Style / Beauty & Wellness

Skin Deep: A Dive Into the Beauty Industry’s Ethical Battle

While “skin is in”, what goes on behind the glamour of makeup tutorials and the beauty reviews may not be quite so pretty.  

Apr 02, 2024 | By Sanjeeva Suresh

All that glitters isn’t gold. Behind the facade of bronzers, blushes, and concealers, the beauty community continues to face problems of inclusivity, copyright infringements, and the authenticity of beauty influencers and their paid-for reviews. This begs the question, does the beauty industry prioritise profits over its patrons or are people simply a pawn in fueling this multi-billion dollar industry?

The Influencer Sell-Out

 Image courtesy of Getty Images

Today, the power of beauty influencers rivals that of celebrities with their endorsements becoming increasingly important in the success of a brand. However, there is an ongoing concern regarding influencers publishing sponsored content without disclosing that it is a paid advertisement. This calls into question the validity of beauty influencers and the authenticity of their reviews. Beauty influencers often have a younger demographic of followers which means they are impressionable to buying into something their favourite influencer recommends. A lack of transparency can erode trust among an influencer’s followers and undermine the credibility of their recommendations. As a result of seeing their favourite influencers on YouTube and TikTok, the British Association for Dermatologists issued a warning that the growing trend of children (as young as eight) using skincare products could leave them with irreversible skin problems with many exfoliating acids and active ingredients intended for adults could potentially provoke allergies or eczema.

Read More: Is Black Friday Causing a Beauty Blackhole?

Sunday Riley founder

Questions were raised surrounding Sunday Riley’s ethical practices in 2018 when a former employee went to Reddit to comment on the company’s operations. CNN reported that in October 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an investigation into Sunday Riley after a former employee accused them of writing fake reviews. In their search, the FTC discovered that not only were the allegations true but that they involved founder and CEO Sunday Riley herself. According to the report, employees wrote positive fake reviews on beauty store Sephora’s website to boost sales between November 2015 and August 2017. Sunday Riley eventually settled the FTC charges with neither the company nor Sunday Riley, its namesake chief executive, admitting or denying any wrongdoing.

Lack of inclusivity

Babor x All Woman beauty campaign

For years (or rather, decades), the beauty community has faced criticism for its lack of diversity and inclusivity, particularly with regard to representation across race, ethnicity, gender, age, body size, and ability. Many influencers predominantly feature a narrow range of beauty standards, excluding marginalised groups and perpetuating conventional beauty stereotypes. Tokenism aside, everything from foundation shades to the people featured in campaigns highlights that the industry still has a long way to go in featuring diversity, particularly as 70 percent of black women feel underserved by the beauty industry according to a survey published on Forbes. According to a study by P&G, only 4 percent of beauty personal care products directly address the needs of those with physical disabilities. “This includes thought-through packing like including braille on products or easy-to-open lids,” read a statement from Cosmopolitan. Consumers are now driving change. Fed up with superficial nods to diversity, consumers crave genuine connections and want to see a diverse array of faces that capture the true representation of the public.

Trademark infringements

Plagiarism plagues the beauty community with large companies ripping off ideas of smaller indie brands who often cannotafford to take legal action. Case in point, in 2018 Huda Beauty’s Easy Bake Setting Powder (below) product campaign came under fire for what fans perceived to be a striking resemblance to Beauty Bakerie’s Flour Setting Powder advertising campaign (above).

Next, billionaire mogul Kylie Jenner’s own cosmetics line was not spared. Jenner has been accused of stealing their ideas and copying the visuals of various lesser-known artists including the work of Los Angeles-based makeup artist Vlada Haggerty.

According to Refinery29, Vlada expressed her dismay about the theft of her work, which Lip Kit By Kylie later added “inspo by @vladamua” within the caption before it was swiftly deleted. Vlada Haggerty then sued Kylie Jenner in 2016 for copyright infringement before Jenner’s legal team eventually settled the lawsuit in January 2017. “It breaks my heart to see how large brands take independent, unprotected artists’ work and use them to multiply their wealth,” wrote the photographer of the red-and-gold image, Julia Kuzmenko McKim.

Less-Than-Savoury Sustainability

Consumers increasingly expect influencers to align with their values and advocate for ethical and sustainable practices in the beauty industry. However that is not always the case. Unsafe working environments and a lack of transparency on questionable ethical practices, such as animal testing, environmental pollution, or exploitative labor conditions only bolster concerns about ethical practices within the beauty industry.

According to statistics from the UN Environment Programme, over 120 billion cosmetic packages are produced annually, with a staggering 79 percent ending up in landfills or as pollutants in our natural ecosystems. The complex nature of beauty packaging is at the heart of the issue, not just the sheer volume of waste but the small, mixed-material designs that are notoriously difficult to recycle. 

Today, as LVMH-owned beauty brand Sephora aims to ride the “lipstick effect” wave as it sees more growth amid the continuing economic downturn more fashion brands turn to beauty to amass profits. Only time will tell if this will help or hinder the growth of the beauty industry as it strives to achieve higher revenues.

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