With YouTube’s launch in the early 2000s, the world of makeup education expanded beyond sisterly advice and teen magazines, finding a new home on the internet.
Beauty bloggers like Michelle Phan, Zoe Suggs, and James Charles garnered millions of followers by providing their audiences with tips, tricks, and tutorials, often accompanied with insights into their personal lives – an angle designed to foster a sense of connection and strengthen the pull to shop their sponsored content.
Since then, as the online beauty community has blossomed, the pressure to purchase has compounded.
Within the fashion industry, a movement towards sustainable fashion has begun, but the social and environmental impacts of overconsumption across the cosmetics industry are understudied and rarely even acknowledged by corporations, content creators or consumers.
Haul videos have normalised and even glorified the concept of purchasing makeup and cosmetic products in bulk, often at a rate far higher than that of realistic consumption. The popularity of showcasing collections and product storage videos persists, and the quality of the collection is usually appraised based almost entirely on its size: the bigger the better, the more the merrier.
Later in the decade, the “clean girl” aesthetic has arisen. A trend that allows self-proclaimed skincare gurus to promote an excess of acids, oils and creams while promising clear skin, without any professional qualification to do so.
The purchasing habits of influencers, as the job title quite literally would imply, have a “trickle-down” effect or ‘influence’ on the general population. For example, the average annual beauty spend for consumers has increased globally since the inception of the beauty blogger and in the United Kingdom it was forecast to rise from £73 to £483 in the next five years.
The rapid, slot machine-like cycle of newer social media platforms such as Tik-Tok means that the forces pushing people towards overconsumption have intensified. Makeup trends are rising and falling faster than ever before and videos entitled “Testing Tik-Tok Beauty Hacks” or “Unpack My Beauty PR Haul” consistently go viral every month.
Cosmetics companies are capitalising on this increased desire, keeping up with crazes by escalating their production and, by extension, their exploitation. For example, Dior (and many more like it) is reformulating already established products like their Forever Foundation to offer additional skincare benefits in line with the current trend of “skinimalism”.
The pressure to purchase and the constantly changing trends encourage a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, wherein influencers may feel that their expertise is only worth dispensing if their product range is large and consistently updated for relevance. Equally, consumers may feel forced to keep their collections and routines in line with current trends. YouTube videos warning viewers against “Outdated Makeup Trends” can reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views.
Beyond the social implications of this excessive culture, makeup and cosmetics pose a unique environmental problem in that they are not easily recycled or resold. Most formulas are housed in single-use plastic packaging, meaning that they are made to be disposed of after use. Hygiene concerns prevent people from reselling or regifting their used makeup products or packages as they may do clothing. Depop, one of the world’s most popular reselling platforms, prohibits the sale of used perfumes and cosmetics, as well as the sale of expired products and products without an ingredient list.
Moreover, many popular makeup products are produced unethically to begin with. An immeasurable amount of perfumes and beauty products are manufactured with ingredients like vanilla, cocoa, and mica, which are often sourced in ways that contribute to both human exploitation and deforestation.
Change at the influencer level is likely necessary to combat the cultural crisis of cosmetic overconsumption – thankfully, the wheels seem to be in motion.
An emerging YouTube trend spotlights empty products; in which influencers review beauty products that they finished before throwing out. Beyond endorsing a more budget-friendly and environmentally healthy culture, these videos also serve as a testimonial of the products’ reliability and effectiveness.
Similarly, “Project Pan” encourages beauty enthusiasts to use their products until they “hit pan”, or completely empty the container. Such a campaign not only reduces waste and lessens the environmental impact of cosmetic overuse, but also allows consumers to save money by developing a healthier relationship with their products and shopping more mindfully.
This mindful outlook may be the solution for consumers looking to cut back on their spending and overconsumption, when it comes to cosmetics. Several companies are consciously catering to customers hoping to mitigate the environmental impact of their purchases. For instance, Lush offers “naked”, or package-free, products such as shampoo bars and bath bombs to provide customers with plastic-free and environmentally friendly options, and The Body Shop has pioneered a refill scheme; allowing consumers to purchase reusable bottles for their favourite products at in-store refill stations.
To rebel against overconsumption requires conscious effort in the face of an endless cycle of product releases, aggressive marketing strategies and oppressive beauty standards. Along with consumers willingly working to be more mindful of their purchases, it is necessary for more companies to adopt sustainable practices such as reducing packaging waste and using environmentally friendly ingredients, and for influencers to promote moderation in the purchase and usage of beauty products.
Addressing overconsumption in the beauty industry will not only benefit the environment, but it will also encourage a healthier and more mindful approach to personal care, lifestyle and wellbeing.