The clean beauty industry has some dirty secrets.

With the market for clean, green, organic and natural beauty expected to grow to over $21 billion by 2024, it seems every brand and retailer is figuring out how to carve out market share. And though the industry prides itself on transparency, many are cutting corners or being shady about how they represent themselves or educate people.

In our latest Confessions, in which we grant anonymity in exchange for honesty, one clean beauty founder talks about these issues, including pressure from retailers, “greenwashing” and the use of fear-mongering as a marketing tactic.

To start, how do you feel about the recent post on Reddit showing that the Sunday Riley brand has been requiring its employees to write fake positive product reviews on Sephora?
I’m horrified, honestly. There [were] a lot of people chiming in [on social media] about how everyone does it, so we should just move on. No, not everyone does this. My first thought is that, if you have great products and people are excited about your new launch, you don’t have to do fake reviews on any platform. And then Sunday Riley’s team tried to respond by saying that they do this to counterbalance the fake negatives reviews — I think that as horrible a PR response as you could ever write. The only thing good about their response was that they acknowledged it was a real internal email. It felt sad and desperate. On another note, as far as I know, it’s a fairly well-known global brand, so do they even need to do [fake reviews] at this point? What are they going for? What’s the goal?

[Since the initial Reddit post on Oct. 15, the Sunday Riley brand has publicly responded through an Instagram comment on the @esteelaundry account, stating, in part, “At one point, we did encourage people to post positive reviews at the launch of this product, consistent with their experiences. There are a lot of reasons for doing that, including the fact that competitors will often post negative reviews of products to swing opinion.” The brand has not responded to a further request for comment. To read the full statement on @esteelaundry, click here.] 

What does this say about the beauty industry?
If you are doing that, you do not care. Ultimately, if you’re doing that, you don’t care about someone who sees that review and says, ‘Oh, I have acne, and this (fake) review says it helps with acne.” You don’t care that it won’t help that person. As a founder with integrity, I don’t want to sell someone products that aren’t suited for them. I don’t want you to use it if it doesn’t serve you. And to see it in the skin-care industry, [where people] are exceptionally vulnerable, it’s really sad.

I’ve heard the term “greenwashing” come up a lot. How does it affect clean beauty?
It means that you aren’t a natural brand, but you market yourself as one. A brand will tell people they are natural or clean, because everyone likes to use the word “clean” now. Those brands haven’t pioneered this part of the industry, but what they want to do is make money off of it, from people like me and my peers who have actually grown this part of the industry with integrity. So they want to pull money away from it, but they don’t deserve it, because they haven’t earned it.

There’s a lot of fear-mongering that seems to go on in the clean beauty industry, too.
When it comes to retailers, I think they want to push people’s emotions and trigger them into [thinking], ‘I need to [throw out] everything.’ I think The Detox Market does a really good job of talking about clean and green beauty without rolling out a no-no list. I don’t mind the word “toxic” [in marketing], but don’t use it to scare people. I don’t think Drunk Elephant’s Suspicious 6 [essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical screens, fragrance/dyes and SLS] is fair at all, because they are demonizing essential oils. They are needed and powerful, but they need to be used and formulated by professionals. Adulterated versions have caused people problems, so they need to be looked at in terms of quality and concentration and formulation. But [Drunk Elephant] is just saying, “It’s all essential oils,” and that’s not fair. They’re [scaring] people who don’t know any better.

Are you facing a lot of pressure from clean beauty retailers, because they’re all trying to be as strict as possible about ingredients?
Yeah, it’s getting a little annoying. When the founder of Credo told me there was going to be an [ingredient evaluation] board and all these procedures in order to keep selling with them, my first thought was, “Why are you selling these brands anyway if they might be questionable? You’re a clean beauty retailer.” [Credo] came to me and said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have anything to worry about.” I thought, “Yeah I don’t.” I’ve been through EU compliance, which is a massive process and costs thousands of dollars. Credo may look like they are getting really strict, but … a brand can still lie and put something in there, and tell you that it isn’t. It’s all a little exhausting.