Sustainable sourcing of raw materials is gaining popularity in the cosmetics industry, although Organic Monitor finds Asia is lagging behind.
Although Asia has become an established source of cosmetic ingredients, questions hang over the ecological and social impact of raw materials. Western cosmetic companies and ingredient firms are setting up ethical sourcing programs in the region, with relatively low involvement from Asian firms.
The Asia-Pacific has 30 percent of global surface area, yet houses 60 percent of the population. Growing economic affluence and urbanization are putting a strain on natural resources and threatening biodiversity. The region has lost 95 percent of its primary, uncut forests, whilst individual countries have lost up to 90 percent of their natural habitats. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the region has the highest number of threatened animal and plant species.
Deforestation and draining of wetlands are associated with agriculture for cosmetic raw materials. Production of palm oil—the most widely used vegetable oil in cosmetic products—has been directly responsible for destruction of tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia. As well as releasing greenhouses gases, palm oil cultivation has led to animals, such as the orangutan and Sumatra tiger, to become critically endangered.
There are also concerns about the sustainable supply of many cosmetic ingredients like fragrances and natural actives which are indigenous to the region. Sandalwood, native to India and Sri Lanka, is now mainly produced in Australia because of the high incidence of illegal logging. There are also ethical issues concerning animal-based ingredients in cosmetic products; for instance, Asian companies are large users of shark liver oil.
As will be stated at the upcoming Asia-Pacific edition of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit (sustainablecosmeticssummit.com/Asia), the cosmetics industry needs to encourage ethical sourcing and biodiversity in the region. With the Asian cosmetics market poised to become the largest in the world, Asian consumers have potentially a greater influence by green purchases then their western counterparts.
According to Organic Monitor, a major challenge for the cosmetics industry is to convert sustainable supply to sustainable consumption. The Asia-Pacific region houses almost half of global organic farmland, yet it has less than 5 percent share of international organic product sales. Similarly, over 90 percent of RSPO sustainable palm oil is produced in Asia, however the bulk of demand is from Europe and North America. A recent UEBT survey shows that over 60 percent of East Asian consumers are aware about biodiversity, however rising awareness is not translating into green product sales.
One reason is the low priority given to sustainability by Asian cosmetic and ingredient firms. Very few Asian companies have sustainability programs, with most focusing on CSR and some environmental issues. Biodiversity, ethical sourcing and encouraging sustainable consumption are not high on the corporate agenda for Asian companies.
As Asian countries become more prosperous and take the stage in world issues, there are growing calls to ensure the cost of economic development is not sustainable development.
Ethical sourcing and biodiversity is a focal theme of the third Asia-Pacific edition of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit. Taking place in Hong Kong Nov. 11 to 13, the summit will bring together leading organizations involved in sustainability in the Asian cosmetics industry.