Calling attention to product sustainability is both a major opportunity and a major challenge for UK marketers working in the £12.4bn cosmetics industry.
That’s the finding of new research by global media platform Teads, which surveyed more than 1,000 UK consumers in March to gauge their views on sustainable credentials across categories including skincare, bodycare, haircare and make-up.
On the one hand, it found growing interest in products within cosmetics and toiletries that are working toward a more positive impact on the planet. Nearly half (44%) of shoppers have chosen one product over another because it had better sustainability credentials, while one fifth say that sustainability is an important factor when they’re purchasing in these categories.
Conversely, plenty of barriers remain to effectively communicating these credentials, with confusion, a lack of comparability and perceptions around high prices all standing in the way of messages cutting through.
So, just how high up the priority list should sustainability be for marketers in the beauty sector? What do their consumers care about? And how best can they integrate this into broader brand messaging?
Considered choices on luxury items
Though sustainability resonates for all products within cosmetics and toiletries, those brands positioned as luxury or non-essential have a particularly strong opportunity in this area when it comes to attracting shoppers, points out Henry Vernon, head of insights at Teads. For example, the research shows that while just 10% of consumers have factored in environmental impact when picking up pain relief, that proportion increases to just over a fifth (21%) in skincare.
There are a few reasons for this, says Vernon. “With more luxury products, people can make more considered choices with what they’re spending their money on, whereas on more essential products, people are much more price-driven and there’s much less freedom of choice.”
In addition, there’s a strong link between sustainability in these non-essential cosmetics and utility. The natural beauty market is now worth £209m and is projected to grow a further 8% in 2022, according to Statista, with natural ingredients fulfilling a dual role of less impact on the planet and a perception that they’re better performing products.
This also explains why, when it comes to the most important elements of sustainability for shoppers, having natural ingredients ranks highly, with 62% of shoppers rating it as an ‘important’ consideration when making a purchase.
Although more and more products are making their sustainable claims, it’s not always possible for the consumer to digest that information.
Henry Vernon, Teads
Across all cosmetics and toiletries products, though, recyclable packaging comes out on top, rated as ‘important’ by two thirds (67%) of UK consumers, with refillability (48%) and reusability (42%) also rated highly. Significantly, carbon neutrality is further down the priority list for many shoppers, ranked as ‘important’ by just 39% of those surveyed.
For Vernon, that perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider one of the big remaining barriers to communicating sustainable credentials: confusion. Nearly half (48%) of those surveyed admit they find the way brands talk about their sustainability credentials confusing, and 49% struggle to draw conclusions about which products are more sustainable. This underpins the lower prioritisation of carbon neutrality, he believes.
Simply put: “How people are talking about emissions is still quite difficult to judge and compare, whereas packaging and ingredients is more tangible for people.
“Sustainability is quite a complicated subject and so, although more and more products are making their sustainable claims, it’s not always possible for the consumer to digest that information. Even if they can, to then compare product A to product B is a challenge that needs to be addressed by having more consistent language. Yes, people are interested but they’re also confused by it.”
Regulatory crackdown on green claims
Addressing this lack of clarity and comparability is set to be an increasing hurdle for marketers to overcome in the coming years, given far greater scrutiny on the topic by the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA). In late 2021, the CMA published its Green Claims Code, a detailed guide for businesses on how to describe their track record on sustainability legally, with a warning that sector reviews would be carried out as of 2022 and action taken against those firms that failed to comply. In January, the fashion retail sector became the first subject of such a review, and more are expected to follow.
Brands need to focus on clear, simple messaging that doesn’t skip over the fundamentals, suggests Phil Sumner, VP for research operations at Teads. This will avoid the type of vague and unsubstantiated claims that will be targeted by the CMA, but also reduce the confusion many of their consumers currently feel.
“There has to be a focus on simplicity in language and in packaging design,” he says. “Until there is some type of third-party scale which will measure sustainability, shoppers will struggle with comparability, so a focus on that really simple messaging and packaging is really important at this stage.”
The platforms on which messaging around sustainability are shared is another factor for marketers to consider when building up clarity and credibility. Earlier research by Teads found that more traditional news articles and sources, for example, are a key influence when it comes to shaping views around environmental issues. Direct communications from brands were also desired by more than half (53%) of shoppers. Social media, on the other hand, was seen as lacking credibility. Nearly 60% of those surveyed said that they felt social media wasn’t a suitable medium for brands to communicate sustainability messages.
This dynamic was reflected across different age groups too, with younger consumers equally interested in online articles. It’s about being nuanced and considered with your choice of media, points out Sumner, rather than channelling all your efforts into one platform.
What’s clear is that, for those cosmetics and toiletries brands that can navigate this sometimes challenging balancing act around sustainability, the rewards will be significant. Not only are nearly a third (29%) of shoppers willing to pay more for sustainable products, but many are also willing to take a chance on a new product because of its track record on the environment. In hair, body and skincare, for example, sustainability was ranked higher than brand familiarity. In these instances, “what’s in the pot is more important than the name on the label”, sums up Vernon. This neatly captures both the scale of the opportunity and the scale of the challenge.
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