Treat Yourself (Responsibly): Navigating the Sephora Sale and Avoiding Overconsumption

cosmetics economics overconsumption personal care sustainable living Apr 10, 2024

Twice a year, one of the biggest beauty retailers in the U.S. holds sales that both entice and frustrate consumers. It’s a paradoxical relationship, yes, but it works. 

We’re constantly bombarded with sales and promos every day, but Sephora, the beauty retailer we’ll be focusing on today, takes a different approach to their promo marketing. Here’s how:

  1. It’s limited 🚨 - the sale only happens twice a year, so you better get your deal while you can
  2. The more you spend, the more you save 💰 - Sephora breaks their sale into tiers; Rouge = $1,000+ in a calendar year which gets you 20% off, VIB = $350+ in a calendar year which gets you 15% off, Insider = no purchase necessary which gets you 10% off
  3. Constant product drops 💄 - almost every day leading up to the sale, Sephora will release new products and everything qualifies for the sale - no restrictions

Image Credit: Sephora

It’s a short list, but this triple whammy sets Sephora up for being the beauty monolith it is today. There’s almost no excuse to not shop the sale, right? That depends, but we’ll get into that a bit later on.

You may be wondering “Well, how successful can Sephora really be?” At the end of fiscal year 2023, the beauty retailer raked in €86.2 ($93.4) billion in revenue. For reference, H&M, one of the world’s largest fashion brands, generated $22 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2023. So what makes this beauty retailer so successful? 

We need to travel back in time to 2020. The pandemic was in full swing - the economy was hurting, supply chain disruptions wreaked havoc, and business took an extreme hit. Sephora, interestingly enough, saw a spike in online sales at this time. According to LVMH’s financial disclosures from 2020, “Thanks to the commitment and agility of its teams, Sephora accelerated its online sales, breaking all-time online sales records in all regions.” In the same report, LVMH claims Sephora had to close 90% of its stores worldwide within the first half of the year. 

How could this be? If we were in the midst of an economic downturn, why would people be willing to spend money on cosmetics and personal care?

The lipstick effect is a phenomenon that occurs when citizens are in the throes of an economic downturn. Put simply, it states that when people can’t afford more expensive items like new clothes, purses, and more, they will instead purchase small goods to satisfy their craving. 

The best example of this is buying a higher price point lipstick over something like the latest iPhone model. The lipstick, like those sold at Sephora, may range anywhere from $15-$50, whereas a new iPhone is likely $800+. You’re more likely to spend $25 on a lipstick than hundreds on a new piece of technology if you’re on a tight budget or are stressed about cash.

And if you’re one of those people who doesn’t wear makeup, you’re not excluded from the lipstick effect. 

“Little treat” culture has gripped the world, with social media users taking to apps like Instagram and TikTok to discuss their “little treats” they’ve afforded themselves. This takes the form of buying yourself a candy bar at the store, even if your grocery budget is razor thin, or rewarding yourself for a hard day’s work by renting the latest movie to drop on Prime Video. 

I don’t think it’s a big step to connect the lipstick effect to “little treat” culture to the general state of happiness of our citizens (at least in the U.S.). These trends show that we’re compensating for something, but we’re likely all aware that buying more stuff doesn’t make us happy.

These cultural trends typically do not bode well for sustainability. The lipstick effect and “little treat” culture lead us down a rabbit hole of overconsumption of filling a void in our lives. The sustainability component of this dilemma is something worth exploring more deeply.

Shopping at Sephora or buying items during the Sephora sale isn’t inherently unsustainable. Sephora has done a lot of sustainability work over the years that typically hides in the background behind the glitz and glamor of the products sold there.

Did you know that all of Sephora’s stores, distribution centers, and HQ in the United States run on 100% renewable energy through solar and wind power? Did you know that they have an in-depth Chemicals Policy designed to transition away from and eliminate hazardous materials from products? 

You may have gone into a Sephora store and seen a little green check next to certain products. This signifies that the product complies with Sephora’s chemical standard or Clean Beauty Standard. You can read their updated Chemicals Policy here, but in short, Sephora has been working closely with third-party organizations to identify and find alternatives to these hazardous chemicals found in beauty products. And this isn’t empty promises with no results - Sephora says “We reduced the number of products with one or more of the chemicals on the initial list of high-priority chemicals in our assortment by 39.5% between 2019 and 2022. This led to 95.5% of our assortment not containing high-priority chemicals from the initial list.” Additionally, their goal is to eliminate high-priority chemicals from all products and packaging by 2030.

It’s clear Sephora intends to continue investing in their Clean Beauty and sustainability efforts, but how does this translate to us as consumers?

Products that are “sustainable” or “responsible” are more expensive. Green premiums are often applied to products like these because, for now, it’s more expensive to make products the right way, with the right ingredients compared to conventional options. This makes it hard in times of economic hardship to support sustainability, but not impossible for everyone.

The cost of living in the United States is astronomical and only getting worse, which is why it’s understandable that the lipstick effect would come into play and why, ironically, Sephora would be the perfect outlet to satisfy that “little treat” craving. So how can we satisfy that craving without supporting overconsumption?

The short answer is you can’t. That craving for something new is at the very heart of overconsumption. If you’re craving something new, but don’t need it, don't buy it.

Even if a product is labeled as “sustainable” or “responsible,” but you don’t need it, then there isn’t any reason to buy it. Think really hard about what it means to need something too - sometimes our brains will try to trick us into rationalizing a purchase that isn’t necessary. 

One could argue that nothing sold as Sephora is a necessity, and I hear you. To push back, for some people cosmetics are a necessity - a form of self-expression, creativity, and even gender identity. By no means should we condemn these people for buying makeup. Instead, there are ways to still buy cosmetics without contributing to an unsustainable consumption pattern.

If you’re one of the people who feels the need to buy cosmetics, only buy what you need. You may be tempted to buy your favorite lipstick in 10 different shades, but is it necessary? Probably not. Is the product you’re buying made responsibly with safe materials? If not, consider putting it back on the shelf.

Image Credit: Sephora

It’s a lot to consider, but it’s worth the extra few minutes to think these things through before completing a purchase.

We’ve been on a journey and covered everything from economics to consumer behavior, and everything in between. There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to shopping sustainably, and although this is just the tip of the iceberg, you have the power to make changes in your consumption behavior where you see fit. 

Thanks for joining me, and please share this article with someone who you think might enjoy it! 


P.S. Be sure to check back often for new blog posts. You can learn more about The Underswell by following us on LinkedIn and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter below.

Top 35 Things to Know if  you're learning about Sustainability in the Apparel Industry. Have you downloaded the guide yet?

Get the Guide

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.