What does L’Oréal’s renewable ingredients pledge mean?

Disclaimer : This article was originally published on BPC Insights April 27, 2021

What does L’Oréal’s renewable ingredients pledge mean?

A couple of weeks ago L’Oréal announced that by 2030 “95% of its ingredients will be derived from renewable plant source, abundant mineral, of circular process…”. They made a number of commitments around downstream impact, water use, packaging and biodiversity as well. I highly recommend their lengthy statement:

First – yeah L’Oréal! This statement will create a much greater awareness of the need for more sustainable ingredients and push the entire industry toward more sustainable production. We need the big guys to push for us little guys.

But what does this imply about ingredient sourcing for the cosmetic industry as a whole? What are the challenges and implications?

What natural ingredients are actually about

First let’s look behind the wall of cosmetic ingredient production. Everything is based on naturally­-derived chemicals from which we synthesize chemicals that function in specific ways. For example, surfactants (soaps) loosen the bonds between particles so that dirt comes off surfaces more easily – many surfactants are made by reacting ethylene oxide (and other inputs) with various types of natural oil or fat molecules. These produce the “SLESs” that are ubiquitous in shampoos and body washes. This is also the source of the frequently mentioned “1, 4 Dioxane”, recently regulated in NY State. The reaction requires ethylene oxide, a by-product of petroleum processing.

Now we see the intersection between agriculturally produced plant material (vegetable oil) and the petrochemical industry (any petrochemical used to create a chemical reaction and produce a new molecule). Beyond the use of ethylene oxide there are probably hundreds, if not thousands (I’m not a chemical engineer so no real idea) of petroleum by-products that are used to synthesize fragrance ingredients, various glycols, other surfactants, emulsifiers, preservatives, etc. Now we see that there are clearly at least two sides to the equation currently used to synthesize functional chemicals: plant derived naturally occurring substances + petroleum derived by-products.

The petroleum industry is set to shrink

Another important point to consider about the petroleum side of this: as we all move to electric cars, the petroleum industry will shrink. Petrochemical by-products will have reduced availability and increased costs. 

L’Oréal has implied in the quote above that they have reserved 5% of any formula for some other sources of molecules. I suspect those are also petroleum-derived by-products like sulfur and hydrogen, which are very difficult to obtain in pure forms from non-petrochemical sources. That said, a shampoo may contain 8% surfactants in a formula. So how will they synthesize these new materials that are from “renewable plants” without petrochemicals?

Enter Genetically Modified Micro-organisms, AKA, GMMs. These are genetically modified yeasts and enzymes that are being used to make equivalent synthetics without using petroleum. Personally, I think this is probably a great technology that needs greater transparency. While there are many companies using this type of technology, the companies are not terribly forthcoming about the GMM side of it due to consumer concerns with GMOs – a very different technology that marries seed/plant production to pesticides and herbicides. The subject of GMMs should be better explained and more honestly disclosed.

What is L’Oréal’s approach to farming?

Again, synthesis technology meets plant production which brings us to farmers. How will the L’Oréal approach impact farmers?

One lasting lesson I learned from the early growth of the organic food world was that if one wanted a specialized ingredient, one had to find and contract the grower, locate the appropriate technology (processor) and contract them and then make sure that enough was made each year BECAUSE THEY ARE PLANTS. Plants have a season…and with climate change even that is getting dicey.

Will L’Oréal open a grower relations department? Will they hire agronomists and botanists? Do we all understand that the petroleum industry has been harvesting essentially free material (oil) for well over a hundred years and then charging us for that favor – so will all of these materials go up in cost? Will farmers be protected and will the farm management be sustainable?

What L’Oréal has stated so far:

  • By 2030, 100% of the biobased ingredients for formulas and packaging materials will
    be traceable and will come from sustainable sources. None of them will be linked to deforestation. 
  • To limit our impact on natural habitats, we are committing to holding flat, by 2030, the total land occupancy vital to the sourcing of our ingredients, compared to 2019. 

Can they achieve it? Given the likely future of the petroleum industry can the chemical industry pivot to broad partnerships with farmers and give L’Oréal what they want? Please note – the words “farm” and “soil” do not appear anywhere in the lengthy L’Oréal presentation…and they have not dug into the meaning of the word “sustainable” when it comes to farms or soil.

Cheering on L’Oréal while asking questions

I am cheering them on and I seriously hope they realize that agriculture puts almost 10% of the CO2 into the atmosphere while organic agriculture, it has recently been verified, sequesters about 12.9% of the carbon back into the soil. Are they including “organic management practices” as part of their “sustainability plan”? 

Hey L’Oréal – call me if you want a few strategies from a veteran of sustainable ingredient production and sales. 

#organicagriculture #organicingredients #howtomeasuresustainability #takecareoftheplanet #soil #farmers #plants #biochemicals