A Cosmetics Brand Offers an Example of “Corporate Activism” That Won’t Make You Squirm … Too Much

A yellow gift with Beautycounter on it sits on a white table.
A brand you can kind of trust! Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Founded in 2013, Beautycounter is a direct sales skincare and cosmetics brand that aims to pump out more than mascara and makeup remover wipes. According to a profile in Fast Company, the Avon challenger is looking to make activists of its 30,000 salespeople. To wit: Last week, as a reward for the two top-performing sales reps—or “consultants” in Beautycounter parlance—from each state, the company sent them to Washington, D.C., to persuade members of Congress to support the Personal Care Products Safety Act (PCPSA), proposed legislation that would beef up the FDA’s ability to regulate ingredients in makeup, soap, shampoo, and other beauty and hygiene products. The novice lobbyists are being trained by the brand’s head of social and environmental responsibility, Lindsay Dahl, who, in a previous role at advocacy coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, helped push the FDA to ban BPA from plastic baby products like pacifiers, bottles, and sippy cups.

As noted by Fast Company, Beautycounter joins other “woke companies” like Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia who, rather than roll out a haphazardly planned marketing tool designed to raise their social capital, actively push for progressive legislation that could actually benefit a wide swath of people. These “activist brands” activate a tension implicit in a political climate where our representatives are more inclined to listen to voices attached to deep pockets than their individual constituents: The causes they champion might be objectively good, but the intentions behind their activism can leave us feeling a little queasy. After all, a multimillion dollar company isn’t going to throw money or people at something without expecting some kind of benefit.

In this case, Beautycounter stands to gain an edge in terms of both optics and finances if the PCPSA passes. The U.S. has an incredibly lackadaisical approach to the ingredients in personal care products, ingredients that most Americans are slathering on their bodies every day. (To date, the European Union has prohibited about 1,300 chemicals and heavily restricted 250 others—the U.S. has partially banned only 30.) A company like Beautycounter actively lobbying for increased regulation of the various tinctures we apply to our skin can only mean good things for the rest of us.

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt Beautycounter’s bottom line either—the company has in-house scientists to make sure their product formulas are free of 1,500 ingredients dubbed either questionable or harmful. Other beauty companies without as stringent a policy would be left scrambling to reformulate their products if the PCPSA were to pass. And then there’s the bump to brand loyalty: Finding out that your favorite eyebrow pencil contains carcinogens is only going to make proactive companies like Beautycounter look better.

So where does that leave your typical progressive with an aversion to “woke” company antics? In a world where corporate power is prioritized over constituents’ wishes, a strategic acceptance of brand activism might be in order. (Even when the leaders behind those brands say cringe-y things like, “Before I started the company, the idea of activism conjured up images of serious people filled with anger … I want this movement to be filled with positivity and female empowerment,” as Beautycounter’s founder, Gregg Refrew, did to Fast Company.) Feeling a little uneasy when huge companies decide to direct energy at your pet cause is completely normal—and in fact, encouraged. These moves are rarely completely altruistic and should be greeted with a healthy amount of skeptical side-eye. But until American politics becomes less of a game of who has the most money, we might have to make a few truces with brands pushing genuinely progressive legislation. Of course, once the class war finally breaks out, these truces can be abandoned as quickly as they were made.