A recent post of mine: Research: Natural Skincare and Ethical Consumerism, briefly touched upon this subject and was a bit of a rushed overview of my last research project with the University of Edinburgh. I wanted to give a little more space to the background and processes of what are known as certification schemes and how they are used, specifically in skincare and cosmetic products. Many people may understand them more commonly, as the logo’s found on a range of products and their packaging.
What is a certification scheme?
A certification scheme, firstly, is a way of verifying a product, to the standards set out by a third-party organisation (most certification schemes are usually carried out by third external bodies as oppose to government). So a certifying organisation might be established to meet a social, political or environmental need which national or global governments have struggled with or neglected. The organisation, commonly a social enterprise, not for profit or registered charity, might already be working on such issues, and perhaps feel like there is potential for business expansion, thus establish a department within the company that oversees product certification. Such is the case for the Soil Association, (HQ in Bristol, UK), established by a group of individuals to experiment with organic and non organic farming methods back in 1946, after concerns of soil depletion since WWII. Since then, the company has developed a certification scheme (established in 1973) and has expanded into many industries, including forestry, textiles, food and health and beauty.
How does a certification body come about?
A certification scheme might also just start completley from scratch, for example if there is a gap in the market, or as mentioned, a particualr need in the global or local community. Fairtrade would be a good example of this. At some point there became a global concern about exploitative labour practices, and unfair trading agreements for tiny, rural and indigenous populations growing exotic commodities for the rest of the world to buy cheaply. Thank god. Fairtrade protects these communities who rely on particular crops for sustenance and wages, ensuring they are paid a fair price for their work.
How can certification schemes help land growers and workers?
Many of the raw ingredients found in skincare products, particularly those considered green, clean and natural (cringe phrases but necessary) have been grown using incredibly intensive labour practices. Shea butter is a good example, a raw ingredient found in a range of moisturisers, lotions, balms and butters. The nuts of the shea tree, indigenous to Africa, particularly prominent in West Africa, are collected (only after the fruit has matured which takes around 20 years), then they are worked and manipulated to create a butter. This process involves washing, drying, pounding, roasting and whipping amongst other processes before the final product. This is a humongous task, and certification schemes like Fairtrade ensure the small communities are paid fairly and responsibly by companies trading outside their own economy.
What are the cons of certifications to certifications schemes?
Of course there are criticisms around certification schemes– particularly from social and political scientists– many scholars and professionals in this field have written endless amount of incredibly boring, yet complex research papers, claiming that certification schemes are not only a way to disguise or hide behind neoliberalism, but how they also might be the driving forces behind it. After all, we are still participating in a commodity culture, whether fairtrade, organic, vegan or cruelty free, there is still the problem of excessive consumption. This is no doubt interesting, but I don’t want to get into that debate, given that I am no longer chained down by scholarly etiquette. Academia in itself is deeply rooted in elitism and I think it might be time to challenge how we discuss and topics, that potentially affect us all, allowing everyday people and consumers to contribute to the challenges and solutions. This post is to emphasise the positive factors around such schemes, as I personally believe they are incredibly important for a variety of reasons.
Overview of certification schemes within skincare
There are many certification schemes out there, and there are many more to be sprouted. The ones that have been adopted by skincare/cosmetics products and brands, are, in my humble opinion, simply a good way to democratise a global, multibillion pound industry which is currently dominated by a handful of Multi National Corporations (MNC’s). Not only do they steer market trends and innovations, they almost control how we spend. MNC’s such as L’Oréal, with a total net worth of approx $28 billion pretty much own the about 50% of the commercial skincare market. Unilever, follow in at second, with a total net worth approximately $20 billion Stats here from 2016. These companies are the dominant market leaders for a good reason, I have bought these products myself – Lancome, The Body Shop, Aveeno… the list goes on. I am not trying to shame organisations that did exceptionally well in business. I am however, trying to establish whether the skincare market should be a little more regulated and whether such organisations should be held accountable by external bodies.
The certification schemes which verify skincare products involve a thorough and regimented environmental plan, ingredient quantity description by milligram, details of manufacturing environments and regular inspections to ensure there are no cross contaminations with ingredients or environmental abuses such as waste disposal. There are no loopholes to be jumped and surely this a great way to regulate how goods are being produced and the ways in which consumers are buying.
Certification schemes are also similar to other external political bodies, Unions being an example, and have the potential to challenge, protect and establish policies and trading agreements that the current economic system has in place. Surely these are reasons to support them? The skincare and cosmetic industry has historically used animals to test and experiment with formulations. Now people are becoming more familiar with what ingredients go into their products, is this step really necessary? What ingredients are contained in skincare formulations that would be hazardous for humans to test first?
The Future of Certification Schemes
I believe such schemes are also an excellent way to set standards for many aspects of the supply chain in out products- from production, distribution to consumption. Food has become a hot topic in this sense, why can’t other fast-moving consumer goods follow suit? After all, they can provide transparency, accountability and traceability for consumers, but also to the communities and workers that are vital parts of the production process. These individuals truly deserve fair welfare practices in place.
SOME CURRENT CERTIFICATION SCHEMES THAT I THINK ARE GREAT:
B Corp– A social enterprise that balances purpose and profit, relatively new but I predict it will eventually become huge like it deserves. Take a look at B Corp and what they do.
Soil Association Organic Certification – The UK’s largest organic certifier, covering a range of industries. Also promoting farming non intensive farming. Soil Association, Health and Beauty certification
Fairtrade Certification – Raw ingredients found in skincare products can be certified, including most ingredients found in green skincare. More about Fairtrade certification
Cruelty Free and Vegan Certification – Animal rights at the core of their ethos. These two are perhaps the most popular/well known at the moment for a range of skincare products. Check out The Vegan Society trademark and Cruelty Free certification
Perhaps there should be a plastic free certification scheme! Let me know your thoughts, and keep up to date with more posts about this topic in my Skincare and Makeup page.