Michelle Phan is considered to be one of the original beauty YouTubers. A woman who arguably paved the way for every beauty influencer to come, she helped YouTube become a job rather than a hobby and helped brands see the value in investing in content creators.
Since her arrival on YouTube 12 years ago, the ways the beauty industry has evolved in the digital space have been complex.
With the growth of social media, the beauty industry has experienced a second wave. Brands that were once becoming stagnant now have the opportunity to revitalise, and new brands have platforms to attract and communicate with consumers.
Harnessing not only their personal accounts on YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, but the accounts of influencers (here used as a blanket term for beauty journalists, industry experts, and amateur content creators), can reach new consumers – the millennials and Gen Z market who form their ongoing customer base – and share information to stimulate purchase.
With fewer barriers to entry, the beauty industry has become more accessible and user-friendly than ever before.
The average consumer may be loyal to one or more brands due to lack of exposure to alternatives and repeated purchase over an extended period of time. But the digital consumer is exposed to an influx of newness.
Newness has become its own culture in which product releases are designed to generate ‘hype’, both organic and artificial. This elicits well-ingrained reactions from users – both positive and negative – and produces secondary action, whether this be through influencer content (brand promotion) or consumer response (purchase and active usage).
Crucially, newness culture allows brands to achieve their ultimate goal: selling more ‘stuff.’
However, with the revitalisation of the beauty industry, the access to greater numbers of consumers, mass creation of content and an increase in purchasing has led to an oversaturation of newness.
Such oversaturation is evident in the quantity of product released to consumers repeatedly over condensed periods of time, the amount of content disseminated across digital platforms on a daily basis, and the ways in which consumers have learned to respond to it.
The Instagram account Trendmood1, showcases new product releases from different brands multiple times an hour. Cosmetics brand Colorpop releases new collections weekly.
Beauty influencers receive PR, affiliate links and sponsorships to endorse products through content creation: reviews, hauls, first impressions, tutorials, monthly favourites, and image-based advertisements.
These influencers partner with companies to create their own limited-edition products or build their own beauty brands. ‘Makeup Collection’ videos are bigger and better than ever.
Consumers have responded. In Forbes, Estee Lauder CEO and President, Fabrizio Freda, noted that in the digital age, the lower barriers to entry for beauty brands mean that consumers are now spending more on product. In particular, younger consumers are using makeup for self-expression and creativity.
Conversely, many digital consumers have become overwhelmed and fatigued with the amount of newness they are exposed to. There is only so much of this newness they can pay attention to and/or care about.
With the way that the digital beauty industry has evolved, in conjunction with newness culture, a mass consumerism crisis arises.
Purchasing excess product, ‘wants’ and not ‘needs’, is wasteful.
Despite some users becoming conscious of mass consumerism within the beauty industry, the idea of an obscenely and unnecessarily large makeup collection remains idealised.
The idea of ‘having it all’ is rampant: the glorification of having the most popular items, of having too many options to choose from, of having multiple shades of eyeshadow and lipstick that are indistinguishable from one another.
Criticisms for purchasing excess product typically point out how one person does not need that much product, nor can they use up the product before it expires.
Our susceptibility to instant gratification has led to a lack of self-control. Many lack the understanding that purchasing by want, rather than need, can be harmful not only to their wallets and mental health, but to the environment.
Ultimately, the oversaturation of the beauty industry is contributing to issues with capitalism.
How do we learn to become conscious consumers who can still enjoy and be involved in the beauty industry and its culture but are mindful of its inherent problems?
How do we learn to avoid mass consumerism in a culture that creates and encourages it?
Tactical marketing strategies are a key part of attracting, manipulating, and selling to consumers. Although some may see cosmetics as a ‘want’, in a society where appearance is valued, the ability to purchase and use cosmetics is a ‘need’.
Historically, persuasive language reinforces these societal values when targeting users, with terms such as “you need this” and “you can’t live without this”.
Beauty advertising has traditionally used strategies of preying on women’s insecurities, such as weight and ageing, encouraging them to purchase product to counteract these ‘flaws’.
An article in Medium notes that the beauty industry is entrenched in female culture, where women begin wearing makeup at a young age and are conditioned to participate in the consumption of beauty to counteract negative body image.
Alternately, an article by the Sydney Morning Herald refers to more recent advertising in the beauty industry as ‘capitalist feminism’. Instead of targeting insecurities, companies have begun utilising concepts of ‘self-love’ and ‘female empowerment’ to attract consumers.
The growth of the digital landscape allows beauty companies to use other strategies. Messages can now be disseminated through influencers – people who vary from traditional celebrity spokespersons because they have a direct channel to speak to their audience and are perceived as more reliable and trustworthy.
The digital landscape has also allowed for new mechanisms for selling to consumers, such as ‘teasing’ product releases in advance and ‘limited edition marketing’: the practice of creating urgency and fetishization in purchasing a product that has been advertised as being of limited quantity and availability and consumers, only to bring back the product due to ‘high demand’ within a few months.
While such marketing tactics may seem obvious, it’s important to note that despite consumers becoming more cognizant of such strategies, they still work and are profitable.
Additionally, there are ethical concerns with mass consumerism – namely labour exploitation, unequal distribution of wealth, and significantly, environmental concerns.
Although some beauty companies such as Lush, who are investing in recyclable, refillable and no-packaging products, it remains that the beauty industry is a significant producer of waste.
An article by Vice reports that the global beauty industry produces 120 billion units of packaging annually. Most of this isn’t recyclable and will take nearly a millennium to decompose.
From palm oils to mica – which destroy animal habitats and have been known to use child labour in their harvesting – to chemicals and carbon emissions released during in production; from the plastics, tissue paper, Styrofoam, and cardboards used to package products, to the unused products thrown into landfill; the beauty industry continues to play a role in environmental degradation.
According to National Geographic, plastic has become so embedded in the cosmetics supply chain that even if we have more environmentally considerate packaging, the sheer quantity of it will make it difficult to make a dent.
Furthermore, in the last two years the idea of anti-consumerism has slowly gained popularity in the same digital spaces that re-revolutionised it.
Anti-hauls, empties and de-clutters have been quickly followed by No-Buys, in which a consumer will not purchase any makeup for a period of time, and Project Pan, in which a consumer will choose a number of products to completely use up. Similarly, Reddit community Makeup Rehab focuses on using the makeup they have and not purchasing any unnecessary product.
However, anti-consumerism is becoming a trend, and on performance mediums such as YouTube, some anti-consumerism content appears disingenuous.
Bitch Media notes, “gurus approach videos less as statements about interrogating or changing consumer habits than as a trending sub-genre to dip a toe into”.
The problem with anti-consumerism is that it must be consistent for it to be effective and cannot simply be utilised when it is convenient or attractive to the consumer.
When anti-hauls, declutters and no-buys end, it is often a signal for consumers to be able to purchase and replace all the items they threw away.
To negate a customer’s own personal impact on mass consumerism, these initiatives should be maintained over time. It’s not to say someone can never buy a product they don’t need, but a conscious user must continue to be proactive in their anti-consumerism behaviours.
After quitting YouTube three years previously, Michelle Phan recently released a video titled, “Watching My Old Videos”.
As the woman who introduced a generation to the beauty industry and immersed them in its culture for over a decade, the nostalgia was tangible.
When Phan watched on, she too was filled with nostalgia – not only for how her life had transformed, but how the beauty industry had evolved around her.
But even she could never have predicted what the industry would become.
Image by Rachel Darling