From Grassroots Counterculture to Mainstream Luxury: What’s Happening to Green Beauty?

By Shanesha Brooks-Tatum and Mercedes C. Lyson

Do any eco-beauty fans remember how beautiful, special, and unique the No More Dirty Looks blog and Spirit Beauty Lounge (the first online eco-luxury beauty boutique) used to feel? They signified an evolution from the aisles of the local food co-op (alternative, but decidedly not luxury), to a more refined and chic approach to clean beauty. What is interesting is that both of these spaces, the blog and the boutique, are now defunct. And it’s not because green beauty never took off – it’s the complete opposite.

While the eco-beauty space is now saturated with luxe, expensive options, the green beauty movement has its roots in DIY, anti-consumerism, and grassroots consumer ideology. In the past several years, however, green beauty has caught on as part of a broader commodification of wellness. Is this shift problematic? Has it shifted attention away from what made green beauty oppositional in the first place, and become another means of marketing and consumption? And lastly, who might this have consequences for?

A brief grassroots green beauty history

Many consumers new to the green beauty movement may not fully realize the history behind these alternatively formulated products, or the movement’s grassroots, activist ethos. While the Back-to-the-Land movement has longstanding historical roots throughout the 20th century, the 1960s were a significant period in American social history. Social movements coalescing around women’s rights, racial/ethnic equality, and the environment were taking hold. Researchers and popular writers alike have documented the “new agrarianism” that took hold in the 1960s and 1970s1; people desired a deeper connection to the earth and their food supply. While beauty and personal care products didn’t seem to be a prime concern of the hippie archetype, products like Dr. Bronner’s started pointing towards an alternative (and minimal, anti-capitalist) approach to personal care.

Prior to 2007, those interested in green beauty had to peruse the aisle of their local health food store or co-op and shop among a small number of pioneering, eco brands. Green or alternative beauty was niche, and distinctly devoid of a luxury aesthetic. With the publication of No More Dirty Looks in 2010 and the launching of the first-of-its-kind eco-luxury beauty boutique, Spirit Beauty Lounge in 2007, the landscape of what was possible for green beauty started to refine and expand.

Green beauty mainstreaming: Why is this problematic?

Through this relatively rapid transformation from aisles of food co-ops to the shelves of luxury boutiques, green beauty has become less of a grassroots counterculture, and more mainstream – though whether or not it has become “accessible” is contested. Certain green beauty brands, like S.W. Basics, W3LL People, and RMS Beauty, are now available at Target, Ulta, Sephora, and other brick and mortar and e-retailers. Other brands have risen into the luxury space and line the shelves of places like Bloomingdales, Saks, and Nordstrom (for example, Tata Harper, Uma Skincare, and True Nature Botanicals, which was recently partially acquired by Unilever). The retail expansion is clearly in response to a strong consumer demand for these kinds of products. Articles like “Millennial Women Want More Green Beauty Products” (November 2016) illustrate this shift: “A Harris Poll survey found that 59 percent of women over the age of 35 believe buying green beauty is important to them, while an even larger percentage—73 to be exact—of millennial women seek out cleaner, all-natural products.”2

The natural skin care market has grown significantly over the last six years, now accounting for 13 percent (or $33 billion) of the global beauty market. The eco-beauty market share is expected to grow to $50 billion by 2019.3 While Spirit Beauty Lounge was one of the only online eco-beauty boutiques ten years ago, now there are at least 30 online shops, many of whom also run brick and mortar boutiques (e.g. Follain, Credo Beauty). Sephora, a major retailer of conventional beauty, now carries 15 green or mostly-green brands online. While there are dozens of popular, recognized eco-beauty brands in the current marketplace, new brands seem to be launching almost daily.

We can also see the growth in green beauty by the number of bloggers and social media influencers who are regularly posting and discussing green beauty on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blog sites. On Instagram alone, there are nearly 1 million photos tagged #greenbeauty (as of June 1, 2017). Yet with this mainstreaming, can we assume that everyone, not just a niche of alternative-minded people, get to benefit from more cleanly formulated products?

In the European Union, over 1300 ingredients are banned in cosmetics formulation, while in the United States, the number is 114. Proponents of a more mainstreamed approach to green beauty contend that consumer preferences will direct companies and business towards safer product formulation, and perhaps influence governance around chemical use. Those more skeptical of green beauty mainstreaming point to greenwashing, and accompanying marketing and social media strategies to create hype and buzz. Notably, it is a hype and buzz largely motivated through fear – a fear of “toxins” and living in a chemically-laden world.

Ulrich Beck, a well-known German sociologist, articulated the rise of what he termed a “risk society” from the 1980s onwards. In a risk society, citizens are preoccupied with the future and how to keep themselves safe amid all of the uncertainty posed by modernity/post-modernity. Many social media and general marketing strategies in the current green beauty and wellness spaces seem to fit neatly into a risk society thesis.

In a risk society, individuals are constantly preoccupied about their future, and devising strategies to manage anxieties about such an uncertain future. The green beauty, holistic, and alternative living space used to be more substantially untethered from the broader cultural zeitgeist of fear and consumerism. Yet in recent years, all manner of formally fringe health and wellness pursuits have been adopted by mainstream consumers (think crystals and energy work). The increased visibility of celebrity culture through social media is another contributing factor; celebrities have always been beacons of trends, yet the digital age has amplified this effect tenfold.

Thinking about consequences of green beauty mainstreaming

When a counterculture goes mainstream, it is those with a relative lack of power – namely communities of color, and the working poor – who do not benefit from the process. Green beauty has become a stratified segment of the beauty market, demanding higher prices compared to conventional products. As products become more expensive, they become more out of reach, further rendering the market for the wealthy and white. For example, in recent years, DIY products have been criticized by luxe beauty brands. While this is with good reason in some cases – baking soda and lemon juice can and will compromise the skin’s pH and natural barrier – it can feel disparaging and potentially disempowering to write off DIY approaches completely. Ironically, many luxe mainstream products started off as personal DIYs by the founder (c.f., May Lindstrom’s The Problem Solver and Clean Dirt and Josh Rosebrook’s Antioxidant Cacao Mask).

As prices for these products increase, it further renders green beauty for the elite and wealthy. Several brands have increased their prices and new brands, being debuted almost everyday, seem to launch with products that are well outside of the budget of many consumers. In addition, many of these products do not warrant their prices in the eyes of some consumers due to their short shelf lives (often 3 months or less for minimally-preserved products and no more than 6-9 months for more shelf-stable ingredients). Only those with a considerable amount of disposable income can afford to regularly purchase $50, $90 and $200 products. While some brands are becoming more accessible with products in stores like Target and Walmart, consumers are also facing market fatigue with the number of products and options that are available.

Recognizing the commodification of wellness, and the need for a paradigm shift

Beyond high eco-beauty product price tags, the commodification of wellness and self-care is an increasingly glaring problem. We know that wellness is multifaceted; there are many dimensions of wellness. Wellness and self-care do not look the same for everyone. Moreover, in different phases and seasons of life, certain aspects of wellness must be prioritized over others. But in the eco-beauty space, consumers are often encouraged to seek all-encompassing wellness, and in some cases, healing, within green beauty.

As this coconut oil meme illustrates, consumers may be looking to beauty products, something that they can easily consume and control, to either unconsciously distract themselves from doing necessary, hard “inner work,” or upon which to mistakenly place the hope of all-encompassing, deeper healing.  This leads them to spend more and more money both for individual “magical” products but also in general on a never-ending quest for the next best thing. While this is may be true in conventional beauty as well, in green beauty, the focus on “rituals” creates a mythological, spiritual connotation to products that supersede their function.

What can feed consumers’ never-ending quest for deeply transformative products are problematic marketing tactics by bloggers who seem to offer ubiquitous praise to very product and brand that they try. Since the eco-beauty community is much smaller than the larger beauty market, friendships with brand owners are common, which further limit the amount and level of objective reviews available. Additionally, the owners of certain brands have achieved something of a hero worship status (among both bloggers and consumers), which is a problem considering that this prevents or restricts the communication of constructive criticism that would be very useful in improving products.

Amidst all the critical thinking around where the green beauty industry and movement has come from, where it is now, and where it might be headed, we have several suggestions for how to move forward. First, it is important to think about and question the role of social media in promoting products and lifestyles, especially in the case of bloggers, YouTubers, and “influencers” (who bluntly just seem to be paid advertisers under the guise of “authenticity”). If a content producer you follow does not fully disclose their sponsorship, product placement, or PR samples, the onus is on the viewer or reader to hold them accountable. Content producers are only content producers because they have an audience – you. And you deserve to be well-informed about the potential biases induced in the media and marketing you are consuming.

Second, green beauty/wellness consumers need to stay vigilant in parsing out research and science from the vast amount of fear-mongering pseudo-science that has seemed to so widely proliferate in recent years.

Third, it would help consumers immensely if beauty brands started following the trend of some clothing retailers by employing radical pricing transparency models, or more direct-to-consumer brand models. Since beauty products have some of the highest profit margins compared to other consumer goods, if consumers were able to see exactly what is contributing to luxury beauty price tags, it could have an impact on purchasing decisions. While there are green beauty brands who are dedicated to sourcing the highest possible quality ingredients that are fair trade and cruelty free – both of which do incur costs – packaging costs and middleman distribution can sometimes double the cost of an already expensive product.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that the green beauty movement has a history for a reason. We do need to be concerned about the contaminants in our environment, from our air, food, and water supplies, to our textiles, furniture, and personal care products. Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals and body burden are a real and serious thing.  The motivation behind wanting to formulate and use safer personal care products is a noble endeavor, and a move in a much better direction for our bodies and our environment.

At the same time, it is equally important to maintain perspective and not find ourselves overly fixated on and stressed about aspects of life that do not factor as significantly into our collective body burdens. If the eco-beauty community spent as much time focused on guaranteeing high quality health care, safe food and clean water, and fresh air for everyone as it did obsessing over carmine and bismuth oxychloride, this would without a doubt have a much more substantial impact on overall health and wellness – at both the individual and collective levels.

The point is not that both cannot exist, but that so much seems to have gotten lost over the myopic focus on ingredients, amid much larger structural health problems. Reclaiming the activist energy that made green beauty counter-cultural in the first place can help empower this paradigm shift.

1 Coleman, Melissa. This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone. Harper Collins, 2011.

Berry, Wendell. The unsettling of America: Culture & agriculture. Counterpoint, 2015.

Guthman, Julie. Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. Univ of California Press, 2014.

Nearing, Helen, and Scott Nearing. Living the good life: Being a plain practical account of a twenty year project in a self-subsistent homestead in Vermont, together with remarks on how to live sanely & simply in a troubled world. Social Science Institute, 1954.

2 http://www.allure.com/story/millennial-women-green-beauty

3https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/natural-beauty-market-chemical-cosmetics

4 http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/regulations/international-laws/