‘Beyond our business’: L’Oréal ramps up eco investments, but faces further backlash over chemicals in hair products

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

‘Beyond our business’: L’Oréal ramps up eco investments, but faces further backlash over chemicals in hair products

Related tags L'oréal Sustainability

L’Oréal is pumping cash into three environmental initiatives as it seeks to influence eco projects ‘beyond its business’, but at the same time is facing a further backlash over chemicals in hair products most commonly used by Black women.

The announcement of new recipients of its EUR50m Fund for Nature Regeneration scheme was timed to coincide with World Earth Day on Saturday.

The three projects, NetZero, ReforesTerra and Mangroves.Now were chosen for their approaches to carbon capture in soils, reforestation and mangrove restoration, and for their potential to have a far-reaching, positive impact on the environment and local communities.

  • NetZero​ is a French climate venture operating in tropical areas such as Cameroon and Brazil, that specializes in long-term carbon removal from the atmosphere by turning agricultural residues into biochar. Biochar is a stable, non-polluting carbon that can be added to improve degraded soil.
  • ReforesTerra​aims to restore 2,000 hectares of land degraded by pastures – one of the greatest challenges facing the Amazon. The project will engage with smallholder farmers to directly plant new trees and create a favourable environment for natural regeneration in the lower Rio Jamari basin of Rondônia, covering 75 per cent of the project area.
  • Mangroves.Now​ will facilitate community-based mangrove restoration projects in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. This region has been the most affected by mangrove deforestation in the last thirty years.

“At L’Oréal Groupe, our environmental duty goes beyond our business. It is our responsibility to address today’s most pressing challenges, like the erosion of biodiversity and its social and ecological impact,” ​said Rachel Barré, Environmental Leadership Director, L’Oréal Groupe.

“The L’Oréal Fund for Nature Regeneration is an important vehicle in our efforts towards a more sustainable future for all. With the new projects signed, our aim is to help restore the planet’s biodiversity and preserve its abundant ecosystems.”

But just a day before its investment unveiling, the firm was again publicly challenged over chemicals used in hair products.

Campaigners claim a growing body of scientific research shows a connection between use of chemical hair straighteners, also known as ‘relaxers’, and increased health risks for Black women.

They say a study published by Oxford University in 2021 linked long-term use of chemical straighteners with a 30% increased risk of breast cancer in Black women. While 2022 research from the US National Institutes of Health found that women who used the products multiple times a year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer.

The latter research has previously been criticised by industry trade body the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association.

'Off the shelves'

An open letter​, coordinated by UK campaign group Level Up and signed by a coalition of over thirty professionals, including models, politicians and cancer charities, demands that the company “makes products safe or takes them off the shelves”, and invests in research on the long-term use of chemical straighteners.

Signatories include Baroness Lola Young, actor Lolly Adefope, best-selling author Reni Eddo-Lodge, UK MP Dawn Butler and cancer support charity Black Women Rising.

The chemical at the heart of these studies is lye, also known as sodium hydroxide..

L’Oréal is facing multiple legal challenges from consumers who claim use of their products has caused cancer. Nearly 60 lawsuits claiming hair relaxer products sold by L’Oréal and other companies cause cancer and other health problems were consolidated in a Chicago federal court in February 2023.

The firm insists, however, that its products are safe and argues the legal cases have no merit.

A spokesperson for L’Oréal told The Guardian: “Our highest priority is the health, wellness and safety of all our consumers. We are confident in the safety of our products and believe the recent lawsuits filed against us in the US have no legal merit.

“L’Oréal upholds the highest standards of safety for all its products. Our products are subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure that we follow strictly all regulations in every market in which we operate.”

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