Ethics: What They Are + Why They Matter

A long read on ethics and ethical issues across the beauty industry. This article explains why ethics and having an ethos matters, and explores human and animal rights issues - and what you can do to avoid them. This is the third post in a series of articles on the subject. Co-written by Khandiz Joni and Lou Dartford.


A block and white images of hands connected by a piece of string to depict the relationship between ethics and ethos and beauty supply chains

Table of Contents


This is only one chapter in a long line up of deep dives and explorations that CBU will be doing about ethics and ethical issues we come across in the beauty industry. Of course, there are many and the issues run deep. Some, such as the issues of animal welfare are better known, but others, such as the human rights issues in the supply chain, less so. Until such time as awareness and action and implementation are the norm, we must continue to advocate for more to be done;  from brand and industry level, all the way up to the government.  

If you haven’t already, we strongly recommend listening to our webinar on “How to be a Proactive Beauty Activist”. 

But before we get into those, let’s take a closer look at what exactly ethics are, and why it matters to have an ethos in your professional practice. 

What are ethics? What’s an ethos?...and what’s the difference?

Ethics refers to a set of guiding principles or a set of accepted rules or norms for a particular society or organisation – based on what is considered right or wrong.

Ethics can differ from one company to another, from religion to religion or country to country. In China, for example, the relationship with animals – and testing their beauty products on them – is not an ethical issue for much of their society. However, for us, the thought of subjecting animals to torture to test beauty products is morally reprehensible. 


While it’s easy to assume that ethics automatically means for the greater good, this is not always the case. A company’s ethics – their guiding principles –  could stipulate that it’s an employee’s ethical duty to make as much money for the company as possible – because that would be considered “good” under their definition. 


It’s also worth noting that just because something is ethical or ‘moral’, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s legal – and vice versa.  There are plenty of examples we can offer up here – slavery, racism, destroying the planet for corporate profit – to name a few. 


The beauty industry – and those industries that rely on beauty professionals’ services –  is far from being absolved from unethical behaviours. This article covers some of the most significant ethical and morally questionable challenges we face in beauty. 


But before we get to them, let’s briefly take a look at ‘ethos’. Ethos is the Greek word meaning ‘character’ or ‘custom’. An ethos is a set of guiding beliefs, ideas, moral nature or character that distinguishes a person or organisation. Our personal ethos is formed by our outlook about the world, which is inspired or enforced by our culture, friends and family, society, and communities.  


So, what are the biggest problem areas in the beauty industry?

Modern-day slavery, human trafficking + labour abuse in our beauty supply chains

an photograph of a woman's hands holding a tablet with reads 'search human trafficking' and a to list of ways to learn more about the human trafficking
Image by

It’s 2021, and there are still somewhere between 40 – 46 million people living in slavery!  

There is growing awareness about cases of modern-day slavery in the fashion industry, but it’s a less common talking point in the beauty sector. As Tahira points out in an earlier piece on ethical issues in beauty, the problem is pervasive. But it stems even further down the supply chain, and even closer to home – and it will always affect the most marginalised and at-risk people across the globe. Here in the UK, it lurks on our high streets – in nail bars (when we could visit nail bars) and also in the unconsidered corners of the recycling industry. An industry which we, as beauty professionals and brands alike,  are heavily reliant on as we try to recycle our way out of our packaging problem. 

Natural ingredients with a high risk of human rights abuses.

 Read more on this over on Untainted Magazine

Although the UK brought in the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 – and Australia followed suit –  it is only a legal requirement if a company has an annual turnover of more than £35 million. This means that there are entire supply chains of smaller brands that are unaccounted for. Most beauty brands do not have any such policy on their websites. Some brands do have certifications that offer an independent third-party guarantee that the supply chains are audited. However, far more brands that consider themselves eco and ethical…even ‘sustainable’ yet don’t understand that to make such claims human rights need to be added to the equation. So we must remain vigilant.

Moreover, if a brand doesn’t share information about their value chain – or how the certification seals they hold provide assurances that their supply chain has sound practices, openly and transparently –  how are we, as consumers of these brands meant to know? And as professionals who rely on these brands to do our work,  how can we assess our value chain?

If you are concerned about the potential impact to your ethos and working practice, we advise that you first check the brand’s website to see if you can find a policy or a report on their approach to monitoring their supply chain. If they don’t have one, email them and ask what they are doing – and request some kind evidence that upholds their claims. 

Examples of this would be certified as Fairtrade, COSMOS, BCorp, Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT) or members of the UN Global Compact. 


Image from Beauty Counter

Look on the majority of any colour cosmetics label and you’ll see mica listed on the ingredient list. It is what gives a product its sheen and sparkle; a natural highlight and brightener. It’s hard to avoid, especially in the natural beauty world.

Mica is a term that covers 37 minerals that are found in a sheet formation in the Earth. It’s mined in over 35 countries. Although there is limited data on the industry,  the belief is that India and Madagascar are two largest exporters and the most associated with child labour.

India’s Forest Conservation Act of 1980 had the unintended consequence of creating illegal mica mines. The mines are not allowed on the protected land, however many of the mines continued but with no legal framework or protection for the workers. Young children work in these mines along with their families, in poor unregulated conditions. These communities are among the poorest and they lack the basic essentials, so they are reliant on the mica and the small but, essential income it brings.

Organisations such as the Responsible Mica Initiative and Terre De Hommes are working with the Indian communities to help empower them, thus reducing the need for them to work in the mines. They are working to improve things like healthcare, education, and providing access to state benefits which many did not even know existed. Workplace standards, supply chain mapping and legal framework are also being tackled.

While this is great news, the issues still remain in other countries. The subject of mica remains a very grey area. When asked where their mica comes from, few brands will truly know. Lush and Weleda have taken the decision to use synthetic mica because they can’t get a completely transparent supply chain. 

On speaking with the Responsible Mica Initiative we asked what we could do to help the situation. As a brand, becoming a member would be the ideal answer; yearly membership fees are worked out by annual turnover but start at 3.5K Euros, so certainly not accessible for all, especially small indie brands. Burt’s Bees, The Body Shop, Chanel, Chantecaille and L’Oreal are among the current beauty brands that are members. For those that don’t have the budget to join and for us as consumers, the best thing we can do is to talk about the issue and create a noise about it – because it definitely isn’t spoken about or challenged enough. We encourage you to keep asking brands where they source their mica to help amplify the conversation. 

Brands in turn need to then ask these important questions to their suppliers. Beauty Counter have been on a mica journey and have shared it through a documentary, they have also created a tool kit to help other brands dive deeper into their mica sourcing.

 Sharing things like this is imperative for big change to happen. 

Animal Testing

Animal testing bunny
Image via Cruelty Free International

Animal testing is a long-term issue for the beauty industry. The UK had a breakthrough when it banned animal testing for cosmetic products and their ingredients in 1998, and the EU started to phase it out in the years that followed. In 2013 it became illegal to sell and market any cosmetic product in the EU that has been tested on animals or contains ingredients that have been newly tested (All older ingredients will have been tested at some point).

While this is great news, it’s worth noting that testing can still happen under the European Chemical Agency’s REACH regulation. Legally, chemical companies are required to provide information on environmental hazards and health effects of almost every chemical used in Europe. The law can mean that animal testing  is allowed and unfortunately seems to override the cosmetic testing ban. (Remember, there is no such thing as chemical-free in cosmetics!)

Although many other countries have since banned animal testing for cosmetics, there are still lots that haven’t. In China, their law requires that all imported cosmetic products must be tested. In 2012, PETA exposed that many high-profile brands had paid China to conduct animal testing in order to be sold there (a significant market increasing a companies profit). Brands that had been deemed cruelty-free, lost their status. There is a caveat, however; products sold exclusively online, or via distributors based in Hong Kong do not need to be tested on animals.

There has been good progress made since 2014, with ‘ordinary’ (make-up, fragrances, skin, hair and nail care products) cosmetics produced and sold within China are not mandated for testing. France is very close to being the first EU country to qualify for these exemptions too.  

In 2016, with the support from PETA and Cruelty Free International,  China started to accept non-animal tested products. These organisations are working tirelessly towards a global ban on animal testing for cosmetics. Both of these certifications support brands in how they can work towards having more ethical supply chains, and then display their seals on products and in their marketing to demonstrate to their customers that they are, in fact, cruelty-free (towards animals). These certifications are a great way to see through the often very murky waters of animal welfare ethics.

Many brands who sell in countries that still insist on animal-testing, like China, like to think that they maintain their cruelty-free status – however, their websites will often show generic statements about their commitment towards animal testing, and the small print will admit they will test on animals ‘if required to do so by law’.

So, again we encourage you to keep asking brands about what they are doing in this area, especially if their policies unclear, and continue to question, challenge and not buy from them if they aren’t living up to their claims.


It can be overwhelming thinking about all the ethical issues we face in our industry. It’s also easy to become despondent when wonder what difference one person can make, and while one person can indeed make a difference,  it’s through collective action that we can make a greater one! 

Knowledge is power, and by choosing brands that are being open and transparent in their business dealings, we should then champion them in our work. Every time we open our kit on a job, and show of our collection of conscious products, we are influencing other people; hopefully encouraging them to make more conscious choices themselves.

During our ‘How to be a Proactive Beauty Activist‘ webinar, panellist Áine recalls a time on set when she was concerned about the amount of food being wasted after the job. She suggested to the production team that it be given to a local shelter – even calling around to find one that would take the food. Since then, that studio has given all their leftover food to that very same shelter. A brilliant example of how one small action can make a huge difference.

Like we have said many times, it is not about being perfect. It’s about doing what you can, as well as you can, whenever you can. We’re all on a journey, and being part of a community (like CBU) allows us to support one another and to collectively instigate the systemic change we need. 

Our unique Conscious Beauty Brand Directory provides unbiased, easily digestible information about what claims, certifications, policies and reports brands have publically available. It’s been designed to help save you time, money and effort in making more informed choices. 

In our upcoming chapters, we will explore in more detail:

  • Exploited Natural Ingredients; their Impact on Biodiversity and Indigenous Communities;
  • The Ethical Issues with Carbon-Offsetting, Charities and Systemic Racism;
  • Harassment + Bullying at Work;
  • Working for Free

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