Research: Natural Skincare and Ethical Consumerism

The University of Edinburgh

Over the summer of 2018, I completed a final research project for The University of Edinburgh, which examined the ethics of the ‘green’, ‘clean’ and natural beauty movement. After noticing a huge surge in the previous years towards a type of ‘ethical’ consumerism – many individuals opting for products associated with more sustainable production methods, corporate social responsibility and non toxic ingredients, as well as a steady rise in product diversity. These are subjects I find incredibly interesting and I decided that my dissertation could be an opportunity to examine the driving forces behind this.

There are many social and environmental costs that are commonly linked to consuming goods (especially fast moving consumer goods or FMCG’s, which skincare products fall under). I wanted to establish whether there were any underlying influences or whether this was just another skincare trend. My project was to count towards a master’s degree in the social sciences (specifically an MSc in Global Environment, Politics and Society) and would also be a chance to assess how many people were open to these type of skincare products. Those who take an interest in environmental shiz (or biz), might feel consumerism is the ultimate  problem of today – a mindless act that does not need any more momentum and is causing huge amounts of damage to society and the environment. I somewhat agree. I also think it’s naive to believe consuming less can be that simple, if possible at all. Let’s face it… we just love stuff. Whether its yachts, cars, big houses or second-hand bargains from a car-boot sale. We all consume, perhaps just in different ways. Of course when we talk about consumerism in a broad sense, it conjures up images of people fighting each other for no good junk. This is where I wanted to explore a different type of consumerism. Also know as ethical, green or eco consumerism. 

Many journalists, activists, bloggers and normal people who are fighting against all types of consumerism, even the green and ethical types.  See a George Monbiot article on Green Consumerism. Much of the literature talks about how we just need to stop consuming. At once. I find this very unhelpful and overly utopian and I think there is much more to be said for consuming goods, that pertain to environmentally or socially sensitive production methods.

I suppose this new green consumerism has emerged from many things. In relation to skincare, cosmetics and self care, there are many links with the health and wellbeing ie. wellness movement, which collectively encourage people to opt for a wholesome lifestyle.  These movements have created some slightly mild obsessions, like constantly opting for plant-based everything, from food to toilet paper. I find this term a little grating these days but nonetheless, there has been a rise in popularity for such products. I feel it is up to the social sciences, as much as any other industry, to explore what might be the reasons behind the current market trends.

For me, these types of consumerism need to be given a little more attention, rather than just cynicism. So that’s why I decided to conduct an online survey about what might influence consumers to opt for skincare products associated with social and environmental causes. I decided to examine things like organic and fair trade certification schemes, as well vegan and eco friendly products to perhaps find out if people see them as sustainable. What I really wanted to know was the driving forces that come in to play when opting for such products.

In order for me to write a strong piece of research, I had to gather raw data. I asked this very long question to myself whilst developing the survey – Could consuming specific skincare products demonstrate that people were trying to be more environmentally or socially friendly? For example, opting for brands that demonstrate responsible sourcing methods within their supply chain or using by products within their formulations? These are of course just examples.

Survey Design and Results: The survey itself was broadly categorised into factors that might influence how a person might consume ethical or green skincare goods. For example, what kind of products might they use ie moisturises, toners, serums. Then which kind of retailers they use, to establish the specific places of exchange and what might be associated with the range of different retailers. The survey then asked whether participants would consider purchasing skincare products that were socially and environmentally driven, whether they recognised some common certification schemes (see logo’s below) and if so, how they felt about these.

142 people responded to my survey and I found this was a good start to developing further research practices around this subject. I created and developed a survey through Qualtrics, which looked at a variety of ethical and sustainable business practices. It was conducted using ethical research procedures and for that reason, I will not be disclosing any personal information of what type of consumers  I reached. However, the demographic was as follows:

Age range: The highest response rate in age came from people around my age, most likely down to my distribution strategy – I used Facebook and Instagram to promote the survey. This method is definitely frowned upon in academia, but I actually think this was a great way to reach those who are most likely to buy the ethical, green, or eco skincare products. There has been some current research conducted by the Soil Association, which claims ‘millenials’ (cringe word) have become much more engaged with current affairs and politics through various mediums. Even things such as Netflix documentaries on meat production have accounted for this surge, according to the Soil Association. They are actively trying to engage in political and environmental subjects within their purchasing habits: Soil Association 2018 Market Report.

Age Range

Income Level: The next demographic grouping was based on income level. I found these results the most remarkable. Much of the academic and journalistic literature, claims that the ethical, and green purchasing habits are strictly for those who have disposable incomes. Monbiots article is quite cynical towards the middles classes (as am I). One thing that I read quite frequently is that ethical consumption is simply a way to make people with too much money, feel like they are contributing to a good cause. As much I enjoy reading Monbiot, I find that he often gets confused about his background as appose to others. Furthermore I would like to see what products are in his kitchen cupboards. For some reason I suspect it might be things like fair-trade oregano. But cannot confirm this. See the survey results on people’s income below:

Income Level

Location: The next grouping was location. Given that I was living in Scotland at the time, it was no surprise that many respondents were based there. However, I was happy that there were responses from a diverse range of, mostly English regions (apologies to those outside of England, it was something I would change for future projects.

Place of Residence

Again these results were reflective of my research methods, and given that I have the most connections with North West England, the results were obviously not conclusive. However, I would like to be able to develop another research project similar to this and perhaps try and gather a much more diverse and random sample strategy. It would be interesting to find where the highest rates of ethical and green consumerism occur across the UK and Ireland. I would genuinely like to explore what type of people this might involve, what they do for a living and what kind of lifestyles they have.

Gender: The final grouping was gender or sex. The project was a little rushed and therefore I missed out those who do not with any gender group or transgender. But not surprisingly, the majority of respondents were women, as you can see below:


Overall there results were interesting and prove that much more emphasis should be placed on the consumer and their potential to act responsibly and even politically. I think there underlying factors that perhaps influence people to opt for these products.