At the second edition of the Latin American Sustainable Cosmetics Summit in Sao Paulo, October 15-17 over 150 entrepreneurs gathered to share accomplishments and discuss challenges in the development of a social and environmentally responsible cosmetics industry.

In a sector hungry for novel materials, and growing attention to plant-based ingredients, the major question throughout the summit was how to obtain sustainable formulations and effective packaging with a lower carbon footprint.

Topics covered included the ethical sourcing of ingredients, organic and sustainable production methods, safety issues when considering natural materials, respect for biodiversity and carbon and water management. Difficulties sourcing raw materials was identified as one of the reasons behind the low production levels of greener cosmetics.

Speakers highlighted the complexity of sustainability. Malu Nunes of the 35-year-old Brazilian firm Grupo Boticário stated that sustainability can no longer be an isolated function, ‘it has to be spread across organization departments’. The company has been dedicated to biodiversity issues since 1990 and supports over 1000 conservation projects.

“Sustainability is not another trend. It is a serious issue that needs to be incorporated into the everyday operation of a company”, said Ligia Carnejo, sustainability manager for Unilever Brazil. “The world is now facing challenges of extreme weather and social inequality. Oil and energy will be more expensive. These and other circumstances we do not control anymore will affect the profits of companies. It is important to invite everyone to join efforts finding better operating alternatives”.

Natura Brasil, the largest cosmetics company in Latin America, which has been carbon neutral since 2007, offered details of its carbon measurement program. The successful firm has reduced carbon emissions by 28% since 2006. Among the lessons learned at Natura: “The more committed the top management is, the easier and faster will sustainability initiatives be implemented by everyone in the organization.”

Consumers like organic cosmetics, but they also have to perform well, noted Geysa Belem of Arte dos Aromas while presenting the challenges formulating natural skincare products. “Less than 20% of cosmetic products in the United States have any certification,” she said. “NOP was created for organic foods not for cosmetics, making it hard for companies in our sector to adhere to this standard. And current legislation and certification do not stimulate innovation.” In spite of the difficulty to develop green formulations, Arte dos Aromas embarked in the challenge in 1994. “We believe in transparency and showing consumers the origin of the ingredients we use: some are organic certified, some come from family farming but are not certified and we do not test on animals”. Arte dos Aromas follows the guidelines set by Ecocert.

To reduce the environmental footprint of packaging Karen Santos, CEO of Creez Communicação e Design, encouraged cosmetic firms to think of packaging waste as materials for new products via the cradle-to-cradle design approach. To better manage packaging waste, the retail chain Grupo Pão de Açúcar has set up recycling stations at its stores. The Brazilian cosmetics association ABIHPEC is working with local government agencies setting up reverse logistics schemes to remove packaging from waste streams.

Consumers expect more from the products they buy. They are confused about the real meaning of green products, but in general they want better products for themselves and the planet. Demand for natural and organic cosmetics is growing to the point that conventional and well established firm Clinique has developed a line with ingredients sourced from food: sunflower, avocado, cucumber, barley, rosemary, coffee, tea, soy, milk, algae and vegetable oil, noted Dr. Fernando Ibarra of Dr. Straetmans.

Speaking about the future direction of sustainable oil Marcello Britto, marketing director of Agropalma, addressed the importance of knowing the source of the ingredients a company buys.

“Some people are against vegetable oils, but we need oil fats for survival, said Mr. Britto. “98% of all oils come from agriculture”. There is debate on the use of palm oil because of sustainability issues. NGO’s are putting pressure on palm oil buyers. Not all palm oil is extracted by irresponsible firms that do not care for the environment, said Mr. Britto. There are 46 countries producing palm oil, but currently the main concern is Indonesia, although the situation is changing. “We need to educate companies. Products cannot be simply classified as good or bad. The question is which ethical values support sustainability”. Respect, responsibility and traceability are key elements to analyze according to Mr. Britto. “Belem, where our palm oil grows, was 70% deforested since the first European settlements arrived in Brazil. Agropalma has worked with all stakeholders to bring back a forest with flora and fauna to an otherwise a bare land”. Today Agropalma is considered the most sustainable palm oil company in the world.

It is encouraging to see more companies starting to understand that working for the environment can bring revenues and save resources such as energy and water. Corporate image can be improved and law suits avoided, said Rosa Lemos of Funbio.

Even though cosmetic formulations and packaging continue to be two important areas for improvement in reducing the negative environmental impact, it was evident at the Summit that Latin American firms are leading in some areas of sustainability like ethical sourcing and biodiversity.