Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Balancing Act of Ethical Choices

You might have noticed from reading this blog that I have some pretty strong opinions about a lot of things. I have things I am very much For, and things I am Against, and I like to uphold my opinions in the form of action through ethical choices wherever possible. I'm very much For independent small businesses, and so I like to buy from them wherever possible. I'm very against fur for fashion, so I avoid buying clothes that involve fur. But these are very simple, straight forward examples. When it comes to buying cosmetics the idea of ethical choices can become an almost impossible quagmire.

Choosing cosmetics is a complex proposition at the best of times. Before I buy something, I will always consider quite a few different factors - does it REALLY work the way it says it will? Will I actually use it? Do I REALLY like it? Can I afford it? This last question in particular can be a real make or break one for a lot of people, and honestly, I think that if you're in that sort of financial situation you can go ahead and have a pass on fussing about whether your choices are as ethical as they could be. If you have to wear lipstick to your minimum wage job or you'll get fired, and the only one you can afford it tested on animals? Then you just go ahead and buy whatever you have to, you'll get no shade or shame from me. Ethical considerations are essentially a middle class issue, something that only becomes relevant when you have some sort of disposable income that you can spend as you please. Luckily, I'm in a situation where I can afford (most of) what I want, so the other two points are the main factors for me.

A slight exaggeration of my financial situation.
Once I'm reasonably certain that a product will perform as expected, and I've decided that I really do need it in my life, there are a whole slew of ethical considerations I try to consider. Is it cruelty free? Is the packaging recyclable or recycled? Were the people who produced the ingredients paid fairly? Does it have a ton of excess packaging it really doesn't need? Were the staff who sold the product to me treated fairly? Did they have to chop down a whole bunch of rainforest to get the ingredients needed to make it? What are we supposed to do in the face of all this? A lot of people tend to throw up their hands and ignore the whole thing because the sheer number of factors to consider can be absolutely overwhelming. For some people, none of these issues really hold any weight, so they don't factor into their choices. Other people try to buy as little as possible, because these issues mean so much to them, and there are no completely ethically sound choices out there. I can absolutely understand all these positions, but as with most things, my view is somewhere in the middle.

Let's face it, there are no entirely ethical choices out there. There really aren't. There's no such thing as a perfect product, from a perfect company, that ticks every ethical consideration box absolutely, all the time. And when you're talking about large companies, trying to uncover the details of ethical practices can not only be enormously difficult, but complex and often contradictory.

Let's take Lush, as an example of a big, complicated company - it's an example that's been rattling around my head for a little while now after a conversation with friend about ethical choices, and since I went to a blogger event at the local store just last night it seems like a serendipitous time to get my thoughts out. I used to shop at Lush a lot, but then decided to step away for a while after becoming quite disillusioned, and have just recently started shopping there again. Ethical choices when it comes to cosmetics is hardly ever a black and white question, and the bigger the company the more complex it gets.

Lush have a huge number of ethical practices I really like, and that I can wholeheartedly get behind. Their efforts to reduce packaging in general, and recycle anything and everything they can is brilliant, and their commitment to sourcing ingredients in both a sustainable and fair way is amazing. They've even introduced biodegradable glitter in their products this year, in an effort to reduce the impact their products have on waterways, and they make a point of listing each and every ingredient that goes into their products (even if some of the effect claims are a little spurious), so you can look it up easily and quickly. These are all excellent, support worthy things, and I'm really glad they do them.

Not only is it Fair Trade, this stuff is gooooooooooood.
However, I have some niggling questions about some of Lush's practices. Their Cruelty-Free Kisses campaign earlier this year was, on the face of it, a fun idea - but I'm not 100 per cent on board with retail staff being forced to deal with the general public attempting to leave lip prints all over them. I'm sure some of the staff didn't give a damn, and some of them even enjoyed it. But I don't get the impression there was exactly an option to opt out if you WEREN'T okay with it, and that's not awesome at all. I'm also not 100 per cent behind their use of a female performance artist in a deliberately provocative outfit being used to demonstrate how awful animal testing is - it's WAY too close to PETA's pinup style for my liking. I really dislike PETA's excuse that misogyny is fine so long as it's saving animals, and this stunt is uncomfortably similar to their I'd Rather Go Naked campaigns. There have been accusations that Lush "greenwash" their image, so their products come across as more natural than they actually are - personally, I don't have a real problem with this, because I deliberately read all the labels, and don't actually mind artificial ingredients. But I've seen some people feel very betrayed to discover Lush use things like methylparaben and SLS.

Part of the Lush protest with performance artist Jacqueline Traide.
This was the least triggering picture of it I could find.
There are some yawning contradictions here, and it's hard to know what to make it them. What are we supposed to do, when confronted with a choice like this? What if you love Lush bath bombs, but you don't want to support violent activists Sea Shepherd? What if the founder of the company posts icky pictures on social media, but the staff at your local store are awesome and lovely? Do you boycott the whole company for the less pleasant aspects, or do the positive aspects balance it out? In this instance, I do feel overall that the good things Lush contributes to the beauty industry are worth letting them slide on the less awesome elements - I just make a point of not buying any of the products that deliberately contribute to Sea Shepherd. But how did I come to that conclusion? How do I decide what's worth compromising on, and where to make a stand?

For an example of how I navigate these choices on an everyday basis, let's look at my tendency to buy indie cosmetics over mainstream brands. The single biggest reason I like to buy a lot of my cosmetics from very small, independent brands is that they make their own products. I've had so many shitty, exploitative jobs over the years that I really, really hate the idea that I'm helping sustain that kind of business model. I want everyone to be able to make a living from something that makes them happy in my imaginary utopian future (you know the one, where racism and sexism and capitalism don't exist anymore), so I like to do what I can to support that in the here and now. When buying from independent creators, I know that the staff at least want to be doing what they're doing, even if they're not making what I would consider the level of pay they deserve from their business.  It's important to me to know that I'm doing a tiny little bit to encourage people to take a chance, start their own business, and at least have a go at supporting themselves with something they love.

Okay, so no-one really loves their job this much, but you get the idea.
I also know that none of the independent brands I buy from test on animals, and knowing that the products I buy from independent creators are 100 per cent cruelty free is a big bonus for me. While I eat meat and use leather occasionally, I personally feel like there is a big moral difference between raising animals to eat them or use their skin, and raising them to test on. If we're talking medical testing, for vaccines and new medications, etc, I do understand that animal testing is sometimes required for science to move forward. But when it comes to cosmetics, I'm just not convinced any possible innovation that can only be achieved through animal testing would really be worth it. How good can a lipstick really be, in the end? There are a number of viable alternatives to animal testing for new ingredients, and over 20,000 already tested substances available for use, which to my mind should leave manufacturers with plenty of ingredients to play with. Maybe it's hypocritical to agree with animal testing in some instances and not others, and to eat animal products all the while - but it's where I choose to draw my line.

Sketch by Don Moyer
These two factors are the big, main deal breakers for me - firstly how the company treats people, and after that I consider how the company treats animals. While I occasionally cave and get a nail polish from a mainstream brand that both tests on animals and treats people like dirt, there is only one product I buy on a regular basis that violates these guidelines I've put down for myself - my L'oreal mascara. I've tried SO MANY other mascaras in an attempt to break this habit (seriously, I threw away THIRTEEN over the weekend) and I just can't find another one I like as much. So I apply these guidelines to everything else, in an effort to minimize the impact of my choice in mascara.

After these two big button issues are resolved, for me it comes down to preferences. I prefer buying cosmetics that are vegan, because it makes me feel icky to think about using animals for something as frivolous and unnecessary as cosmetics. But it's not a deal breaker - I'm not going to turn down a beautiful sparkly nail polish because it has guanine in it that is made from processed fish scales. I prefer to buy cosmetics that are largely natural ingredients, but I also understand that artificial ingredients are sometimes required to prevent infections, among other nasty side effects. If something with artificial ingredients works noticeably better than an all-natural counterpart, I'm going to with the better performer. If I notice something I like anyway is also organic, it makes me happier with my choice. But I don't deliberately seek out only organic products.

I don't think this will ever be a real thing.
Found at NextNature
For other people, I know the issues of social justice, fair trade, and conditions for workers are WAY down their list of things they consider important when buying cosmetics. Some people look for animal testing as a first stop, or any animal ingredients. Some people put the parent company's effect on Third World nations first, and some people weigh up the impact the product will have on the environment first. All these different priorities are totally valid to my mind. I think that when presented with this boggling array of ethical factors, you just have to start with what means the most to you, and draw your line there before taking anything else into consideration. Trying to make the "right" choice all the time, every time, is impossible, and I think it's better to do what you can than do nothing at all.

Do you take any of these things into consideration when buying cosmetics? What tops your list of things to think about before you hand over your money? Do you think all these things are secondary to whether the product is pretty or not? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. 1. I think they'll make organic coke the minute they think they can make enough money on it to justify the cost.
    2. I'm poor, and unemployed, when I splurge on make-up and nail polish, it's the cheap stuff. I don't really have the option.
    3. As for ethical choices, I decide mostly on where the money is going. I don't support brands that are pro-zionist or anti-LGBT amongst other things. I've got other criteria as well, but where they put their money is a big deal for me, after that, my consideration is how they treat their work force. Environmentalism comes next. After that, it's animal testing. I don't really care about the vegan thing, because most of the substances used that are animal products would be leftover waste from the animal products industry anyway, and I'm a meat eater. I wear leather for the same reason. If your going to use an animal for food, you shouldn't let any part go to waste.
    4. I don't care how ethical the product is if it's a shit product, I'm not using it.
    5. If it's a great product that supports genocide, I'm not using it either.

  2. I've also been a Lush fan for some time (on the whole, at least - I agree with your reservations but the company seem pretty open about things), but now I can't afford it :( I struggle to find ethical indie lines in the UK that are good and easy to get hold of - do you have any recommendations?

    Thanks for a great post!

    1. Lush are absolutely a lot more open about their business practices than...well, just about any other company their size. That's part of why I used them as an example, to illustrate there really is no such thing as a perfect choice.

      I don't know of any UK specific indie cosmetics makers off the top of my head. Most of them seem to be in the US, with a few here in Oz. You've got me curious now though, I might look into it.

    2. Actually, Lush are pretty shady about their business practices. Lots of info here http://mitheringsfrommorningside.wordpress.com/category/the-smell-of-bullshit/

    3. I've read a lot of the reports from Mitherings From Morningside, and actually referenced a few in this article.

  3. Great post! And I agree about the SLS. It is the only stuff that can make things FOAM in a spectacular way! I've looked into making bubble bars and decided not to (until I find an alternative) because I don't want to use SLS. :( And I completely agree if you need to test a cosmetic on an animal to figure out if its dangerous why would you want that product on your face!?

  4. Great post :) My priorities list is something like this
    -Cruelty free and vegan
    -Ingredients (I avoid SLS and silicone, but if I do find something that seems really awesome and has a bit of SLS in it, it's not a deal breaker)
    -Human rights stuff (I don't spend a lot of time reading up on this, but I try to avoid companies that are racist, anti-LGBTQ or have sexist marketing! Which means no Lime Crime for me :( I find LUSH walks the line for this one.. I hated their crueltyfree-kisses thing, and if I had known about it at the time I would have talked to the people at my local store about it (they're really nice!) but on the other hand, they do support charities that I care about.
    -Environment/organic/less packaging. Not something that I actively seek out, but it's great when I find it.


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