Beauty brands are embracing sustainable packaging

In a bid to reduce single-use plastics, there’s a growing trend for beauty brands to move towards recyclable and refillable packaging

With extravagant packaging designed to draw in consumers, the beauty industry has long been reliant on the concept of conspicuous consumption. But times have changed, and brands are now being pressured to create innovative packaging solutions that are both luxurious and good for the environment.

The uptake of refillable beauty products requires a shift in consumer behaviour

According to a report by Zero Waste Week, 120 billion units of packaging are produced globally by the cosmetics industry each year. With engaged 25 to 34-year-old consumers pushing for beauty to become a circular economy, companies can no longer shy away from such statistics.

Refillable packaging as a design solution

In the age of call-out culture, beauty brands that are not seen to be actively tackling the problem are at risk of damaging both their reputation and customer base. Aesthetically pleasing packaging is now a must if you want to ensure user-generated content online, but a major predicament continues to lie in the balance between sustainability and design.

“Brands are embracing the natural discolouration that comes with using PCR [post-consumer recycled] materials, by either using it as a marketing tool to show off their sustainable credentials or simply incorporating the discolouration into the design of the packaging,” says Simon Chidgey, sales and marketing director at RPC M&H Plastics.

At the luxury end of the market, refillable products are bridging this gap for brands that place greater emphasis on experiential packaging. Make-up brands such as Hourglass Cosmetics and Surratt Beauty offer refills at lower prices, with packaging that’s designed to be a keepsake. This model is commonly seen with liquid products, such as shampoo and shower gel, that have a higher repurchase rate. For example, natural beauty brand L’Occitane’s 500ml hair and body care refill pouches boast up to 90 per cent less packaging weight.

The uptake of refillable beauty products, however, requires a shift in consumer behaviour, which brands are taking into consideration before implementing these changes.

“In-store refillable stations for liquid goods can often be quite messy, so many consumers won’t be prepared to go that extra step, especially if there’s extra waste created at the taps,” says Rachelle Strauss, founder of Zero Waste Week. As a result, there are brands creating alternative refill experiences for the consumer, such as By Kilian, the Estée Lauder Companies-owned fragrance brand, which offers four-piece refill kits including a dropper and funnel.

The future of refillable beauty products

Set to launch later this year, circular shopping platform Loop, created by TerraCycle in coalition with consumer goods companies including Unilever and Procter & Gamble, shows where refillable beauty products are headed. It also exemplifies the importance of experience for the end-user.

“Loop addresses one of the major reasons for disposability: convenience. Consumers can opt to receive auto-replenishments based on their rate of consumption, further improving the user experience,” explains Stephen Clarke, head of communications at TerraCycle Europe.

He says the beauty and personal care sector has an important role to play in building momentum towards a more circular economy for plastics. “Consumers connect with products that use recycled material or commit to being recyclable, reporting a willingness to pay more or switch brands for ones that do. This is important to note because brands stand to benefit from making these commitments,” says Mr Clarke.

Consumer demand for recyclable materials

As such, brands are challenging disposability and moving to PCR plastics. One such company is Aveda, with more than 85 per cent of its skincare and hair styling PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and jars containing 100 per cent PCR materials.

“To fully eliminate the use of virgin plastic, we are exploring using other materials, including bioplastic made primarily from sugarcane, which we currently use in combination with PCR in some of our packaging, seaweed and cow waste, which will very soon provide viable alternatives to virgin petro-based plastics,” says Edmond Irizarry, executive director of packaging development at Aveda.

Championing recyclable materials has become an integral part of brand DNA in almost every sector, not least cosmetics. Soaper Duper uses recyclable plastic for their entire range of naturally derived bath and body products, and has recently included the use of 100 per cent recyclable metal-free pumps. While natural and organic make-up brand Antonym use sustainable bamboo for its compacts and boxes printed on Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper.

The future lies in greater innovation 

These materials are leading the charge for a more sustainable future, as Georgia Barnes, business development manager for beauty and wellbeing at the Soil Association, attests. “Innovation in the industry is working, and more and more brands are making the switch to non-plastic options, such as bioplastics, sugar-cane derivatives, aluminium and glass,” she says.

The keyword is innovation. Mr Chidgey at RPC M&H Plastics explains the importance of the new packaging initiatives that enable more materials to be used. “Take, for instance, near-infrared black colourants, which allow sorting facilities to sort black coloured plastic instead of them previously passing by the sorting machines and ending up in a landfill,” he says.

L’Occitane’s refill pouches are a tenth of the weight of its standard packaging

Beauty brands also tackling waste in their packaging

Alongside reusable, refillable and recyclable packaging, efforts are also being made to reduce the amount of excess waste in online and in-store beauty purchases.

“Beauty product packaging is often composed of a variety of types of material. For example, mirrored glass, cardboard sleeves, paper inserts, expanded plastic foam, and more, have been known to be used in cosmetics packaging,” says TerraCycle’s Mr Clarke. This makes it difficult to be adequately separated and recycled, so many brands are cutting down.

Sustainability stalwarts Lush have had notable success with their minimal-to-zero packaging options and others are following suit. Dior have removed cellophane and excessive product leaflets, as well as printing with naturally sourced ink. Direct-to-consumer brand Glossier recently pledged to introduce a limited packaging option for online orders as a result of customer backlash.

The future of sustainable packaging in beauty looks bright as it becomes a larger conversation in the industry, but brands must play their part in educating consumers alongside their packaging innovation.

“Statistics show that while people recycle really well in the kitchen, they don’t think to do that in the bathroom. The key thing to remember is that plastic beauty packaging is recyclable, it’s just that most consumers aren’t aware that they can,” Ms Strauss of Zero Waste Week concludes.

Kjaer Weis

Minimal beauty brand Kjaer Weis has managed to find the synergy between sustainability and design with their sleek and refillable metal packaging. Founder Kirsten Kjaer Weis explains that her goal was to have a luxury product, both inside and out, that was still ecologically sound.

“That proved to be a difficult mix, so I joined forces with [designer] Marc Atlan who came up with the metal packaging we currently have today. The metal isn’t recyclable, so we made it refillable. My goal was to have something that was like a piece of jewellery which you would cherish forever,” she says.

With a lower price for refills at around 30 per cent, consumers are incentivised for their inclusion in the brand’s sustainability efforts. This also follows through across the supply chain with their use of organic farmers to supply their certified natural or certified organic raw materials, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by only flying in products for emergencies, and minimising and using recycled packing materials.