who benefits the most from retailers’ “clean” designations – the brand, the retailer, or the consumer.

By working in the Goldn product creation ecosystem, you’ll have access to everything you need to realize your clean Beauty Brand. Our data-rich environment will allow you to work with cosmetic suppliers and formulators who share your vision, package suppliers committed to low-waste packaging, and testers and certifiers who can help make sure that your line of products lives up to your own high standards – and those of leading clean beauty retailers.

Written by

Elizabeth Heath

Liz is a writer and editor based in central Italy.

Connect with Elizabeth Heath on LinkedIn.

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