Sephora’s safer ingredient announcement is more than skin deep — here’s why

Sephora store with clean beauty products
Shutterstock ShotPrime Studio / Faiz Zaki
Clean at Sephora is the retailer's new commitment to natural, organic and vegan beauty products.

We recently reported that Sephora became the first major specialty beauty retailer to release a public-facing chemicals policy. As a complement to its policy, Sephora also promotes its Clean at Sephora labeling program, an avenue for showcasing brands with an embedded safer ingredient philosophy.

Sephora recently updated this program: Going forward, a product bearing Sephora’s Clean label must avoid a list of more than 50 ingredients (in some cases, ingredients are allowed in restricted concentrations).

With Clean at Sephora, the retailer extends its strategy to capture the growing "naturals" market segment, especially among millennial shoppers. While Clean at Sephora may receive most of the media attention, Sephora’s chemicals policy is an essential addition to the retailer’s sustainability efforts. The Clean program recognizes products pursuing leadership, but the new chemicals policy will affect all products sold in Sephora’s stores.

How does the policy stack up against EDF’s 5 Pillars of Leadership for Safer Products?

Through this policy, Sephora joins a growing list of retailers who have released public chemicals policies focused on increased transparency and safer ingredients.

Let’s take a look at how Sephora’s policy stacks up against EDF’s 5 Pillars.

Institutional commitment

Although this is the first time Sephora has released a public chemicals policy, it is building upon ongoing efforts to offer safer products, particularly within its private label business and via Clean at Sephora.

Sephora’s public-facing policy, though, is the most effective tool in driving safer products consistently across the store. The policy clearly communicates Sephora’s expectations for suppliers. And it has established a global scope for the policy, which is important considering Sephora is the No. 1 specialty beauty retailer in the world.

The policy also establishes time-bound, measurable goals, specifically:

  • To reduce the number of products from third-party brands that contain high-priority chemicals by 50 percent in three years and to support suppliers in finding safer alternatives; and
  • To disclose intentionally added ingredient information for 100 percent of its formulated beauty and personal care products by 2020 on the U.S. website (with the exception of components of fragrance ingredients)

Sephora also has committed to sharing progress against these goals annually, which creates accountability throughout the business. 

Although the policy doesn’t set a time-bound goal regarding safer alternatives, it is important that Sephora made any commitments to safer alternatives and green chemistry. This builds upon its ongoing participation in several multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Beauty and Personal Care Leadership Council and the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), geared towards green chemistry innovation and increased use of safer chemicals.

Supply chain transparency

The policy provides a more detailed look into Sephora’s private label ingredient requirements than we have seen before, including the steps it has take to verify supplier compliance with an internal Restricted Substances List (RSL) that includes 1,300-plus ingredients.

However, the policy could be expanded to set specific goals around supply chain transparency, particularly ingredient disclosure from third party brands. To get started, Sephora could leverage the experience it has attained in implementing its private label RSL program, replicating best practices for connecting with and holding suppliers accountable.

Informing consumers

Sephora has set a strong goal to increase ingredient information available to consumers through its U.S. online portal. Sephora also believes it is its "responsibility to help [its] clients make informed decisions about the products they purchase."

This is a main tenet of the Informing Consumers pillar: consumers have the right to know what is in the products they buy. There’s room for improvement — by calling for more detailed fragrance information as well as information on contaminants — but Sephora has set a strong initial stance on transparency.

Safer product design

Sephora’s goal to reduce the use of high-priority chemicals will help to phase out chemicals of concern and bring safer chemicals into products and stores. The policy lists 49 high-priority chemicals, which includes many of the same chemicals that other retailers have prioritized for elimination. However, similar to some retailers, Sephora does not define its North Star for the "high-quality beauty products" it seeks. In the future, Sephora could point to authoritative bodies or specific health impacts of certain chemicals, such as reproductive toxicity, that its goals are meant to minimize. Sephora states that it also will consider expanding its goals and list of high priority chemicals in the future, a promising sign for continuous improvement.

In implementing its safer product goals, Sephora can apply its experience from managing its private label products, which already adhere to a strict RSL. Its Clean at Sephora program also will be helpful for its pursuits, as it continues to bring in brands that already have an embedded safer product design philosophy.

Public commitment

Sephora has made a very strong start here: publishing its policy and its timelines for achieving goals, as well as committing to report progress annually. By going public, it has created the opportunity to engage in useful partnerships and bring in expertise in areas where its suppliers may need support. It also has signaled to its customers that improving product offerings is important to them.

As Sephora moves forward, we encourage it to not only share successes but also any challenges it may face. This openness could spur stakeholders to share innovative ideas for overcoming roadblocks.

Sephora’s policy contains many elements of our Five Pillars of Leadership for Safer Products. Although Sephora could make improvements or add detail in a few areas, we’re encouraged by its commitment to continuous improvement and hope to see Sephora ratchet up its goals and expectations in the future. We also hope that the public nature of Sephora’s commitment will spur other major retailers in the specialty beauty space to follow suit.

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