For most people of color, this title won’t come as a shock. It’s no secret that the clean beauty space is not centered around the needs of black and brown people, nor does it try to be. The industry extensively demonstrates its alignment with lavish white lifestyles, products that are primarily intended for white complexions, and an aesthetic that makes it clear that any semblance of non-white cultural identity is not welcome. There are attempts, here and there, to be more “inclusive”, mainly by expanding foundation and concealer shade ranges, or even adding the odd image of a black model on social media, but, in most cases, the attempts are half-hearted and in the interests of saving face rather than a deliberate and structural attempt at both providing quality options for the black and POC community but also having them included in the process.
There are a handful of BIPOC brands speckled in what’s considered to be the mainstream clean beauty space. They get the occasional feature, but, for the most part, the only time a person of color is portrayed in marketing, advertising or publications is through a white lens, and typically in a brief fashion. Even if they are featured, they have to fit the bill and only deviate from the industry image slightly, so as not to create disinterest or discomfort.
The irony is that much of the inspiration and knowledge that informs clean beauty is derived from black, indigenous and POC traditional practices. Indie clean beauty is an extension of the natural industry, which is predominantly comprised of products that are formulated using traditional ingredients and methods. Ingredients like shea butter, baobab seed oil, marula oil, sandalwood, neem oil, coconut oil, castor oil and cocoa butter. Products like oil cleansers, body butters, black soap, hair and face oils. So many of the practices that are encouraged in the clean beauty space originated in non-western traditions, which is barely acknowledged aside from the occasional soundbite to add to a company “story” or product description. I’m not saying all brands in the space don’t give credit where credit is due, but those who don’t are definitely in the majority.
There’s a general colonial attitude of “discovery” in the clean beauty space. “New” buzz ingredients that have an endless list of associated benefits that supposedly no one has ever heard of. In many cases, they are ingredients that have been used for thousands of years in places like Africa, India and Japan, but are unfamiliar to a white audience. They are then marketed as a fresh approach, and proceed to become a highly profitable trend, with no people of color employed in any type of administrative or executive role. It could also be argued that this, “I discovered it, therefore it’s mine,” attitude inevitably leads to ingredient sourcing exploitation in the very countries and cultures that they’re appropriating. It’s a well-rounded, non-reciprocal relationship, and most brands are more invested in acquiring buzz ingredients than ensuring their sourcing is sustainable and in the best interests of local, BIPOC communities in those countries.
Exoticism of ingredients is used as a promotional asset, alongside lack of inclusion of individuals of color on their teams. Over the years, I have met countless brand founders, their assistants and employees, and not once have I been introduced to a black team member. With many now calling for beauty brands and retailers to disclose the percentage of POC in prominent roles (see: Pull Up For Change), I know for a fact that the clean beauty industry has no leg to stand on. They will likely come up empty handed, and, the reality is, in order to successfully have more inclusive structures, it would require a total ideological shift. BIPOC contributors cannot effectively work in spaces and with products that are primarily or only designed to accommodate white employees and consumers.
White influencers are the cornerstone of the clean beauty industry, making massive sums of money for individual Instagram posts and stories. In an industry that typically does not use mainstream methods of advertising, such as taking out an ad in a newspaper or investing in a billboard, influencers and bloggers are the main vehicle for delivering product and retailer information. I was exposed to just how insular and white-dominant this structure is, with little to no influencers of color being paid for their contributions, but being offered free product instead. They are often reached out to as an afterthought to fill a BIPOC quota in an attempt for brands and retailers to avoid being accused of lack of inclusion, but, once again, are not viewed as being integral or essential to the success or survival of the industry. They are merely an option, while paying white influencers is a *must* in order to succeed.
There are many BIPOC-owned brands that fit natural and clean criteria that you won’t find at mainstream retailers because they do not meet the aesthetic. Their products may not have trendy packaging (according to white trends), PR-approved branding, or new age, pseudo-spiritual wording, and therefore they are excluded or perceived as “not as good”, ineffective or not “on brand” for retailers, which is partly the result of ingrained racism. In many cases, it doesn’t matter what’s in the jar, its success solely depends on how marketable it is and how well it fits into the clean beauty mould. Many of the founders in the space have previous successful careers or come from wealthy families and heavily invest in marketing and PR prior to a product even hitting the shelves. The effectiveness of the product itself is secondary to how well a brand can conform to the clean beauty industry’s ideals, which is a process that can only be afforded by one’s own personal privilege and luxury. There are few “rags to riches” stories in the clean beauty space, and even if brown and black individuals are wealthy or well invested in, their stories are “other” and fall outside of the comfort and interest levels of a predominantly white audience.
I have spent many years wholeheartedly supporting this industry, because natural ingredients, sustainable practices, health-conscious living and revolutionizing the beauty industry are inherent interests of mine, but I have sacrificed my ability to be outspoken. I have made attempts at shifting and changing the focus, only to be met with silence and no change. I have supported brands for years, promoting them in my work, providing them with free advertising, encouraging retailers to include them in their selection, but, in many cases, I’m incapable of building a relationship with them, because they solely support white influencers and makeup artists, or discern based on the number of followers someone has. I have literally scrolled through the people brands choose to follow, and it’s a sea of white and privileged faces. Further to that, attempting to build community with other makeup artists and enthusiasts in the industry is near impossible, because, frankly, I don’t fit the image. They are all white and exist within a white-dominant and privileged echo chamber.
I have uncomfortably spent time with black individuals trying to desperately find makeup or sunscreen options in the clean beauty space. I have researched and kept tabs on the evolution of brands for years, observing the “growth” of shade selection and increased willingness to feature POC, only to witness barely perceptible levels of change, with a handful of exceptions. I look to see if brands are featuring POC in their campaigns, not as objects to facilitate increased sales, but to be featured as individuals who are knowledgeable, intelligent and have massive contributions to make in an industry that is largely built upon practices, ingredients and methods that are inherent to their upbringing, ancestry and way of life. I eagerly wait for BIPOC-owned brands to be uplifted and celebrated, because it’s ten times more difficult for them to gain visibility and support, and it rarely happens.
I tried to empathize with brands along the way, especially the smaller ones. With limited shade ranges, the most common excuse is that they have to know who their customer is and can’t have too many SKU’s, because the products will go bad if no one purchases them. But how do you attain a customer if you don’t have the product in the first place? It’s a clear statement that they simply aren’t choosing to accommodate people of color, especially black people, with shade ranges that typically stop around “medium dark”.
And, ironically, many of the brands who parade inclusivity and promote themselves as progressive, don’t have the selection to back it up, which adds insult to injury. It’s the act of enthusiastically luring in a justifiably hesitant audience, only for them to realize there’s nothing there for them, yet again - which is indefensible and demoralizing. I hear time and time again from black individuals that they don’t feel comfortable or welcome in clean beauty spaces: events, retail locations, social media. It’s a realm that is very clearly not pro-black.
Keep in mind, the clean beauty industry is new. It is only now starting to take root. The beauty industry, overall, is rife with issues and has a long way to go, but many of its roots are decades old. That is no excuse and changes need to be made, but for an industry to be starting right in this moment and to carry on discriminatory practices is inexcusable. Clean beauty should be at the forefront of inclusivity, elevating black and brown voices, integrating queer and gender fluid representation, and not shying away from prominent social causes and conversations. An industry starting in this moment should be trailblazing and defying the status quo, not contributing to regression and emphasizing outdated imagery and business practices.
It’s not excusable…and I know many of the excuses, having worked behind the scenes for many years and in many capacities. If resources were initially sparse, brand and retailer profits are exponentially increasing and that can no longer be the excuse. If the technologies to create an extensive shade range or highly pigmented products hasn’t quite been perfected, be transparent about that and keep your supporters posted on your progress, rather than pretending like there’s no issue and that you are an inclusive brand. Investing in marketing and misleading imagery to create a veil of inclusion is not acceptable. But also, having worked with a plethora of clean makeup brands and shade ranges, I have seen that certain “hard to achieve” shades ARE possible, it’s just that the brands aren’t hiring black and brown consultants to advise them on what works. The majority of concealers and foundations in the clean beauty space do not work on deeper skin, and that’s a reality that could be easily avoided with research and hiring the right advisors.
I should mention that I’m primarily writing this from a Canadian perspective, where inclusion of black and POC-owned brands hardly exists. A good majority of the brands that are sold here are imported from the states, and, once again, white-owned brands that maintain the clean beauty aesthetic I mentioned earlier have top priority, popularity and demand, which speaks volumes. There is slow progress, and the odd black or brown-owned brands appear, but, for the most part, they are barely present in the mainstream clean beauty space.
Also, I am acknowledging my ignorance as far as being aware of the great abundance of black-owned clean beauty brands in the United States. Our current circumstances and the elevation of black voices has been an incredible and enlightening gift. Seeing countless brands that should have greater visibility is giving me a lot of hope. This post is not centred on those brands or the segment of the industry they exist within in any way, but is a reflection on the white-dominated, “mainstream” clean beauty industry.
I am aware that there’s an almost separate industry centred around black and POC-owned clean beauty businesses in the United States that is thriving. Retailers like BLK + GRN come to mind. But that industry and what is perceived as “mainstream clean beauty” are entirely disconnected. Despite financially supporting and having a massive interest in many of the brands that fall under this “mainstream” category, black people are consistently excluded by the industry on all levels. It’s almost assumed that they will only participate in the black-owned segment of the industry. This racist assumption (whether conscious or not) absolves white-owned brands and retailers of responsibility for not being inclusive.
So, the final question is, “What will lead to change?”
I’ve seen some movements and calls to action addressing the beauty industry, as a whole, which are phenomenal and should be regarded, but I feel this niche area needs to be specifically and further examined. As one of few BIPOC individuals working in the Canadian clean beauty industry, I feel it’s my responsibility to take steps to address and enforce accountability. I have started by having conversations with retailers and brands personally and will continue to build on my efforts.
If you have any feedback, questions or feel that the above is misrepresentative, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I focused a lot on my personal experience, and would’ve preferred to feature more information from multiple BIPOC perspectives, but hopefully that will be possible moving forward. It is my intention to hold the businesses and individuals I interact with in this industry accountable, to hold myself accountable for ways in which I have been complicit in perpetuating anti-black and anti-POC racism in the clean beauty industry, and to increase venues for conversation and actual change in these areas.
If you are interested in current movements for change and black perspectives on discrimination in the beauty industry, please check out the following: