Being a discussion of some of the more unsavory aspects of the beauty industry.
“Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian.”— Emma Goldman
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Queen’s Blood Goldman. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is still harping about the fact that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.
I’ve said that a couple times now, and it’s probably a nice thing to explain what exactly I mean by that, and how much of it is joking– or at least, not fully accurate. The basic idea behind saying, “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is to say that all products and services are accompanied by some element of unethical behavior or consequences. (This is one of the major plotlines of a season of The Good Place, which is the reason that The Good Place is a miracle of a show and we must make everyone watch it.) It is not so much that we are all horrible people and we are incapable of wanting to consume ethically– it’s that we’re boxed in and don’t really have a choice. Spending money is a Plinko game where every ending slot includes something horrible.
Let’s take an example from food. You decide to go vegan, because you watched one too many documentaries on Netflix and you are sick of playing into the industrialized farming complex. Ok, cool. First step, you decide to switch to almond milk instead of cows’ milk and palm oil instead of butter. Then you find out how much of an ecological disaster almond farming is, and palm oil, well… orangutans were cool while they lasted. So you go to your local Wal-Mart and buy a ton of kale. Well, first problem, you’re shopping at Wal-Mart. There’s a ding right there. Second, that kale had to travel thousands of miles on a truck because you live in a barren wasteland, so the carbon footprint of that kale is insane. So you say, “Let’s try a different source.” So now you’re shopping from a local organic farm. That’s got to be better, because it’s organic and local, right? Well that organic farm utilizes under-paid immigrant labor, and the “organic” pesticides they use are actually present in more dangerous quantities than traditional pesticides, so on top of being underpaid the workers are being constantly exposed to hazardous conditions. (I have some problems with how we talk about “organic” farming, in case you couldn’t tell.) So you decide to buy your kale from a booth at the farmer’s market, but surprise! That cutesy local farm is actually a front for a large corporation that buys up small farms and has them continue to operate under their original names so that people feel better about their life choices. Also, that small “local” farm is actually from two states away, but they know you live in a food desert so they haul themselves out every week because getting your town to buy fresh produce is like shooting fish in a barrel, creating a new carbon footprint!
You get the idea– no matter what you try to do, you don’t have an ethically pure option. Follow basically every product back to its source, and you’ll find the exploitation, abuse, or even destruction of people, animals, and/or the environment. Probably multiple times.
It’s more fair to say that there is no ethical production under capitalism– it isn’t as if the average consumer is saying, “This kale would taste better if an immigrant without healthcare or worker’s comp protections got paid $2.00 an hour to harvest it” or “I’d only like to consume this product if it is laced with orangutan tears.” We just don’t have any choice. Getting excess value out of labor means that, at some point, the labor is being screwed over. And we as people don’t get to opt out of the system, at least not fully. I don’t get to tell my landlord, “I’m sorry, but I’m no longer paying rent because you’re exploiting my human need for shelter.” I also don’t get to stop needing to eat just because there’s no fully ethical way to purchase food. We all have limits on how much food, clothing, etc. we can all produce for ourselves, so short of living on a self-sustaining commune or actually doing a Heckin Revolution, we are stuck with consuming under capitalism.
So what we’re left with is an attempt to navigate capitalism and consume as ethically as possible– not completely ethically, because again, that’s impossible. But we need to try to shop within the boundaries of an acceptable moral range and more importantly, within the sort of comfort level that we can live with. And I absolutely understand that this is a tall order. Especially in the US, where hyper-consumerism has been tied to All the Good Things, from supporting our country to soothing the emptiness in your soul. (I have had to stop myself from stress shopping so many times during the pandemic.)
I want to make it clear: my intention in telling you all of this (and telling you everything that is coming up) is not to make you feel bad or guilty, though that may be a side effect of what I am saying. I’m not trying to make you decide to run off and live in a commune, or throw up your hands and say, “Well if there’s no ethical consumption then fuck it!” I believe in making informed choices, and I know all of this can be very overwhelming, so I’m hoping to share information in a digestible way with all of you. I do personally think that there are better and worse choices to make, and if you’re one of my close friends I may have a Very Special Episode-type discussion with you, but I’m not the arbiter of Everything That is Right and Good. I am a millenial who absolutely raced her dog for a piece of Pop-Tart that I dropped on the floor earlier today. I absolutely do not have all of the answers. I just want us to be able to muddle through things together.
Top Ways Brands are Unethical
As we start to navigate through the ethics of the beauty industry, I want to start with the broad strokes of unethical behavior in the beauty industry. These ethics violations range from the small (using excess packaging to make you think you’re getting more product than you are) to the big (systematically excluding people of color from makeup lines). The list below is not in alphabetical order or order of pearl-clutching inducements– I don’t think it is my job to form a scientific ranking system of unethical habits. Instead, they are in the order in which they popped into my brain.
Hyper-Consumerism is probably one of the cardinal sins of the beauty and influencer industry. A lot of people blame Colour Pop and its frequent palette releases (it’s called the “fast fashion” of makeup, and that’s not supposed to be a compliment) for making every other brand up their games and start releasing more and more product, but it’s a comprehensive problem throughout. Makeup brands are constantly releasing products and constantly chasing trends. There are entire Instagram accounts and YouTube videos/channels that do almost nothing but showcase and talk about the upcoming releases of various brands. A video that does the weekly recap of upcoming products can last an entire hour. A lot of influencers and gurus will use hyperbole in reviews, utilizing words like “obsessed” and “need” to discuss products. Brands, influencers, and fans all talk about buying things as if they have no free will, like they were passing an Ulta and a troll demanded they pay a toll in the form of buying five new highlighters. People will pay extra for something because of its packaging, will buy products they don’t really want just because they are on sale, because it has a brand tie in they are nostalgically fond of, because it was a collaboration with someone they liked, etc. There are also all sorts of tricks that run off of FOMO, a lot of which I’m going to discuss in my next post because they’re tacky and I hate them, but they aren’t my main focus for today.
There are definitely people who are pushing back against this hyper-consumerism. Drag queen Kimberly Clark popularized Anti-Hauls, or videos that talk about products that people are planning not to buy for various reasons. (She’s also a singer and her version of “Midnight Radio” manages to start off even sadder than the original and I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT IS POSSIBLE.) Whitney Hedrick has some really great videos on tips to keep you from buying makeup you don’t need.
In Britain, there are strict advertising standards that mean brands have to be able to substantiate all their claims, avoid practices like “using a flawless-skinned 24-year-old as the model to sell an anti-aging cream” or “using fake eyelashes to sell mascara,” post-production airbrushing or photo manipulation that is liable to lead consumers to have inaccurate perceptions of the product, etc. In the US, our advertising standards seem to be “Don’t use cartoons to sell cigarettes and include a small print warning about drinking responsibly at the end of the ad about how alcohol makes you sexy and rich.”
I genuinely cannot believe what advertisers get away with when it comes to cosmetics and skin care. Mascara ads will have teeeny tiny words in the bottom telling you that the model is using “lash inserts.” Also known as fake lashes. They can’t even get the promised results of the mascara in their own damn commercial. Skin creams that promise to remove dark circles, puffiness, signs of aging, pores, or basically having skin. They’ll be advertised by a twenty-something model who hasn’t gotten her first grey hair or wrinkle yet, and the ad will have small words telling you “results not guaranteed.” Makeup can legit promise you a “flawless” appearance. And that’s without even getting into the incredibly shady things, like “not using the shade they say they’re using on certain models,” (Anastasia Beverly Hills), darkening white models’ appearance to make it seem like their products work better for darker skinned women (Becca. Also Stila. Twice.), or just…. straight up selling “Skin lightening” lotions, complete with misleading advertisements (Nivea, what the many levels of fuck?). Basically, there is an extra level of advertising fuckery that is reserved for screwing over customers of color. Which is a uh, theme of the beauty industry.
Unethically Sourced Ingredients
I’m not going to belabor this point too much, because I’ve mentioned it at least twice before, in my cruelty free and vegan post and also briefly when I talked about the Claire’s asbestos/talc issue. But it does bear repeating: it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to get beauty products that are 100% ethically sourced. In our complicated global community, it can be hard even for producers who are interested in doing so to fully backtrace the source of their ingredients, let alone for consumers to try and accomplish the same. And most producers don’t want to know. If you want to get really depressed but have a teensy bit of hope at the end, you can read this article about the impossibilities of ethically sourced ingredients, especially mica and palm oil, but then also gives us some hope about how blockchain might help us get better transparency in the beauty world.
I’ll admit, this one wasn’t even really on my radar until I saw Raw Beauty Kristi talk about her disappointment in Colour Pop switching from cardboard to plastic packaging for their 9-pan palettes and Samantha Ravendahl talking about how she was no longer accepting PR, largely because of the extensive waste that was the result of the packaging it was shipped in. I, of course, saw Kristi’s video just after I had bought five Colour Pop nine pans, and they sit in my palette holder, silently judging me. In general, we should be pushing the makeup industry, like all industries, to decrease their use of single-use plastic packaging, increase recycling efforts, and work with more environmentally-friendly shipping and packaging methods. This also links back to the hyper-consumerism thing a bit, in that there is a strong emphasis in the beauty industry to buy things constantly, whether you are actually going to like them or not. Those products that you get may or may not be returnable (we’ll get to that a bit more next week) and whether they are returnable or not, they are likely going to end up in the trash. In addition to being a waste of money, this is a waste of resources and an extra item going to a landfill that didn’t have to be there.
Terrible Shade Ranges/Shade Considerations
As I was saying earlier, the makeup industry has not been kind to customers of color. In basically every way. The first and most obvious way is the terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE shade range most brands have for things like foundation and concealer. I’ve already hyped Nyma Tang’s The Darkest Shade series, but I’m gonna hype it again. Customers of color have been considered an afterthought for decades. And it’s not just foundation and concealer– it’s even products like bronzer and eyeshadow. Bronzer is supposed to darken skin, which is hard to do if the darkest it goes is “slightly overcooked pizza crust.” And eyeshadows with the wrong undertones can look incredibly ashy and unflattering, or even not show up, on darker skin, which means anyone with darker skin who wants to wear the color will probably need a white or near-white eye primer in order to make the color work. One important method for changing this this is for makeup fans whose skintones ARE represented in a product range to be on the lookout for the overall range and reviews of the product. Darker skinned makeup fans have been left out because their needs and concerns haven’t been considered “profitable,” and enough white people shrugged and went, “Well, I got mine.” that most brands never felt the need to change.
This is very closely related to the issue of shade range. Amanda at the channel amandabb has a really great video about this topic. Essentially, it boils down to the idea that brands and influencers are doing things that screw black people over (having bad shade ranges, essentially wearing blackface, performing cultural appropriation, etc.) on purpose to drive outrage, get their product talked about, and raise their company profile. Which is sadly common in our current stage of capitalism/worst timeline. (Hbomberguy has a very good video about outrage marketing that you should also watch.) As you might imagine, I find this morally reprehensible, and it throws me into the same quandary I get about “feeding the trolls”: I don’t want to give them the attention they are craving, but I also don’t want them to get away with their foolishness. Amanda has some good suggestions for that as well. (That I’m not going to tell you because you should watch her video!)
Product Amount and Production Cost vs. Price
So I learned recently that the average restaurant has a 3-5% profit margin. (AKA, they make about $.03-.05 of profit out of every dollar that is spent at their restaurant. In other words, their revenue minus their costs leaves about three to five cents of profit left over from each dollar.) A really good restaurant can get to around a 15% profit margin. You wanna guess what the average profit margin is for makeup brands?
SIXTY to EIGHTY PERCENT. That means that after accounting for costs, 60 to 80 cents of each dollar is pure profit. That is “fireworks sales” money. What this means in practical terms is that almost all makeup is dramatically overpriced. Like, “painting bricks with gold paint and selling them as gold” overpriced.
One of the ways that this overpricing happens is by playing fast and loose with product amounts versus price. If you’ve ever been poor, you’re already used to glancing at the “cost per ounce” section on price labels at the store. If you’ve never been poor, come with me on a magical adventure!
Most makeup products are labeled with the ounces or grams of product that they have. At one point I had a list of average amounts for products, but I can’t find it now and so you’re all just going to have to suffer in frustration with me. The point is, paying attention to this information is really important in terms of how much bang you are getting for your buck. A lot of brands will put small amounts of product into large, bulky packaging to make it seem like there is more product than there actually is. Or they’ll advertise their amazingly low prices without telling you that the reason their product costs half as much as their competitor’s is that they have half as much product as their competitor.
Now obviously, product amount is not the only indicator of value. If I get twenty grams of dollar store eyeshadow for $20, that is not necessarily a better value than the 10 grams of high end eyeshadow I got for $40– a lot depends on the quality of the shadow I’m getting. But if you’re comparing similar products, then this is a good way to help judge when you’re getting a good deal. And it’s just a good habit to get into for general shopping.
I talked about this practice in my cost/value post, but it really pisses me off so I’m talking about it again. I abhor private labeling, especially in light of what we just learned above about the profit margin. If you are unable to run a makeup company without buying wholesale, generic makeup, slapping your name on it, and reselling it at a dramatic markup? Maybe don’t try to run a damn makeup company. To me there is a world of difference between coming up with your own formulations and then depending on someone else to actually produce it, and taking makeup someone else has already made, re-labeling it, and passing it off as yours. And the latter practice makes me really mad.
Rainbow-washing is related to probably the more well-known practice of pinkwashing, where everyone from clothing companies to gun manufacturers to the goddamn NFL will start producing everything in pink in October for breast cancer “awareness.” At best, companies will donate a small percentage of sales to breast cancer research organizations. In the middle/purgatory category, it’s a soulless cash grab that assumes you will buy things just because they are pink so that you can performatively demonstrate that you hate breast cancer/ support breast cancer survivors. At worst, they use the color pink to sell products that are ironically carcinogenic. Or you know… guns.
Rainbow-washing is similar, only instead of turning everything pink, brands turn everything rainbow in honor of Pride Month.
Because we live in a very weird, capitalist society, it is in some ways a positive sign that corporations have decided to exploit Pride Month in order to make money, because it’s a sign of positive social change– it is now more profitable to try and cater to/exploit the LGBTQ+ community than to ignore them or even actively oppress them. So… yay then? Goodness we live in an insane timeline.
Like pinkwashing, at its best rainbow-washing serves in at least a small way as a method to raise funds for pro LGBTQ+ organizations. Also like pinkwashing, at its midpoint it is a soulless cash grab, and at its worst it is a soulless cash grab that exposes a company’s hypocrisy. Many corporations (not just makeup brands) will go all out in rainbow for Pride Month, and then donate to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians and organizations, or have corporate policies that discriminate against queer employees.
These were all of my big issues. And these are my case studies in the argument that what we really need to be pressed about is the production side, rather than the consumer side. As consumers our jobs is to be as ethical as we can given the various constraints (time, money, energy) we have on our lives. It should be the responsibility of the brands to be more ethical, but it takes public pressure and “voting with your dollar” to make that happen a lot of the time. That’s why I think it’s so important that we’re aware of these messed up business practices, and can make as good of choices as possible.
Join me next time, when I will finish up my overall makeup brand practices discussion with some topics that are not so much anger inducing as they are just weird/kinda shady/things to be wary of.
Queen’s Blood Goldman.