Sustainable cosmetics is complex!

Gaynor explores the complexity and challenges leading cosmetic brands face to deliver improved packaging sustainability.  

Having spent many years in the beauty industry as a beautician, hairdresser, and packaging specialist, I have first-hand experience of the complexity involved in cosmetic packaging. The cosmetic industry utilises a vast array of formats and materials to deliver a large and diverse range of products from creams and serums, perfumes, facial make-up, and hair colourants.   

In a trend-led industry, product evolution and NPD is frequent, requiring accelerated speed to market in a sector rife with competition.  This only adds to the complexity of packaging management, bearing in mind that the products involved require the packaging to deliver storage and protection but also in many cases, application tools and solutions for consumer use and experience. 

From a packaging sustainability perspective, this industry faces significant challenge.  Many of the products that I mentioned above are part of the consumers daily life and, particularly in the premium tier, can be elaborately packaged to feel indulgent. After all, for many, this luxury packaging is specifically used to deliver the “feel good” factor, with consumers associating quality with aesthetically pleasing packagingi. Once used however, most of this packaging ends up in landfill. Even if it is recyclable very little of it is actually recycled, according to the British Beauty Council1. It is also well documented that bathroom waste is less likely to be disposed of effectively even if the packaging is designed with recyclability in mind.  One study by Hubbub highlights that we recycle approximately 90% of kitchen packaging, but only 50% in the bathroom 2

Image: Kevin Lamato

Cosmetics are considered luxury products and unlike retail, where packaging tends to be more supplier-driven, the leading brands have significant control over all aspects of their product offering, including bespoke packaging to deliver brand identity and consumer loyalty. This allows for innovation and ability to drive packaging change and reduction to aid sustainable improvements. 

It is great to see some of the leading cosmetic companies delivering solutions to improve sustainability, via traditional methods as well as innovation.  A few examples of significant note would be: 

Lush shampoo bar

The Lush shampoo bar is a great example of product innovation driving packaging reduction and evolution of product format into a solid bar, which for Lush has allowed complete packaging removal for this product. This works well in the Lush stores but is not a transferable solution for all types of retail outlet. 
A simple wrap could in theory solve that issue and would still deliver significant packaging and waste reduction. I am sure that comment will create a stir with the argument being “why would you move from a recyclable bottle to a wrap which may be plastic or a coated paper, which is not kerbside collected and/or recyclable?” To be clear, I am not saying this is a preferred solution, what I am saying is that without the data and analysis, how would you know?   
The comparison here would be a plastic bottle from a bottle supplier and closure from a closure supplier being delivered to a manufacturing site, versus reels of film from one supplier to the manufacturing site. Both single use and technically recyclable, albeit one being kerbside and the other requiring the consumer to return the packaging to store, where it is likely they would be visiting to do their food shop.  To make an informed decision, all data comparing the entire supply chain from cradle to grave must be considered and analysed. 
In the UK, there is also the potential that when waste collections align, plastic films may, at that point, be collected at kerbside. This is currently due to come into action from 2027. Which solution would deliver the biggest improvement from an overall LCA perspective? Would consumers accept this step change from a product and packaging perspective, or would it just be subject to negative press? Regardless of the optimum solution, we should be making decisions based on factual data and ensuring that any sustainability improvements made are clearly and accurately communicated to the consumers, being sure to avoid greenwashing. 

The Body Shop

Having an environmentally conscious approach for many years with in-store refill solutions since 1976, and despite lulls at times, continue to evolve and expand its sustainability commitments. The latest commitments are to continue to expand on circularity via refillable solutions as well as deliver an increase in PCR in PET packaging and aiming to reuse or repurpose 100% of PET packaging longer term.  Delivery boxes have also been redesigned to remove the need for additional tape and plastics, which allow for the construction to be reversed by the consumer to allow for upcycling into gift boxes.  It is great to see that The Body Shop continue to build and drive sustainability with Anita Roddick’s passion for the planet in mind.

Estée Lauder

Estée Lauder has a significant range of brands with a vast array of products and has committed to a range of guidelines to improve sustainability. The key focus areas are packaging reduction and removal where possible, designing packaging for recyclability, reuse and refill and increasing inclusion of post-consumer recyclate. These are traditional packaging sustainability improvement drivers which encourage packaging suppliers to improve their approach to sustainability to secure supply. But how is it being measured and tracked? 
In addition to the above, Estée Lauder is also committed to replacing petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics “providing they will not contaminate traditional recycling streams3.”  This is a significant challenge for a global business as there is not a “one size fits all” solution in relation to acceptable materials and formats. In the UK, bioplastics have a negative impact on recycling and at present, there isn’t the infrastructure to effectively support the disposal of bioplastics, biodegradable or compostable materials. 
However, in other geographies these materials are well managed, with well-established industrial composting infrastructure in place. 
This begs the question of whether in the case of bioplastics solutions, will different materials be used to suit the waste infrastructure of the market of sale?  This would require the introduction of additional packaging options to deliver the same product, based on the waste infrastructure in each territory. 

Image: Arthur Periera

It is without doubt great to see that packaging sustainability is on the agenda for the bigger actors across the cosmetics industry, although I do think there is still a lot more that could be done to improve their packaging.    

For those pushing the boundaries and trying to drive innovation to deliver sustainability, are they using the correct communication methods to ensure consumer acceptance, improve the impact and encourage considered disposal for the consumer? Or are they overcomplicating it? 

The vast range of components and materials, combined with multi-market EPR requirements and Plastic Taxes means there is a significant amount of data to record, manage and report.  Legislation also evolves constantly by territory. To stay up to date with a vast array of markets, a network of trusted advisors is invaluable.  

Keep in mind that for global businesses, the cost of compliance is not simply the legislation itself. On top of the fees, we need to consider the resource required to collect, manage, and report this data at a granular level and with country-specific reporting requirements and frequencies.

Gaynor Denton-Bray, Aura

Are the large cosmetics brands and manufacturers prepared and immersed in the challenge and cost of compliance?  

Is the challenge the same for smaller actors? The next blog in this series will investigate smaller actors / budget cosmetics producers and brands and the challenges they face in delivering packaging sustainability.  I hope that even though the challenge may be greater, that progress and change is being delivered.  It would be great to see some true innovation from smaller cosmetic brands which will hopefully encourage the leading brands to accelerate the pace of sustainable packaging development. 

Today more than ever before, global retailers and brands need to assess their packaging requirements on a macro and micro level to survive and thrive the seismic shifts in paradigm across global supply chains, international and national politics, legislation, retailing and consumer expectations. These are challenges we frequently help our cosmetic clients to overcome. Navigating global legislation and finding packaging solutions to meet these needs with the lowest financial and environmental impact is complex.

At Aura we can help you navigate these challenges and find the right solution for you, your customers and the planet.  





About the Author

Gaynor is a lead consultant with over 20 years of experience in packaging across manufacturing, FMCG and global brands. Her focus has spanned across sustainable packaging strategy development, format innovation and material selection, supply chain improvements through efficient packaging development and supplier engagement.

Her aim is to share her knowledge and experience to support clients in achieving their packaging sustainability goals and capitalise on all the benefits associated with sustainable packaging development.