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What Beauty Brands Need to Do to Address Their Packaging Problem

A growing number of consumers want beauty products minus the plastic packaging. Greener options are expensive — but some viable options are emerging.
Nordstrom and other retailers are making it easier for shoppers to recycle beauty product packaging. Source: Courtesy.
Nordstrom and other retailers are making it easier for shoppers to recycle beauty product packaging. Source: Courtesy.

Follain’s new cleanser loudly telegraphs its clean beauty bona fides: it’s non-GMO, cruelty-free, gluten-free and avoids over 30 “toxic” ingredients. The plastic bottle it comes in is another story.

Tara Foley, who founded the clean beauty chain, said she wanted the outside of her new skin care line to be as pure as the inside. But she struggled to find packaging that was friendly both to the environment and her bottom line. Refillable glass bottles were an option in her four stores, but the extra weight made them expensive to ship, and increased carbon emissions to boot. Bioplastics manufacturers required larger orders than she could muster.

Stuck with plastic packaging, she tried to make the best of it: each item comes with recycling instructions, and customers can receive loyalty points for returning empty bottles to stores. The experience left her frustrated, however.

“The beauty industry is a disaster, with the waste that we create,” she said.


The beauty and personal care sectors in the US produced almost 8 million units of rigid plastic waste in 2019, according to data provided by Euromonitor, a market research provider. L’Oréal produced over 137,000 metric tons of plastic packaging in 2019, according to data it provided to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Unilever produced 700,000 metric tons.

The beauty industry is a disaster, with the waste that we create.

Beauty brands know they have a packaging problem. Until recently, consumers were more interested in what went into their foundations and moisturisers than the cases and bottles they came in. But sustainability, long a buzz word in fashion, is coming for beauty. And as Foley’s experience shows, the industry is a long way off from a scalable solution.

Most beauty products come in plastic packaging because it’s cheap and light, ideal for single-use items that once used up are tossed in the trash and reordered. Truly eco-friendly packaging would come from renewable resources — not oil-based resins — and could be easily recycled. As a bonus, they’d be refillable too.

Some luxury products sidestep the problem with glass bottles, and a few mass-market brands have streamlined packaging to reduce waste, or promoted recycling. Those efforts often fall flat with consumers, many of whom miss the convenience of one-and-done packaging, or aren’t willing to rinse out their empty eye cream containers and hunt for the correct recycling bin.

Credo, a leading clean beauty retailer, recently launched packaging guidelines for brands it sells. The retailer intends to ban single-use wipes, and asked brands to stop including tiny plastic spatulas in their face creams. By 2023, plastic packaging must contain at least 50 percent recycled materials.

These measures go beyond most other retailers. But Credo’s end goal, a “circular” system that generates no waste, has no target date, and eliminating some popular plastics, including those spatulas, won’t go over easy with consumers or brands.

“It’s going to take a lot of work up and down the supply chain,” said Mia Davis, Credo’s director of environmental and social responsibility. “We’re not going to recycle our way out of the mess that is over-consumption and plastic pollution.”

Recycling Is Harder Than It Seems


Just because a material is recyclable doesn’t mean it will get recycled. Packaging is often made from multiple materials; if one is not recyclable, the whole item will be sent to a landfill. Small caps, lids and other fiddly bits of dark-coloured plastic evade sorting machines’ detection processes.

“They cost too much to process and recycle, and the value at the end of it, the raw material value, is significantly less than what it took to process it,” said Gina Herrera, senior director of brand partnerships at Terracycle, a middleman between brands and companies that specialise in hard-to-recycle products.

A third of Terracycle’s clients are beauty brands, including Amika, Bliss, and Burt’s Bees, plus retailers like Nordstrom, Credo and Follain. Each has its own approach. Some allow customers to mail back empties, while Nordstrom has placed recycling bins around its stores.

Programmes can cost anywhere from “low six figure to … seven figure investments,” Herrera said.

Alternative Packaging Options

Alana Bell, the owner of Calipak, a packaging firm specialising in beauty, says that at least half of the brands that come to her ask about sustainable options.

Glass and aluminium are both popular, but neither are perfect. Aluminium sometimes needs a coating so that it doesn’t chemically react with product formulas. Post-consumer resin (PCR) options give a second life to plastic products, but often can’t be recycled again. Bioplastics, generally made from sugarcane or algae byproducts, take fossil fuels out of the equation, but often require specialised equipment to recycle.

All of these options are more expensive than plastic. Bell said PCR products can be up to 15 percent more expensive. BYBI, a UK-based clean beauty brand that is launching in Target in January, uses bioplastic components, which can cost 10 to 50 percent more, said co-founder Elsie Rutterford.


Smaller brands could more easily afford these costs if they banded together to put in orders, something Davis is in the early stages of negotiating with some of Credo’s brands. But many are likely to balk at standardised packaging, even if it’s sustainable. It’s hard to stand out on a shelf when the bottles all look the same.

Innovating From the Top Down

Follain’s Foley thinks that nothing will change until the industry’s biggest players embrace alternative packaging options. L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble have both started sustainability programs, and the former is testing a new type of shampoo bottle in which carbon emissions are converted to polyethylene via a series of biological and chemical processes.

The Estée Lauder Companies has vowed to use 75 to 100 percent recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable packaging by 2025. Several of its fragrance brands, including Kilian and Le Labo, offer refillable options.

A big challenge is making packaging that transmits “luxury cues”, said Rob Peterson, senior vice president, global packaging, at the Estée Lauder Companies. Estée Lauder just switched its Advanced Night Repair from plastic to glass bottles, which gives it heft. The Back 2 MAC program encourages customers to bring their used makeup components back to stores, where they are recycled and remade into new compacts.

In October, ELC partnered with Sabic and Albéa to roll out a tube for its Origins brand using a process called “advanced recycling” that can be reused multiple times.

“You get a recycled plastic that has all the performance properties of virgin plastic,” Peterson said. “Therefore we can use larger amounts of it in our packaging, and we can use it more broadly and have great performance and quality.”

Origins will be expanding the technology to more items.

BYBI, which uses colourful glass dropper bottles and bio-plastic, will in January be in over 1,800 Target stores, and just closed a $7 million Series A led by Unilever Ventures and Point King Capital. In the UK, BYBI collects and sterilises its bottles from customers, and puts them back into circulation in the line.

“It has to be very functional, and we have to be able to brand the packaging in a way that speaks to a mass audience,” Rutterford said.

Changing the Consumer Mindset

Brands also need consumer buy-in. Follain and Credo offer loyalty points to encourage customers to participate in their Terracycle programmes. MAC gives customers a free lipstick when they bring in old packaging. Yet it’s still a small minority of customers who take advantage of the service.

“I think consumer behaviour is one of the number one things we have to hit harder,” said Sandra Krasovec, a professor and the coordinator for the packaging design programme at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She advocates for beauty product designers to get more creative with products that use less water and packaging, like dissolvable tablets or bar products. Grove Collaborative’s new Peach line, which offers shampoo and conditioner in bar soap form, is an example.

“It’s all about using material wisely and then collecting the waste and reusing it again,” said Krasovec. “Everybody’s trying to get there.”


Unilever’s stockholders will vote on new sustainability initiatives. The consumer goods company will unveil its climate and environmental plans for shareholder approval prior to implementation.

The CEO of Japanese beauty company DHC Corp came under fire for racist remarks about Koreans. Some people in South Korea are calling for a boycott of the company.

Trojan (yes, that one) gets into fragrance. The condom company is releasing three different scents aimed at a Gen Z audience.

L’Oréal and the Makeup Museum are teaming up on a makeup book featuring BIPOC communities. The coffee table book takes a look at global beauty perspectives and practices.

Is Lady Gaga releasing a skincare line? There is speculation that she hinted it may be coming to her Haus Labs line.

EU study finds that some products labeled “perfume free” weren’t. About 8 percent of those analysed contained high amounts of potentially allergenic fragrance, making them non-compliant with legislative requirements.

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