L’Oréal is one of the largest beauty companies in the world, with over 30 brands in its portfolio. L'Oréal owns Garnier, and its sub-brand Garnier Fructis is a family favorite in my household. We always have Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Shampoo in the shower, but I’ve never stopped to consider what I’m really putting in my hair. Personal care brands do a great job of advertising their products as safe and effective, but sadly there are some consequences to putting so much trust in these advertised claims. Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Shampoo is one of many name-brand products made from ingredients that have the potential to harm human health and aquatic life. Garnier has begun changing the ways it runs its business in terms of packaging, product formulas, renewable energy use, employee benefits, and diversion of plastic pollution, but the brand and L’Óreal as a whole have many commitments to follow through on before they can call themselves sustainable. It’s time for my family and me to transition away from Garnier Fructis and buy shampoo from a low-impact brand that is transparent about its business.
Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Shampoo contains the following ingredients: 1101502 FS9 Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Coco-Betaine, Sodium Chloride, Laureth-5 Carboxylic Acid, Cocamide Mipa, Amodimethicone, Fragrance, Sodium Benzoate, Hexylene Glycol, Polyquaternium-7, Apple Fruit Extract, PEG-55 Propylene Glycol Oleate, Propylene Glycol, Salicylic Acid, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Niacinamide, Pyridoxine HCL, Hexyl Cinnamal, Citric Acid, Sugar Cane Extract, Benzyl Alcohol, Linalool, Amyl Cinnamal, Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil, Hydroxypropyltrimonium Lemon Protein, Tocopherol, Phenoxyethanol, Lemon Peel Extract, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, CI 19140/Yellow 5, CI 14700/Red 4, and Sodium Hydroxide. That’s over 30 different substances, but a few key ingredients stood out to me. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS) is a substance that creates the lathering effect in products. Sulfates are controversial because they can strip hair of its moisture, leaving the scalp dry and irritated. SLS and Yellow 5 (a dye) are sometimes contaminated with known carcinogens. It sounds scary, but many studies have deemed that sulfates are safe in low concentrations in products that are meant to be rinsed off. Another controversial ingredient is fragrance, a vague term that can refer to any ingredient that has a fragrance. In many cases, the term “fragrance” hides the use of harmful substances like phthalates, which disrupt the endocrine system. On top of the risks these ingredients can pose to human health, recent studies have found that wastewater treatment plants are not capable of treating all the chemicals found in personal products that enter the sewer system. These chemicals are subsequently sent from treatment plants into waterways, where they can harm marine life and bioaccumulate (this means that the chemicals concentrate in living tissue). Garnier needs to direct more attention to simplifying its shampoo formulas and replacing synthetic ingredients with natural alternatives that are safe for humans and wildlife alike. Being paraben-free is not enough to ensure that consumers like you and me are safe from potentially harmful chemicals.
Garnier Fructis Sleek & Shine Shampoo is packaged in a bottle made of 50% recycled waste and 50% virgin PET. By 2021, Garnier commits to make all of its shampoo bottles from recycled plastics. This is only one of many objectives set by Garnier that is both ambitious but achievable. The shampoo bottle features a SmartLabel, a QR code that users can scan to read more details about the ingredients used in the product. I appreciate this transparency, but Garnier has the power to choose what to disclose in the description of each ingredient. The brand makes it clear that it is actively working to improve packaging design to promote a circular economy through its partnership with Terracycle and its LOOP program. TerraCycle is a recycling solutions company that created LOOP, a program that allows customers to reuse products by returning them to be refilled and used again. While it is great to see a brand working with an innovative company to become more sustainable, Garnier has done a poor job of advertising the LOOP program and encouraging consumers to try it out. If I knew I could stop using single-use plastics and stick with one refillable shampoo bottle, I would do so. But working to improve circularity on the consumer’s side disregards Garnier’s role in producing tons of single-use plastics. Change must happen on their product design side before the brand can place responsibility on the consumer to extend the life cycle of Garnier’s products.
Garnier has reduced the environmental impact of its product life cycles through several initiatives, but the brand provides few details about these initiatives and the extent of their benefits. All of Garnier’s US shampoos achieved the silver level of Cradle to Cradle certification, a measure of environmental and social performance based on several criteria. By achieving an overall silver level of certification, Garnier Fructis proves that it has assessed its impact across all criteria and made plans to reduce these impacts. The silver level of certification is not necessarily a high level of achievement because planning to change does not equate to real actions, but Garnier went slightly above the overall silver level of achievement by attaining a gold level of performance in terms of renewable energy use and social fairness. This certification level means that Garnier Fructis offsets 50% of its onsite emissions and uses electricity that is 50% sourced from renewable sources or offset. In addition, the brand’s Cruelty-Free certification and involvement in L’Oréal’s Solidarity Sourcing program satisfy requirements for conducting work that has a positive impact on employees and aspects of Garnier’s supply chain. The Solidarity Sourcing program is an initiative that ensures the lasting employment of people from disadvantaged communities. This program is the only concrete information that L’Oréal provides about the sourcing of its ingredients, and the program does not guarantee any additional benefits aside from job security. Garnier achieved the Cruelty-Free certification from the Leaping Bunny Program as a global brand, which is an important step towards protecting wildlife, especially because L’Oréal as a whole has not been certified.
Despite the benefits associated with the Cradle to Cradle certification, the extraction, synthesis, and transportation of over 30 ingredients to a bottling facility inevitably release lots of carbon emissions because Garnier sources its ingredients from widely different places around the world. Ingredients like propylene glycol, PEG-55 propylene glycol oleate, and Yellow 5 are derived from petroleum and thus have a greater environmental impact than those that are sourced naturally. The shampoo bottles themselves are also 50% made from PET plastic, which is derived from petroleum, and 50% made from recycled waste, which is far more sustainable because there are no emissions associated with material extraction. Garnier makes its Sleek & Shine shampoo in a way that has integrated some sustainable processes, but the brand should continue to expand upon these changes and be transparent about where it sources from and how its employees are treated.
L’Oréal has set commitments for climate change mitigation, sustainable water management, biodiversity preservation, and natural resource extraction. In addition to sharing the company's goals, L’Oréal has shared updates about its achievements so far. L’Oréal has 72 facilities powered by renewable energy in an effort to make all of its facilities carbon neutral by 2025. The company stated that it has reduced carbon emissions from its facilities and distribution centers by 81% and reduced its water use by 51% since 2005. It is hard to discern whether these status updates illustrate the full picture of L’Oréal’s efforts to become more sustainable, and I suspect the company is selectively choosing what to share and what not to share. How many facilities does L’Oréal have in total, and why is L’Oréal choosing to compare its emissions and water use to levels from over 15 years ago? L’Oréal’s failure to provide answers to these questions suggests that it is engaging in greenwashing by making its progress seem more impressive than it actually is.
L’Oréal’s website contains a search bar for customers to look up ingredients used by L’Oréal and learn about their purpose and source. At first, I was happy to see the company openly disclosing the ingredients it uses, but I quickly learned that the inventory of ingredient information is yet another example of L’Oréal being selectively transparent in order to bolster its reputation. L’Oréal fails to mention anything about the environmental impacts of its ingredients or their more harmful health impacts, if applicable, and it vaguely describes where the ingredients are sourced. Another instance of selective transparency is L’Oréal’s claim that the company does not test its products on animals. This claim is not backed by a third-party certification, and organizations like PETA have pointed out loopholes in L’Oréal’s anti-animal testing statements. I ultimately think that L’Oréal needs to take its commitments one step further by being fully transparent about its current social and environmental impacts and reassess its motives for becoming more sustainable. L’Oréal’s corporate sustainability is motivated by the desire to please investors rather than out of genuine concern for its impact on the environment and communities. At least the company is being proactive about making some changes though.