Integrity & Ignorance

by Theresa Callaghan

Skin Care Scientist and Cosmetic Product Claim Specialist

Claims Integrity – A philosophical journey on the morality and ethics of “beauty claims”, and the effect of culpable ignorance.

When we look at the world today, and in the grand-scheme-of-things, cosmetics and their claims may be near the bottom of the food chain. Yet at the same time, cosmetic claims are not so small, and their impact has many consequences, both good and bad. Putting pen to paper, and re-reading the feedback of a number of ingredient suppliers from my column last month1 – all writing that they had found themselves in such a position – I decided this month I would follow it through with a point I discussed with one supplier that, “beauty” claims should have at their core (or soul if you like), the virtue of integrity. We even went as far as discussing the late Queen Elizabeth’s legacy has had on all of us (at the very least me and my fellow Brits), and whether as an industry we should “slow” down. The supplier in question (ironically from a Commonwealth nation), had a major issue with bigger suppliers taking information from smaller suppliers, and then finding a commodity supplier they could buy from, undercutting the smaller supplier who had done all the work. The big supplier having no qualms about lack of integrity – business after all is business!

For the less philosophically minded, integrity is where ethics and morality match one another in unison. So while morals come from “within”, e.g., what a cosmetic company does, i.e., what they should do, and do what is right; then ethics is what the cosmetic company actually believes in, and actually says what they believe, i.e., their code of conduct – held up against the values they claim to have. It is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do. However, integrity can become vulnerable if the morals and ethics are out of balance, e.g., culpable ignorance and its consequences. Here I mean where brands make claims without thought of the consequences of doing so. Many of the so-called free-from claims and green claims are a good case in point. For example, if we look at culpable ignorance when cosmetic companies claim “clean” or “green beauty”. Though, these claims are so wide they mean a thousand differentthings depending on whom you speak to, picture this (fictional) scenario:

Two cosmetic specialists, Bill and Ben, are members of a global cosmetic company’s cosmetic claims department tasked with protecting their reputation from the ravages of cosmetic misinformation related to specific “clean & green beauty claims” X, Y, Z. Bill studies the nature of the “claim” X. Ben’s study relates to the en- vironmental impact and sociological aspects of Y and Z. Bill’s ground-breaking investigation proves conclusively fact A: that the claim X mutates on social media into a highly contagious incorrect and virulent Twitter-hybrid Xb under very specific circumstances C. Ben’s ground-breaking research proves conclusively fact B: that the environmental impact E, under these very specific circumstances C, are actually generated by the “clean & green beauty claims” Y and Z, because of other overlooked sociological and environmental factors. From the combined results it can be concluded that M: an outburst of Xb in E, is imminent on all social media and news media platforms. In the cosmetic claims depart- ment there are work ethic codes of transparency and confidentiality. Members of the department are expected to share relevant knowledge and keep all shared information confidential. Although Bill and Ben are aware of both codes and know full-well they should share their findings, neither shares their results on any of the occasions the team meets because they fear one of their colleagues will steal their findings and present them to the key decision makers, in order to gain status and promotion. Obviously, there is a disastrous explosion of Xb in E – a situation they all could have easily prevented!


If you re-picture this scenario as the “industry” and not just the “company”, then we find ourselves as we are today. Too many people and companies keeping their heads down so as to not rock the boat, and never being able to keep up with “noise” and prevent situations such as (M), and even at times seeming to drive it. When it comes to making “clean & green beauty claims” (or any claim for that matter), the wider picture and the impact of action/inaction has to be taken into careful consideration. If the claims Y and Z had been removed or reworded, then it is likely that X would not have become Xb. Bill and Ben’s culpable ignorance of deliberate “inaction” had severe consequences not only for the company, but also for the industry, press and consumer. More-over, the entire claims department might have been col- lectively responsible for the fall-out depending on the circum- stances surrounding why Bill and Ben behaved the way they did. This also results from the wider circumstances Bill and Ben found themselves in. Was the company really a “clean & green beauty” company? Were the beauty claims of the products in harmony with the ethos of the company? Did the company and employees really “walk the talk” or was it just lip service? How did they even define “green”, and was this communicated effectively and truthfully to their consumers? Moral culpable ignorance is clear.

The green business definition describes a company that does not make any negative impact on the environment, economy, or community. These types of businesses are forward-thinking when it comes to environmental concerns, and related issues. Green businesses use environmentally sustainable resources and uphold socially responsible policies. However they are prone to Greenwashing2 and many of them fall short of their integrity, either deliberately or through culpable and collective ignorance. The recent Carbon Watch Monitor3 report on corporate climate re- sponsibility is a hard read with nearly all of the top 25 companies falling short of their green “claims”.

The take home message here when is comes to beauty claims is to look at the complete 360-degree picture before you make them. It is no longer just an issue of being compliant with six cosmetic claims criteria, these criteria have the UN’s 17 goals4 at their heart. Whether we like it or not, “Ignorance is no longer bliss”.

  1. Cosmetic Claims Insights That’s Our data Not Yours (August 2022) www.
  2. Greenwashing Codes –   loads/attachment_data/file/1018820Guidance_ for_businesses_on_making_environmental_claims_.pdf
  3. Carbon Watch Monitor – Corporate Climate responsibility Monitor 2022 As- sessing the Transparency and Integrity of Companies Emission Reduction and Net Zero Targets – February 2022
  4. UN Sustainability Goals
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Theresa Callaghan
Skin Care Scientist and Cosmetic Product Claim Specialist

Based in Hamburg, Dr Theresa Callaghan has international career spanning more than 30 years, having worked for a number of well-respected personal care companies at the senior level including LVMH-Dior, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, J&J, Evonik and proDERM. In 2008 she set up her own consulting business, anticipating a need for more discipline of cosmetic claims, and furthering  scientific developments involved in that process. As a scientist and the author of the popular book Help! I’m Covered in Adjectives: Cosmetic Claims & The Consumer (available from Amazon) Callaghan is also widely published with more than 120 papers. She gives regular workshops and presentations internationally and is a major contributor for peer-reviewed and trade journals, as well as authoring behalf of clients internationally. Theresa is also a lecturer on the MSc course for Cosmetic Science at the university of Sunderland (UK).
In addition she has appeared in number of press articles, interviews and podcasts and even has her own website and YouTube channel for cosmetic claims.

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