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"Overconsumption = Extinction" (A Micro-Rant Re: Fashion Week Makeup)
When will eco-fashion stop ignoring beauty?
The Unpublishable is a weekly-ish newsletter covering what the beauty industry won’t tell you — from a reporter on a mission to reform it.
A climate activist crashed the Louis Vuitton runway earlier this week carrying a banner that read “OVERCONSUMPTION = EXTINCTION”. It was the best look to come out of Paris Fashion Week — out of Fashion Month as a whole, really.
While there has been an increase in “sustainability” efforts at Fashion Week over the past few seasons, there’s also been an increase in my personal frustration. I feel a deep, guttural ARGHHH rise up within me whenever a luxury brand promotes eco-friendlier fabrics or shows a carbon-neutral collection but neglects to examine the environmental impact of the accompanying beauty looks. It makes zero sense! I covered Fashion Week beauty trends for a few seasons at The Zoe Report, and designers always talked about how hair and makeup helped elevate the clothes — how runway beauty was an extension of runway fashion.
So why doesn’t that attitude apply to beauty’s effect on the Earth?
The most obvious example of beauty-as-an-eco-afterthought this season was Collina Strada. The beloved brand showed at a rooftop garden in Brooklyn and, per Fashionista, sent attendees home with a “template for a letter [to] send to their landlords about implementing their own green infrastructure in their buildings.” The clothing, characteristically fashioned out of eco-minded materials by designer Hillary Taymour, was paired with “iridescent glitter” makeup from MAC Cosmetics.
Glitter! Makeup! From! MAC! Cosmetics!!
Glitter is plastic. Specifically, microplastic.
The problem with plastic, as you probably know, is that it’s made from fossil fuels and lasts forever. It literally does not break down. Instead, over hundreds of years, it breaks up into microplastic particles. Those tiny particles go on to infiltrate water, air, soil, animals, and even human bodies, negatively affecting the health of people and the planet forevermore. The problem with glitter is that it already is microplastic, so it has those effects on the environment in real time.
As I once reported for HelloGiggles:
They may be micro, but these plastics pose a major threat to the environment.
In fact, the United States fully banned microbeads, a category of microplastics, in 2015 in order “to address concerns about microbeads in the water supply,” according to the Food & Drug Administration. (Microplastics have been found in an astounding 114 marine species—including marine species that humans regularly eat—and in tap water samples.) But there’s a loophole: The ban only applies to microplastics “intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the body.” Thus, makeup is free to continue its unrelenting reign of glitter litter.
Plastics of this size are too small to get filtered out in water treatment plants—so when you wash them off your face (or hair, or body), they “end up in our waterways, contributing to the pollution of rivers, lakes, and oceans,” Susan Stevens, the founder of Made with Respect, says. They aren’t biodegradable, so they just pile up, ad infinitum.
Even if you remove glitter with makeup wipe and toss it in the trash, “Glitter will then end up in landfills, where it leaches toxic chemicals into the soil and water for thousands of years,” Stevens says. “Soil contamination can have a number of harmful effects on ecosystems and humans, and if toxic chemicals leach into soil and groundwater, it may not only affect plant life, but may also affect our own health by passing into our food chain.” The long-term effects of consuming microplastics haven’t been studied, but the Made With Respect founder says, “The primary concern with ingesting microplastics is the different carcinogenic chemicals that are used in their manufacturing.”
Listen, I understand that not everything can be about everything, but accessorizing eco-conscious clothing with eye-catching microplastics feels like a pretty big thing! It’s like sending a sustainably-clad model down the runway clutching a bouquet of plastic straws, courtesy of ExxonMobil. The fashion and makeup are so ideologically at odds here that it undermines the message. And Taymour, to her credit, seems to realize this on some level: As the designer said in a two-year-old interview with Riposte, “Apparently, fabrics made from recycled water bottles are the worst as they release millions of microplastics into the ocean every time you wash a garment.” She’s also vocal about the design challenges of sustainable fashion and purposely avoids calling Collina Strada “sustainable”, which I appreciate. But not using glitter is not a challenge! It’s very easy! Just… don’t!
And sure, while a couple thousand flecks of glitter on a couple runway models does not an eco-disaster make, part of what we need to examine here is the larger cultural influence. My own (admittedly extreme and perhaps ridiculous?) stance is that popularizing a product like glitter at a time like this — a time when we have about 10 years left to cap the increase in global warming at a live-able level— is ethically sketchy.
I don’t mean to dump on Collina Strada, though — truly, I don’t. Eco-fashion is ignoring eco-beauty across the board.
Take notably sustainable fashion designer Stella McCartney, who called on notably unsustainable artist Pat McGrath to key the makeup for the brand’s Spring 2022 show in September. McGrath used products from her own brand, Pat McGrath Labs — products formulated with PFTE, also known as teflon, a member of the PFAS family. Yup, PFAS: The toxic “forever chemicals” that persist in the environment; the substances at the heart of one the most widespread ecological issues of our time. (Nope, this isn’t a “clean beauty fear-mongering” thing. Scientists, senators, and John Oliver all agree that PFAS are a problem.) And PFAS don’t only poison the planet! “There is toxicological evidence that some PFAS have adverse reproductive, developmental and immunological effects in animals and humans,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
How, how, HOWWW on Earth is Stella McCartney — outspoken advocate for the Earth!! — OK with her models being dusted in PFAS?
The likeliest answer is that McCartney is not OK with it, but she is also not aware of it. Maybe Taymour isn’t aware that glitter makeup is pre-made microplastic pollution, either. And that is precisely what frustrates me: People genuinely don’t think about the environmental impact of their beauty products. The information isn’t in-your-face. Sustainable beauty coverage is so far behind sustainable fashion coverage, and not for lack of knowledge or lack of trying. (From my experience pitching articles over the past two years, many beauty-centric media outlets seem unwilling to move past the kind of play-nice articles that pretend post-consumer recycled plastic packaging is some sort of industry savior when in reality IT IS STILL JUST PLASTIC! [If you’re an editor who is willing to do so, let me know!! I have ~100 ideas!!!]).
I’m just so fucking tired of beauty being an afterthought. I’m so sick of people assuming that beauty pollution isn’t as big of a deal as fashion pollution, if only because beauty products aren’t physically as big as clothing items. It’s such backwards thinking! All things considered —
the number of ingredients that go into a single beauty product (about 15 - 50)
the environmental impact of farming, harvesting, processing, and extracting each individual natural ingredient
the industrial production of each individual synthetic ingredient (including chemical emissions and hazardous waste disposal)
the supply chain involved in getting all of those ingredients to a single manufacturing facility
the industrial production of the final product
the layers and layers of packaging for the product
all the non-recyclable plastic parts of the product (the pump, the cap, etc)
the distribution of the product
the shipping of the product (from fuel to boxes to packing materials like bubble wrap)
the customer use of the product (like… beauty products get washed off every night into the water supply, the soil, the animals, the earth — the us — and reapplied and re-rinsed the next day. even ingredients/contaminants that evaporate [like benzene, the topic of much misguided beauty discussion lately] don’t just disappear. they evaporate INTO THE AIR, and air pollution is a HUGE source of environmental health issues!!)
the customer disposal of product (both the packaging and the remaining ingredients inside)
the corporate disposal of product (it’s hazardous waste!)
the fact that while a dress lasts for years, even “sustainable” beauty products last for mere months — the typical use and limited shelf life of beauty products means we have to repurchase, over and over and over again (example: how many cotton t-shirts have you purchased in the past year? and how many cotton sheet masks have you thrown in your trashcan?)
the fact that a person’s daily “outfit” typically includes three or four clothing items that can be reworn but 12 personal care products that will inevitably run out
— I’d argue that beauty has a comparable, if not bigger, total environmental impact to fashion. For designers, understanding this is as easy as taking a look around backstage: Behind-the-scenes, beauty products probably outnumber individual garments 15 to 1 (conservatively).
Am I saying that every runway beauty look should be 100% organic and minimal and boring and blah and made of, like, beet juice? No! I’m saying that every runway beauty look should be thoughtfully considered, especially by luxury brands that have built their customer base on a platform of environmental consciousness. I’m saying we should challenge the idea that self-expression and adornment through beauty — which is essential, which necessary to the human spirit! — needs to include glitter or PFAS, ever.
If not, at least the extinction will be sparkly.