Before demand increased for their nut oil, argan trees were being widely cut down for firewood.
Now they're being preserved and replanted. Photo: © françoise bro \

The cosmetic and perfume industry, which includes skin care, body washes, shaving products, deodorants and hair products, is worth US $170 billion annually and is dominated by a small group of multinational corporations, mainly L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Shiseido and Estée Lauder.

These conventional companies have been around since the 1900s when synthetics started appearing in many consumer goods. At that time, formulas shifted from almost exclusively plant ingredients to petrochemical versions because petroleum is the cheapest raw material and offers a number of advantages: it can be easily converted into many different patented chemicals; its production doesn’t depend on farmers, soil and climates; and it doesn’t break down or oxidize as easily.

To this day, the worldwide cosmetics market is a chemical industry but I can’t help but wonder what the planet would look like if it had remained plant-based. Would we have more lavender fields and fewer oil wells?

We’re getting a taste of what might have been through a niche market of smaller natural and organic cosmetic companies that are making strong headway in the beauty industry with an annual growth rate of nine per cent. There are literally thousands of plant species being grown all over the world to supply these brands with their raw materials. This puts economic value on the health of ecosystems and gives indigenous communities and developing countries opportunities to make money while protecting the biodiversity of their region.

We have already seen an improvement in protected species in the last 10 years. For instance, the argan tree of Morocco produces a nut oil used extensively in hair and skin care. Before its popularity, the tree was being cut down for firewood, putting the land at risk of desertification. Now that there is monetary value attached to it, the tree is being preserved and replanted. The argan oil industry supports approximately 2.2 million people and is produced almost exclusively by women’s co-ops, greatly improving their status in their communities. 

Another case is the island of Madagascar, which has one of the most extraordinary ecosystems in the world with eight out of ten species unique to the island. The country has a rich history of plant commerce, but over the years, economic pressures have led to destructive industries such as logging, grazing cattle and slash and burn agriculture. Like to the rest of the world’s rainforests, we’ve barely begun to explore the medicinal uses of the plants in Madagascar. The potential is endless and has already produced an anti-cancer drug from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus madagascariensis) that has increased the chances of surviving Hodgkin’s disease or pediatric leukemia from one in ten to nine in ten. 

The natural beauty industry is investing in this ecosystem by purchasing the essential oils and extracts of several different native species such as ylang ylang, tamanu, geranium, cinnamon, ravensara and gotu kola. As the demand for these ingredients grows, the possibilities expand for protecting this beautiful island and its priceless natural resources.

Next time that you buy a shampoo or shaving gel, consider the ingredients you are purchasing. Are they petroleum-based or botanical? Look for certifications or claims such as fair-trade, vegan, organic, plant-based or natural. Collectively, this could make a huge impact on the planet.

Another way that you can help is by supporting organizations such as Man and Nature, who connect small producers in the South with private beauty companies in the North. They help communities develop an industry that is fair to workers and encourages sustainable farming practices and biodiversity in the regions they live in.

Jessica Burman is the founder and owner of organic skin care line Cocoon Apothecary. She likes getting down to the bottom of things and exposing toxins lurking in every day products, and blogs for A\J about how everyday consumer choices can effect your health and the state of the planet. She is passionate about ditching synthetic chemicals in favor of simple, time-tested alternatives. She lives in Kitchener and is a mom to two youngs girls and too many pets. 

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