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Nikita Ramkissoon

February 13, 2023

Why decolonising sustainable beauty matters

When it comes to decolonising sustainable beauty, there are many layers to it that go beyond the inclusion of skin colour. Let’s face it – the world is on fire. While it may seem frivolous to talk about the beauty industry in a time when deforestation is at its peak, consumption and disposal and the reach of the beauty industry goes much further than its physical life cycle.

If you’ve never considered why the beauty industry is based on Western ideals or even considered that Western beauty isn’t simply the norm, you’re not alone. We need to talk about this – and many other issues related to race and colonialism – until everyone gains an understanding of these issues and help to dismantle the power structures responsible.

Makeup and skincare extends deeply into the social codes of belonging and meaning. The power of this industry is almost exclusively held by Western brands and wealthy conglomerates and so is sustainable innovation within these spaces. The layers go so much deeper than just skin but let’s start there: skin colour. Throughout history, especially in literature, dominant narratives have referred to beautiful women as “fair.” Culturally, the word fair has come to mean just, pure, reasonable, and legitimate. It becomes clear that calling their women “fair,” and then associating their skin with the same term places moral legitimacy on their skin color while diminishing – nay, dismissing – the validity of darker-skinned women.

As an institution, beauty has consistently excluded or outright denied the existence and growth of dark skin.

Instead, these alternative, so-called non-Western or *shudder* “ethnic” products have been pushed to the margins, often without the same level of marketing and professionalism put into them, relegating them into redundancy when the line inevitably flops due to lack of sales. Which is when companies say, “See? Brown women just don’t buy makeup.”  This peripheral sub-standard of the beauty industry, defined as a niche market hardly even reaches the shores of places like Africa where sales would take off. What’s really missing from the equation is true research and development geared towards consumers who do not fit the Western ideal – mainly those with dark skin.

The same can be applied to different skincare needs such as oily, melanated, or so-called problem skin. The script is the same and the degree of coloniality inherent in the global, and primarily Western beauty system impacts our ways of being, seeing, and doing in relation to concepts of beauty. Usually, the excuse for the lack of inclusivity in the beauty industry is the question of culture, being made up of diverse practices, discourses, and material expressions that predominantly Western brands do not understand. The fact is, they’ve never made an effort to. Culture is never static and it collectively encompasses a wide range of ways of being in the world. The assumption that non-Western culture is too different or difficult is a homogenising excuse that shows willful ignorance, lumping non-Western consumers into “them” or “other” while the Western buyer is “normal”.

What has this got to do with sustainable beauty, you ask?

The simple fact is; when advancements are made in skincare and beauty, it is often these so-called fringe needs that are left behind. Unfortunately, the decolonisation “trend”, so to speak, has only reached the beauty industry in the past decade and when you search for makeup for dark skin or sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white cast, the only results you get are the likes of Fenty and the ludicrously expensive Pat McGrath Labs – neither of which are available in Africa, but that’s another argument for another day.

When you look at sustainable brands, you have a maximum of three shades for darker skin. If the sunscreen is coral reef friendly, it’s so white, you might as well be pasting chalk on your face. And if the brand is using sustainable methods, don’t even bother asking whether they have options for oily skin because chances are, they don’t. And this will unfortunately be the case until sustainable brands latch onto the 50-shade trend. Thing is, I am a human being, not a trend.

Often brands use the excuse that if they cater to a black demographic it will alienate their majority white customer base, which is not only ridiculous but a cop out and pandering to racist narratives that are sustained by corporate nonsense.

Taking into consideration decolonial notions of beauty includes notions of identity, creativity, memory, belief, learning, and wellbeing. Together with economy, politics and ecology, culture is the fourth pillar of sustainability – and it has to be considered a priority in order to be truly sustainable. Smaller, black-owned companies have been catering to the darker-skinned market for years and now that big brands have jumped on the bandwagon, their clout has forced independent black-owned companies to compete with corporations that previously ignored their market. The same is happening with sustainable beauty – and it’s the 1980s for women of colour all over again. Flash back to images of Whitney Houston in neon leggings with shades of makeup that made her look like Jessica Lange circa American Horror Story.

While definitely not easy, turning the table on white supremacy is worth the conflict – even in something as seemingly frivolous as beauty. People of colour can care for themselves while also changing the world and we don’t have to choose between civil rights advocacy and self-care. And like sustainability, decolonisation has to happen but it’s an ongoing process. I don’t have the answers to how we can fully decolonise the beauty industry, but what we can do is create spaces where it is impossible for whiteness to exist comfortably on its own, ignoring and sideline everyone else, even within sustainable practices. It’s not enough that a product is green or uses renewable methods – if they do not cater to all people, it’s not sustainable, just as racism isn’t sustainable.

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