NEW YORK, United States — When makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis launched her brand in 2010, she set out to create products that were luxurious but organic and eco-friendly. She settled on refillable metal compacts to house her products, eliminating the need to buy makeup encased in plastic packaging. Retailers loved the sleek casing, but they were confused by the refill concept, which didn’t fit the brand’s luxury image. It was a challenge to convince them her brand was worth betting on.
“They just couldn’t wrap their heads around that it was luxury and it was green, all-in-one,” she said. “It was like retelling a new story in a sense about what colour cosmetics could be.”
Fast forward eight years: sustainability has been catapulted into the mainstream and Weis is stocked at big retailers from Barneys and Neiman Marcus to Net-a-Porter and Cult Beauty. Beauty and personal care products are in the crosshairs of environmental activists because they come encased in masses of packaging — often high in plastic — that ends up in landfills and must be frequently replenished. The sector generated 142.6 billion units of packaging in 2017, according to Euromonitor International, with over 40 percent made from the rigid plastics, which are considered particularly harmful for the environment because often they are "single use," used just once before they are thrown away.
There really is no perfect decision. We are a company that produces goods, we are going to have a negative impact to some degree.
Packaging’s environmental toll is creating a conundrum for the beauty industry, where what your moisturiser or foundation looks like on the outside is almost as important as what’s in the bottle. How a product appears on Instagram isn’t the only consideration. Certain ingredients require specific packaging to prevent problems like bottle corrosion, and online purchases require extra protection during shipping.
The beauty industry is responding with new strategies to combat packaging waste. Packaging innovation is a key initiative, as is developing better ways to transport and protect products. More environmentally friendly alternatives exist, but are often more expensive, particularly for large brands that would need to change how they produce tens of millions of products. Brands that avoid single-use plastic tend to be small and luxury-oriented, though L'Oréal and Unilever are among the beauty giants that have set goals to reduce their virgin plastic use.
“There really is no perfect decision,” said Chris Young, co-founder of New York-based beauty brand Circumference, which he runs with his wife Jina Kim. “We are a company that produces goods, we are going to have a negative impact to some degree.”
Circumference uses glass for its products, which requires less energy to recycle compared with plastic. It also plans to offset its carbon footprint next year by planting trees and contributing funds toward cleaning up plastics in the ocean.
Lipstick maker La Bouche Rouge sells a refillable, plastic-free lipstick case, made from metal and leather, that consumers can replenish with lipstick “recharges”. The brand is also developing paper lipstick packaging, said L'Oréal veteran Nicolas Gerlier, who co-founded the brand with Ezra Petronio. All development takes place at the brand's in-house lab. "When you want to challenge the market you have to develop everything [yourself]," Gerlier said.
UK-based Montamonta, which supplies skincare products to bars, restaurants and cafés around London, provides one litre glass refill bottles to its amenities clients in place of standard disposable plastic containers. The company collects the empty bottles, which it cleans, relabels and sends back out.
Glass can house an array of ingredients at different PH levels without disintegrating. But using glass brings its own challenges: bottles can break in transit and are also heavier, which increases their carbon footprint when transported over long distances, said Montamonta founder Montague Ashley-Craig. This means that for large global brands, glass may not be the most sustainable packaging option. In addition, Montamonta sells body scrub in plastic containers for safety reasons.
“A lot of people were worried they would smash in the shower,” she said. “It was a safety versus sustainability chat, and safety always wins.”
Bigger brands are beginning to experiment with alternatives to virgin plastic packaging as well. L'Oréal started Seed Phytonutrients in 2017, which launched its first products in April. The brand developed a compostable shower-safe bottle made from recycled paper waste that comes from a L'Oréal distribution centre in California.
But replicating initiatives like this on a large scale with an established brand can be hard.
“When you launch a new brand, you can build in all of the sustainability criteria and attributes and values that you want from the beginning,” said Danielle Azoulay, head of sustainability for L'Oréal USA. “When you have a brand that’s 100 years old, that brand wasn’t necessarily founded with the same sort of priorities and awareness.”
Setting transparent targets can help. By communicating goals to the outside world, big brands will be held accountable if they don’t deliver. At a global level, L'Oréal has committed to ending virgin plastic use by 2025, and is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy.
“It really does put a stick in the ground for us and force us to innovate toward a solution,” said Azoulay. Unilever too, has publicly committed to using 100 percent recyclable, reusable and compostable plastic by 2025.
Brands many not initially see an immediate return on investment. But if they’re making those moves now, they’ll be seen as a pioneer in this area.
Big and small brands alike will all have to recon with the costs. For mission-driven brands that have baked sustainability into the business from the start, the hit may appear less sever. Montamonta’s Ashley-Craig said she calculated she could save tens of thousands a year by moving to single use plastic instead of recycling glass bottles.
“Because we built this from the ground up, it was always the way we operated, I haven’t really seen any other way,” she said. “It’s hard to quantify [the potential cost saving] because it’s so ingrained in our business model.”
For brands that are grappling with retrofitting, costs incurred will undoubtedly take a toll on the balance sheet. But it’s a tradeoff that brands will have to make if they want to remain relevant for years to come.
“Brands many not initially see an immediate return on investment, consumers may not be flocking to it,” said Andrew McDougall, an analyst at Mintel. “But if they’re making those moves now, they’ll be seen as a pioneer in this area.”