The future of
sustainable beauty
with Sali Hughes

As part of Selfridges Project Earth, beauty expert Sali Hughes explores the complex topics and solutions (no matter how big or small) to make your beauty routine an earth-friendlier one.


The future
of sustainable beauty with
Sali Hughes

Sali Hughes, Beauty Writer & Author 

Last spring, I attended an international conference on sustainability. Guest speakers included fashion designers, expert environmentalists and senior executives from major luxury houses. It was to change my perspective on the clothes I wear, the beauty products I use, the life I lead – and not in the way I’d expected.

What stayed with me was not the sense of overwhelming hopelessness I’d arrived with, but a clearer-headed sense of possibility and empowerment. What inspired me most was a speaker who had masterminded award-winning sustainability initiatives in the luxury sector. “It’s too late to be perfect,” he said. ”What will save the environment is not some people being perfect, but everyone being better”. And in 2020, brands are doing better. Some a lot better.

Modern and exciting beauty brands place as much importance on a product’s impact on the environment as on our skin, hair and wellbeing. More than ever, it’s what consumers expect.

But when the commercial world knows we’re looking for sustainability initiatives, how does one separate the good guys from the opportunists? How can we be ‘thoughtfully imperfect’, shopping with those who put genuine effort behind their messaging?

Haircare brand Aveda is a wonderful example of a big, global business with integrity at its heart. The first beauty company to use 100% post-consumer recycled plastic packaging, Aveda now packages around 90% of its products in completely recycled materials. They recycle around 90% of their total waste, manufacture using only wind and solar power, use no sulphates, silicone, petrol, paraffin, polythene, talc or synthetic fragrance in their products. And, oh ­– they refused to test on animals from day dot and will be entirely vegan by early next year (including their Thickening Tonic, my holy grail blow-dry spray, which – like everything Aveda makes – smells heavenly).

REN is another huge corporation-owned brand who takes seriously the responsibilities of global influence. In recent months, many of their hero products (hello Ready Steady Glow Tonic and Perfect Canvas Clean Jelly Oil Cleanser) have been rehomed in 100% recycled packaging, and the entire brand has the bold, measurable ambition to be zero waste across manufacturing and distribution by 2021.

Luxury skincare guru Tata Harper takes a smaller scale, but similarly principled, approach. Harper’s Farm-to-Face ethos sees high-grade skincare ingredients grown sustainably on the grounds of her home in Vermont, blended in tiny batches and packaged in beautiful green glass bottles. Keen to circumvent the persistent need for plastic caps, Harper has recently launched Hydra Lock Moisturiser, a dewy, plumping, skin-drenching gel cream that can be refilled with innovative snap-in pods – allowing the same jar and cap to be used indefinitely (try after washing with the glass bottled Purifying Cleanser – one of the only rinse-off cleansers that doesn’t leave my skin parched). Her line-up is increasingly vegan, too.

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MILK MAKEUP (coming soon)

The benefits of vegan beauty products, incidentally, run beyond animal welfare. The three major environmental issues in the production of meat – manure processing, feed growing and climate change – make animal products the primary threat to our planet’s future. Brands banishing animal ingredients from their products reduces beauty’s contribution to the overall problem – and that really matters.

Milk Makeup – coming soon to Selfridges – is one of my favourite brands, vegan or not. Animal ingredient- and silicone-free, Milk’s push-up sticks of plant-based butters and blendable, skin-friendly pigments are always somewhere in my product rotation. The Baked bronzer, Werk lip and cheek stick and Vegan Milk moisturiser have all been replenished several times over. 

Even newer residents on my dressing table are Biossance skincare products. Veganism is at the heart of the brand’s identity, since every product is based on ethical squalane, sourced not – as is traditional – from sharks’ livers (spelled squalene, so always check the spelling in the ingredients list), but from sustainable sugarcane plants. The same crops are used to make Biossance’s bottles, which are boxed in compostable card. If none of this impresses you, the products will. The bio-retinol substitute bakuchiol serum and the vitamin C and rose oil (each blended with moisturising, lightweight squalane) are both excellent, and the Squalane + Rose Lipbalm – silky, hydrating, luxurious and ungreasy – is quite possibly my favourite of all time.

One cannot talk about luxury beauty without looking at fragrance. The remarkable ascent of cult perfumes has redefined the modern fragrance house. Scent can no longer hide behind unbridled decadence and nonchalant luxury at the expense of responsibility – perfume, however fabulous, must be part of the collective effort to protect our environment.

Le Labo, with its refillable bottles, vegan formulas and recycled boxes, can rightly be credited with turning the tide. Santal 33 – gender neutral, complex, distinctive, mysterious – must surely be the signature perfume of the last decade.

But what makes a perfume more sustainable? How ingredients are cultivated is important, of course, but it’s a myth that organic is always more sustainable, particularly when organic ingredients might travel thousands of air miles to reach a perfume factory that could source non-organics locally (as the house of YSL does where possible, growing its own crops close to home).

Perfume packaging, meanwhile, is traditionally the most lavish in beauty but also arguably the easiest to make sustainable. Glass bottles and metal spray tops can be recycled with relative ease, but British perfume house Ormonde Jayne has gone further by removing the need for any factory processing at all. Your favourite Ormonde Jayne creation (don’t make me choose between Ormonde Woman and Tolu) is now available in a refillable bottle, exclusively in store at Selfridges. Penhaligon’s offers the same service. Their Savoy Steam (think fragrant Hammam) and Juniper Sling (iced gin with a slice) can now, like a Champagne flute at the best party, be topped up in perpetuity.

To make a serious dent in the 120 billion units of beauty packaging disposed of each year, brands must find a way of refilling trickier items too – and as consumers, we have to accept that spending a little more can often make for a more ethical and sustainable purchase in the long-term.

La Bouche Rouge are not only lipsticks, but veritable heirlooms. Beeswax-free (wild bees are vital to the planet’s eco system), all-vegan lipsticks and tinted balms (31 shades in all) are encased in infinitely recyclable stainless steel and covered in the finest leathers sourced from unusable roll-ends at a high-end tannery, saddle stitched by master craftspeople at La Bouche Rouge atelier, and sold from zero-plastic counters in store. Their meticulous coupling of sustainability and high luxury makes for the most guiltlessly opulent self gift.

Also attempting to reduce the staggering one billion lipsticks discarded each year is Hourglass. Each refillable gold-toned case holds a slimline stylo bullet of pigment-saturated lip colour devoid of any animal ingredients (including the reds that traditionally contain carmine). Hourglass’s ethics – they will be fully vegan by the end of this year – don’t come at the expense of innovation: look out for their sublime new Ambient Lighting Infinity Powder – probably my favourite make-up launch of the year.

I’m always on the lookout for more – it’s my job to navigate the vast number of more sustainable beauty options in store, but in my rare and mostly unwanted absences from the Selfridges Beauty Hall, you can find your very own product edit in the new Plastic Conscious Beauty Booth. The times when ethics in beauty products came automatically at the expense of efficacy are truly over. Here are some of the world’s most innovative, progressive, effective and exciting cult beauty brands, all united by their collective efforts against the use of virgin plastic.

Try: my beloved Face Halo make-up remover discs (wet with warm water for the fastest, faff-free face cleanse ever); Nut & Noggin’s fragrant vegan shampoo bars; Codex’s clinically proven organic skincare line in carbon-neutral sugarcane tubes; the world’s first sustainable toothcare brand, Spotlight – I’m a new but devout fan; and more.

After shopping yourself beautiful (mindfully, of course), and scraping every last speck and drop from the packaging, responsible recycling can pose a challenge for even the eco-minded beauty fan: does one first remove labels, separate cap from tube, pump from bottle? What should be composted and not recycled? What really happens to recycling after collection? At Selfridges, Terracycle’s in-store bins stand ready to soothe the headache of responsible disposal. Just drop into store with your beauty empties, from toothpaste to mascara, and pop them in the bin for careful sorting and recycling wherever feasible.

As we prepare to say goodbye to a strange, unsettling year, it seems more important than ever to try harder, to think more carefully, to make better choices – both small and large – for one another. They don’t have to be flawless – in beauty and in life, perfection is unattainable. The true beauty is in simply looking, feeling and being that much better. We must all do that, starting now.

Join the conversation

We’ll be hosting two exciting live events with Sali Hughes over the coming months, including a sustainable beauty talk with leading haircare brand Aveda. Plus, join Sali as she opens up her make-up bag to reveal her favourite planet-friendly products in her helpful guide to shopping more sustainably.

Find out more

Let’s change the way we shop 

Explore the earth-conscious collections, thought-provoking ideas and positive ideas as part of Project Earth.

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