Late last year, a number of multi-national cosmetic companies came together to publish their findings from developing and applying a new method to assess the environmental impacts of a shampoo. Companies involved included L’Oreal, LVMH, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Estee Lauder and Chanel.

Quantifying the overall environmental impact of a product is complex. Environmental impacts can arise during manufacture, transport, use and disposal. Identifying and measuring the impacts at each life stage can be very resource-intensive, and as a result these studies are not commonly performed.

In this study, a representative shampoo was assessed using a method based on guidance from the European Commission Environmental Footprint project. The assessment found that the most significant impacts for the shampoo were in the areas of climate change, depletion of water resources, depletion of fossil fuels, and freshwater ecotoxicity.

Based on the method used, contributions to climate change and the depletion of water resources mainly came from the use of hot water for showering. These impacts can be reduced by encouraging the user of the shampoo to take shorter showers and use water at a lower temperature.

The main uses of fossil fuels were in heating hot water for showering, in transport vehicles, and in the production of certain ingredients. For the representative shampoo formulation that was used in this assessment, the production of sodium laureth sulfate had the most impact.

Freshwater ecotoxicity was found to be a problem when the shampoo was washed down the drain. This was the biggest end-of-life impact of the shampoo; bigger than the environmental impact of the packaging after use.

The study also highlighted a number of limitations in using this sort of assessment more broadly. In particular, the authors noted that there was a lack of information for many chemicals and packaging materials. This made it difficult to accurately assess their impacts.

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