Sustainable Ingredient Sourcing, The Challenges & Opportunities

Sustainable Ingredient Sourcing, The Challenges & Opportunities

by Michael Lorence ( and Liana Blomquist

As the personal care industry continues to grow year on year globally, so have the various trends that have stemmed off to meet new customer needs and requirements such as the clean and green beauty movements. With the rise of the clean beauty movement, customers have become very well versed and equipped with the information on various ingredients, their efficacy, and their safety standards; getting their information from various questionable online and social media sources. But while these customers might know a thing or two about what the ingredients in their products are, their benefits, their efficacy percentages, and their “safety” standards, the one thing they’re not completely versed with is how transparent or sustainable their ingredients are. In comes the green or eco-beauty movement which has been striving to show specifically how ingredients are grown and processed without real success; leading customers and brands to be more frustrated than ever. In this post we’ll be reviewing the challenges behind sustainable and transparent raw material sourcing, and how we at Flex Cosmetics and Brooklyn Rooftop Botanicals are working together to help change this. 

The Rise & Fall Of Clean Beauty

Clean beauty had a good run for its money, but as we and many experts and professionals in the cosmetic industry have continually made clear, clean beauty doesn’t really mean anything. Clean beauty and all the language developed around it, is fear-mongering marketing language developed to help people navigate the unanswered questions about their skin and health and to help them feel they’re in control. It was also developed by the first “clean beauty” brands to help differentiate themselves from the “big corporate” brands, but it eventually also helped to differentiate themselves from the rest of the “clean beauty” brands as the definition of what was deemed to be “natural” and “clean” evolved over time.

The fact of the matter is, the global beauty industry keeps growing at an exponential rate and is set to reach \$800B dollars as soon as 2023. That’s up 51% from 2017, and in reality,  those “clean beauty” brands want to make money like everyone else, and they’re ready to creatively market their product in any way shape or form. The other fact of the matter is there is only so much innovation that can occur with ingredients and raw materials and this usually costs A LOT of money and time to do the research and testing needed to make sure whatever is being created, fits the health, safety and efficacy standards necessary for a raw material to go to market. Because of these simple facts, natural and botanical ingredients gained traction because they’re easier to obtain and because they have basic research around their safety and efficacy because they’ve been around for so long. This needs to also be taken with a grain of salt, because even botanical research is limited because, again, any research and testing around an ingredient cost a lot of money and time. 

All of the above thus led to the backlash against the ingredients people call “synthetics” or “chemicals”, when in fact, everything on planet earth is a chemical as pointed out by many industry experts. The main theory that took hold around clean ingredients is, if something hasn’t been grown in the ground, has been manipulated by man, and has only a few years of research around it,  it cannot possibly be safe to use or good for the environment. There are a few issues that arise from this logic, the main three are below:

1. Natural Means Safer!

Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe. The key example I keep hearing about is arsenic. It’s a “natural” ingredient but it doesn’t mean it’s safe to ingest or use topically.  I hear the sentiment “I won’t put something on my skin that I can’t put in my body” a lot. Let’s break that down and think about why this shouldn’t be the criteria for ingredients. We work with preservatives all the time because they’re extremely important in preventing mold and bacteria growth which keeps our products safe and usable. If we made two formulas, one with and one without a preservative, the safer one would not be the one without because it does not have the necessary protection to stave off bacteria and mold contamination and growth. Let's also quickly mention essential oils, which are another popular “natural” ingredient. Essential oils do contain some beneficial constituents and aromatherapy benefits, but because of the way they are processed through distillation and not through isolation extraction, they include a lot of other volatile constituents that can cause serious skin sensitivity and irritation with long-lasting effects. Oils like clove, peppermint, and even lavender are very sensitizing to the skin which means that even if you don’t currently have sensitive skin, you could eventually develop it if applying essential oils directly to the skin. This is why it’s also extremely important to research the ingredients, their usage rate, and application directions. Essential oils should never be directly applied to the skin but few know this.

2. Natural Ingredients Aren’t Processed With Chemicals! 

Processing a botanical for use in your skincare products still requires human intervention. Creating specific ingredients, extracts, hydrosols, essential oils, and oil infusions still means you need to harvest that botanical, thoroughly clean it, manually or chemically *gasp* process it based on the constituent you want to isolate.  You then should effectively preserve it to make sure that tiny little spec of bacteria that was left while cleaning it, doesn’t multiply and contaminate the rest of the ingredients in your formula. There is just no such thing as unprocessed, or we would all just be rubbing raw foods on our faces. This doesn’t mean we can’t make our fresh honey and strawberry masks, but if you’re looking for real visible results to help with certain skin conditions, your ingredients need to be processed to derive the most benefit. 

3. Natural Ingredients Are Better For The Planet Because They Already Exist! 

Just because something comes from the ground, doesn’t make it more sustainable or better for the environment. Over 30% of global deforestation is caused by the expansion of oilseed crops in developing countries. This stat mainly to palm oil and soybeans, but if you look at the rest of the table, deforestation is also happening to expand for wheat, veggies, and fruit production which is, of course, mainly used as food, but not a lot of people know that many of their everyday ingredients come from food byproducts, so we also need to take this into consideration. Not to mention the amount of carbon emissions it takes to get those said botanicals and byproducts to a processing facility, then to a testing lab, and finally to the manufacturing facility where your products are being made. This begs to consider whether a synthetically, man-made version of that ingredient can be better for the environment. Many people don’t realize that as the demand for natural ingredients goes up that we end up harming our environment by chasing them. For example, palm oil is a very popular and prevalent ingredient in the personal care industry, so when demand goes up, forests get destroyed. This is the effect of just one ingredient, imagine the ecological effect for all the natural ingredients on your labels. So what is the solution? 

The Rise Of Green Beauty

With the fall of clean beauty, we now have the rise of green, sustainable, eco-beauty which has helped push aside the beliefs around excessively scrutinizing the safety of ingredients and replaced them with more conscious thinking around the sourcing of ingredients instead. There is now research that shows that brands that market their products as transparently and sustainably sourced or “green” will resonate with a growing portion of consumers over the coming years, but while green beauty is the new frontier and has opened up new opportunities and several new marketing angles previously unexplored or underutilized, like the sustainability of resources, clean processes, and reduced carbon footprint, there are significant challenges that make it almost impossible to have truly transparent and sustainably sourced ingredients. The 3 key ones are highlighted below:

1. Offsetting Carbon Emissions Fallacy 

Global agriculture expansion is the largest driver for biodiversity loss and a significant emitter of CO2 with over 30% of the drivers for deforestation caused by the expansion of oilseed and other personal care ingredient producing crops in developing countries. This type of information has led to many companies putting money towards seemingly greener practices, such as being a part of foundations that plant new trees to help reduce their “carbon emissions”. While only the tip of the iceberg from a carbon emissions fallacy perspective, this type of thinking fails to consider the destruction of the already existing and extremely diverse ecosystems to make those singular crop-focused farms in the first place. No amount of short-term replanting to offset those carbon emissions will help bring back the ecosystems that took hundreds of years to develop and are detrimental to the health and balance of our planet. Organic is also not necessarily better as there are studies that show how organic farms produce more carbon emissions due to their increasing need and use of land and resources due to non-GMO requirements. Not to mention, the entire processing and shipping process of these raw materials across oceans is a huge contributor to carbon emissions. Global expansion and production is the problem, and no amount of tree re-planting and giving money to green initiatives will bring that back, which is why finding truly and reliably sustainably farmed and sourced ingredients are so incredibly tricky and why ingredient farming and production needs to be overhauled.

2. Complex Tracking & Outdated Processes

There is currently a lack of reliable, centralized, market-ready tools that can quickly and objectively define the origins and the sustainability of ingredients used in personal care products. What’s more, many ingredient manufacturers are still not equipped with the necessary knowledge, processes, technology, and equipment to analyze the entirety of their supply chain for each raw material used in their ingredient production. An example of this would be ingredient blends which have a singular name but are made up of several different raw materials. The manufacturers of these blends often don't know where their raw materials come from or how they were grown, so this lack of transparency has forced brands to go through an extensive paper trail and in-depth research to determine the sustainability and sourcing of every ingredient used in the manufacturing of their products with, sometimes, little success or clarity. This has created a greater demand for ingredient and paper tracking systems that can streamline this process and mitigate the manual workload. 

3. Stricter Regulations & Certification Compliance

The pressure for more compliant, sustainable, and transparent ingredients stemming from the clean and green beauty movements, has led to many regulatory agencies across the globe to enact stricter regulations and certifications, sometimes made using groundless evidence, to seemingly ensure the safety and compliance of products. Many regulatory agencies have strict regulations around the number of materials used in products, down to the percentage and composition which can often add a considerable amount of delay and additional costs in the development process. Many smaller brands and DIY workshops have struggled to navigate these stricter regulations because if they don’t conform or certify, it becomes hard for them to stay relevant in the eyes of their customers. These stricter regulations and certifications have in effect made transparency even more difficult as more brands and manufacturers have shifted their focus to trying to fit into all of the certifications instead of focusing on the sourcing and end quality of their products.

Bringing Ingredients Closer To Home

Investing From The Start

Sustainability is why we’re doing what we’re doing, but to make long-term changes, we must realize it’s a process and not everything can be perfect from the start. We work tirelessly every day to improve our systems, reduce waste, emissions and increase our impact. By growing our own botanicals on our rooftops to make beauty products out of, and shortening our supply chain, we’re bringing raw materials closer to home, which means we’re reducing the amount of carbon emissions previously used to grow, process, transport, and produce those same botanicals grown halfway around the world. While we’d like 100% of our ingredients to come from our rooftops or even locally, that is not currently possible in today’s sourcing environment. This will be a big goal of ours as we continue to grow literally and physically, but to hold us off until then, the rest of the ingredients we use in production, that are not rooftop grown, are Cosmos compliant. We’re not about giving money to or being part of “sustainability” organizations to offload our carbon emissions elsewhere or from our bottom lines. We’re investing directly in our business practices, supply chain, and infrastructure to offset emissions from the start. 

Updated Tracking

For the ingredients we’re not growing on our rooftops, we worked with the recently developed sustainable ingredient sourcing and tracking platform, Novi Connect. Novi Connect was developed in the summer of 2021 and aims to help track ingredient sources and the paperwork to verify those ingredients and their certifications. By understanding the different botanicals, how they’re grown, the types of resources they take to grow, while also understanding how they’re processed into their final ingredients, we were able to diligently find and track the ingredients that made sense for us while also leading us to realize the change that is needed to help bring ingredients closer to home. We hope to continue to the processes we’ve developed with Novi to continue to track and perfect our sourcing, but we see further opportunities for more rigorous tracking from ingredient manufacturers and suppliers, and other players in the near future. 

Understanding What’s Important

With the vast amount of regulations and certifications out there, understanding them all through research and discussions with other professionals in the field and solidifying which ones we had to follow or were important to us, significantly helped us in the development and sourcing of our ingredients and the finalization of our product. We found that focusing on the country of origin (in terms of where the raw materials were grown), their manufacturing or processing location, and Cosmos/Ecocert compliance was what truly mattered. We also ensured proper testing was available or done on all raw materials and products to truly deliver a safe and effective end product. There are too many regulatory and certification bodies out there, so we believe that in order to really create transparent products, these certifications need to be streamlined to help reduce the complexity for the end customer. We’ve simplified our messaging on the certifications we’re taking part in to focus more on how and where our ingredients are truly sourced so we can be truly transparent to our end customers. We hope others follow suit.  


While the green or eco-beauty movement stems from good, there are still misconceptions on what truly is a transparent and sustainable product. We’re told if we’re part of organizations or sign up for certifications that can help offset carbon emissions, we’re truly going to make a difference, but we now know we have to do a lot more than give money off to truly make a sustainable impact when it comes to raw material sourcing. We at Brooklyn Rooftop Botanicals and Flex are leading this change to help make a global impact by investing in our internal processes, focusing on tracking and understanding what’s truly important to help lower our carbon footprint and sustainably source our raw materials. We hope that by doing all of this work, we can bring the value back to what’s really important… The planet and YOU.

About Brooklyn Rooftop Botanicals

To learn more about Brooklyn Rooftop Botanicals and its mission, click here!







6. Williams et al,2020

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