In the three years that the Clean at Sephora program has been in place at the iconic, international beauty boutique, it has shaped the way much of the industry defines the unregulated and ambiguous concept of clean beauty. (ishonest has its own standards for what we consider clean, and while much of the list overlaps with Sephora's, even we don't fully see eye to eye on which ingredients need to be absent in order to qualify for the classification.) Clearly steering how brands are formulating their products, Clean at Sephora now welcomes nearly twice as many brands to carry its seal as it did in 2018, despite making its 'formulated without' list nearly four times as long.
And now, in an effort to extend Clean at Sephora's focus on personal wellness into environmental wellness, Sephora is launching a new category: Clean + Planet Positive. The initially very exclusive club it's kicking off with only 18 brands builds upon the original Clean at Sephora standards and ups the ante to prioritize ecological, sustainable approaches to creating and selling beauty products, both inside and outside the tube.
'Clean + Planet Positive includes everything that is in the Clean at Sephora program looking at ingredients but it also adds four different elements of the way the brands are doing business and bringing their products to market', Cindy Deily, Sephora's vice president of skin-care merchandising, tells ishonest in an exclusive interview. 'That includes a climate commitment, sustainable sourcing practices, responsible packaging, and environmental giving.'
The retailer didn't reach these new standards arbitrarily. Deily tells ishonest that the program has been in the works for a long time and that what will ultimately be educational for the Sephora shopper has been educational for the Sephora team as well. 'We went through a process of talking to a lot of experts in a lot of different spaces', she says, including packaging experts and suppliers to get a better understanding of where raw materials are coming from, and experts climate commitment who focus on how companies can have a lot of impact. 'There's been a lot of time spent consulting with people who have deep, deep expertise in that space. We also have an in-house expert on ingredients and environment that has really helped guide this program along and has helped develop really deep subject-matter expertise.'
In addition to packaging, formulating, and marketing practices, the 'formulated without' list now includes octinoxate (the chemical sunscreen ingredient already facing bans over its suspected impact on reefs), PFAS or PFCs (perfluorochemicals, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says are 'very persistent in the environment and in the human body', don't break down, and may lead to adverse human health effects), and nitromusks and polycyclic musks (synthetic fragrance components that have been found in aquatic organisms).
'To be honest with you, they're ingredients that our brands are not really using, so it made sense to just officially have them on the list and make sure clients really understand because, at the end of the day, the programs are meant to serve as sources of education and also guideposts for consumers, because it's so hard to navigate this on your own.'
The brands that are included in the kickoff of Clean + Planet Positive are Caudalie, Farmacy, Biossance, Youth to the People, Tata Harper, Selfless by Hyram, Ren, Herbivore, Alpyn Beauty, Necessaire, Prima, Maison Louis Marie, Susteau, Saie, Aether, Ellis Brooklyn, Briogeo, and the retailer's own Sephora Collection. But Deily is hopeful that the new program's standards encourage more brands to strive for similar goals.
'We're in this ongoing process of screening brands, and there's some cases where brands haven't quite met the criteria, and now they're working really hard to make some changes on their end, which, frankly, is exactly what we hoped for', Deily tells ishonest. 'We feel that we have a responsibility to apply some pressure to the brand community. And one of the best ways to do that is to create some FOMO, right? We have the opportunity to inspire change and the brand community. And because we're a global presence in beauty, that could potentially have a really massive impact.'
No amount of misleading greenwashing will earn a brand the distinctive new designation, though. Deily is well aware of the specious and problematic use of terms like natural, green, organic, non-toxic, and chemical-free. 'The beauty industry is a very robust landscape, and there are brands and retailers out there that are using the terms and probably using them in ways that come across as fear-based marketing. And so that's something that we've always wanted to avoid', Deily explains. 'And I think the best way to do that is to not use terms without defining them and make the definitions easy to find and then let consumers decide for themselves.'
Ultimately, although many consumers would understandably like to see more brands fall under the Clean at Sephora and Clean + Planet Positive umbrellas, Deily says these programs are as much about giving shoppers choices and information as they are about industry influence.
'We're not making any value judgments one way or the other, but we're offering the options', Deily says. 'We're trying to just focus on transparency and making sure our consumers know exactly what we mean when we use words like clean.'
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