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Is 'Fast Beauty' Plagued By the Same Ethical Challenges as Fast Fashion?

Industry experts weigh in on concerns about sustainability, counterfeiting, copyright infringement, labor practices and quality concerns.
Photo: @hm/Instagram

Photo: @hm/Instagram

Along with of-the-moment clothing at affordable prices, fast fashion gets a bad rap — sometimes warranted, other times not — for poor quality, rampant counterfeiting, questionable labor practices and billions of pounds of waste. It's a subject that's been debated and covered extensively in fashion media and even on this very site. Less discussed, at least so far, is how the exploding category of fast beauty stacks up in comparison. As thriving companies like Kylie Cosmetics, Be For Beauty, Winky Lux and Deciem churn out products at a break-neck pace for consumers demanding instant gratification, how will they grapple with the very same questions as their clothing industry counterparts?

The term "fast beauty" typically applies to companies that prioritize staying on top of buzzy trends and formulations by drastically slashing the turnaround time typically required from product conception to launch. In an incredibly competitive, innovation-driven market — which beauty most certainly is — this type of agility can be crucial to an emerging brand's success. "Companies can no longer wait six months or a year to develop, evaluate and optimize new products," says Jenny Frazier, senior vice president of Nielsen's Innovation Practice. "They need to move at light speed to capitalize on trends in beauty."

This notion is the very one that spurred the success of Zara, H&M and Forever 21 in the fashion sector, but despite that overlap, fast fashion and fast beauty have their distinctions, says Colette Newberry, co-founder of Be For Beauty, a self-described fast beauty company based in the U.K. "Fast fashion and fast beauty are alike in the sense that the principal is the same — make something that is hot and available to consumers as quick as possible, she says." But according to Newberry, that's pretty much where the similarities begin and end.


Take the environment, for example. While fast fashion calls to mind heaps of discarded clothing, that's not necessarily true of fast beauty. H&M recently made headlines for logging $4.3 billion in unsold inventory, potentially due to people moving away from fast fashion, in favor of more sustainable options. Fast beauty companies, on the other hand, tend to operate on an inventory-light basis. 

"We can produce product much more on demand," says Natalie Mackey, the founder and CEO of Winky Lux. The model allows her to make much smaller buys, which equates to less overproduction and a decreased risk of inventory loss. In fact, being a lean, scrappy fast beauty company can often be advantageous when it comes to minimizing this type of inventory waste, she notes. "If you want to get really under cover in the beauty industry, every year big companies throw away an absolute ton of products," she says. "Millions of units of products get thrown away. Small companies like ours just don't do that because we don't have to make million-unit buys for something on the spot. I think that in some weird, ironic way we are more green than some of the larger companies."

Mackey remains realistic about the environmental impact of any consumer-driven, product-based industry, however. "No matter what, when we buy things and we aren't reusing them forever, then it can be harmful. It doesn't matter if it's luxury, or if it's affordable, it all is harmful. There is no beauty company that is escaping that. Even with the most 'ethical' beauty companies, at the end of the day you're buying a small piece of plastic that you're probably going to throw away." But on the whole, beauty is a much lower-impact industry than fashion, notes Mackey: "The dyes and the making of thread and the making of fabric is a pretty dirty process. Plastic is still somewhat of a dirty process, but there's more plastic that goes into clothing, through tech fabrics and things like that, then there is in the beauty industry."

Mark Curry, Newberry's Be For Beauty co-founder, takes a more macro view on sustainability, arguing that creating a real shift will depend on buy-in from the entire industry. "I don’t think it has anything to do with fast beauty," he says. "Sustainability is a total beauty industry issue, and in theory by being able to move fast, we will be able to get to new routes around sustainability quicker."

Photo: @winky_lux/Instagram

Photo: @winky_lux/Instagram

Copying and Counterfeiting

One of the most controversial and ever-present issues plaguing fast fashion is that counterfeiting and copyright infringement are rampant. (There's an entire Fashionista column, Adventures in Copyright, shining a light on just how common it is.) And there's a fairly substantial occurrence of both counterfeiting and copy-catting in beauty, too.

The Vamp Stamp, which makes a winged eyeliner tool designed to simplify the eye makeup application process, has seen so many rip off versions of the product that it issued a counterfeit warning front-and-center on its website. Many of those copycats came from the fast beauty realm. "We started seeing the counterfeit items about four months after our first product started shipping," says Sarah Heath, the company's vice president of marketing. "They popped up in a few places and then, months later, even more. They are selling items that are made from cheap and breakable materials, along with a knockoff eyeliner formula that we consistently hear is causing major eye irritations. What troubled us most, once the initial bummed-out feeling of taking away business from a new company trying to make a difference, was that people would associate the bad products with us."

Despite The Vamp Stamp's struggles, Heath isn't convinced that fast beauty and counterfeiting go hand in hand so much as innovation and counterfeiting do. "We have been in the company of some other products we consider truly innovative during our launch with Bloomingdales', Sephora Europe and other retailers, and we've noticed that they are also being counterfeited," she says. "What we see is that technology has allowed for faster turnaround in the arrival of the fakes, whether from the internet, which seems obvious, or faster production due to advancements in machinery and such."

Quality, Manufacturing and Labor

According to Mackey, fast beauty differs from fast fashion when it comes to production and machinery, too. Where fast fashion's raison d'etre was to disrupt the cycle of seasons and deliver runway trends to consumers more immediately, fast beauty came about because the manufacturing for both mass and prestige products should never have been as slow as it is to begin with, she argues. "For beauty, you always have manufactured in a very similar way. If you go to the factory and you sit on the line and you watch a really high-end mascara being made, it takes the exact same amount of time as a really inexpensive mascara — the same exact thing," says Mackey.

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Putting new manufacturing and supply-chain processes in place in order to speed up that time has been the secret to success for brands like Winky Lux and Be For Beauty. Early on, Mackey made the decision to partner with a small manufacturing facility in China. "We really helped build our factory from the ground up," she says. "When we partnered with our filler two and a half years ago they were very small, and we convinced them to invest in certain tooling and invest in certain lab capabilities to help us grow alongside them." The partnership, which Mackey refers to as something of a joint-venture, has allowed Winky Lux to feel confident in the quality of its products despite the fast pace.

When it comes to manufacturing, Curry and Newberry rely heavily on their past experience working for Boots in the U.K. They're adamant that Be For Beauty doesn't compromise on regulatory compliance, especially when it comes to working conditions and sustainability, at the cost of fast beauty. "Our background is in the corporate world, working in a retailer that had the most incredibly high-quality standards, so we know that inside-out," says Curry. "We know [because of Boots] the quality piece stacks up, and from working with partners on other elements of our business, we know that all of our supply pace would stack up from a corporate social-responsibility perspective, in particular employment laws, pre-contractors, and so on, so we have the best of the best with that regard."

Photo: @charlotterusse/Instagram

Photo: @charlotterusse/Instagram

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Retail and Distribution

Getting products into retail stores is another point of differentiation between fast beauty and fast fashion. While retailers have adapted to the pace of fast fashion, few have done so for beauty. "The stores don't know how to take in new products from fast beauty people," says Michelle Williams, owner and CEO of beauty consultancy Michelle Williams Group. 

"It is a big pain," adds Newberry on the subject. "Retailers are certainly trying to change so they can have flexible space and trend zones, but on the whole, they tend to be very fixed on when products come in and out of their stores, which is generally two times a year."

If brick-and-mortar retailers don't figure out how to display new beauty products more efficiently, Williams fears it will be yet another nail in the department-store coffin. She cites the fixtures in stores as one of the main reasons for the divide. "In fashion, all you have to do is switch out what's on the hanger," she says. "In beauty, you can't do that because of the nature of how the product is sold in a [custom] fixture."

That lack of nimble-ness has led Newberry and Curry to gravitate toward fashion retailers like ASOS and Urban Outfitters instead of traditional beauty shops. "They understand fast pacing and are used to short lead times," says Newberry. "Their systems and the way they merchandise are a lot more flexible."

Online distribution has also been critical for fast beauty companies. Winky Lux prioritizes its own direct-to-consumer e-commerce business above all. "Probably to the chagrin of our retailers," notes Mackey. But by doing so, she says, she's able to use her site as a testing ground and mitigate risk to her retail partners. "To be honest, I think it's been a huge win for us, because we generally are only selling things at retail that we know are going to perform." 

Newberry says Be For Beauty has also found success online for similar reasons. "In some cases, online retailers can get our stock onto their website in just eight days, compared to eight or nine months in a brick-and-mortar environment," she says. "Online players are reacting to trends faster than before, so we are finding ourselves much more aligned to that at the moment."

And what about fast fashion retailers getting into the beauty game? Charlotte Russe, for instance, launched its own makeup line in May, and H&M is expanding its existing cosmetics range to include fragrance. That's a different beast, says Williams. "Fast fashion retailers realize beauty is a category that they're missing…so they eventually get into the private-label business. I don't liken it to fast beauty, though."

On the whole, fast beauty is still a relatively young category, but industry experts across the board say it will only continue to grow — and that's a good thing. "Thank God fast beauty is coming around with suppliers that are willing to figure out how to do it," says Williams. "It's a segment that we need in the business. We can't continue to say everything's going to take six months." Nielsen's Frazier agrees and says, "Speed for the sake of speed is rarely a good thing, but when speed mixed with smart decision develops into agile thinking, everyone wins."

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