Sephora’s safer ingredient announcement is turning heads – here’s why

We recently reported that Sephora became the first major specialty beauty retailer to release a public-facing chemicals policy. As a complement to their policy, Sephora also promotes their 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 fifty 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 impact all of the 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, they are building upon ongoing efforts to offer safer products, particularly within their 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 they’ve established a global scope for the policy, which is important considering Sephora is the #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% in three years and to support suppliers in finding safer alternatives; and
  • To disclose intentionally added ingredient information for 100% of their formulated beauty and personal care products by 2020 on the US Sephora.com website (with the exception of components of fragrance ingredients)

Sephora has also 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 their 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 they take to verify supplier compliance with an internal Restricted Substances List (RSL) that includes 1,300+ 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 they’ve attained in implementing their 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 their US online portal. Sephora also believes it is their “responsibility to help [their] 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 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 they will also consider expanding their goals and list of high priority chemicals in the future, which is a promising sign for continuous improvement.

In implementing their safer product goals, Sephora can apply their experience from managing their private label products, which already adhere to a strict RSL. Their Clean at Sephora program will also be helpful for their 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 their policy and their timelines for achieving goals, as well as committing to report progress annually. By going public, they’ve created the opportunity to engage in useful partnerships and bring in expertise in areas where their suppliers may need support. They’ve also signaled to their customers that improving product offerings is important to them. As Sephora moves forward, we encourage them to not only share successes but also any challenges they may face. This openness could spur stakeholders to share innovative ideas for overcoming roadblocks.

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Sephora’s policy contains many elements of our Five Pillars of Leadership for Safer Products. Although there are a few areas where Sephora could make improvements or add detail, we’re encouraged by their commitment to continuous improvement and hope to see Sephora ratchet up their 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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