Plastic-free, recyclable or reusable? How to choose sustainable packaging for beauty products

Published on
March 9, 2020

Shoppers now expect brands to offer environmentally-friendly packaging, but choosing between all the options can be overwhelming. Here we’ll show you how best to navigate the right approach for your brand.

Here at Provenance, we’ve talked a lot about what it means to be transparent in the beauty industry and why it matters. With packaging and waste being one of the most prominent topics of the past year, coupled with the meteoric rise in ‘clean’ beauty, brands are at a pinnacle moment to align their ‘clean’ aspirations and packaging efforts.

Image credit: Pro Carton survey of 7,000 citizens across 7 countries

Concern over waste has made sustainable packaging options seem limitless. From FSC certified cardboard, to bottles made from Ocean Waste Plastic or even no packaging at all, the beauty industry is starting to tune in. While there are many options available, they are not all created equal and for a beauty brand trying to take their first step, or maybe even leap, into sustainability - it may seem a bit overwhelming. While there may not be a clear answer, Provenance is here to provide clarity over packaging options and help guide you to make the best decision for your brand.

Start by going FSC Certified with your outer packaging

The first step, albeit baby step, in the right direction is incorporating FSC certified cardboard or paper into your product packaging. With the majority of beauty products coming encased in some sort of outer packaging (usually a form of cardboard) and often accompanied by a paper leaflet, the first thing brands can do is ensure they source their cardboard and paper from FSC-certified or PEFC-certified suppliers. Both certifications highlight better sourcing practices and support responsible forest management. For more on FSC certified suppliers, check here & here.

Image credit: REN Clean Skincare with FSC certified packaging

Look to recycled materials for your primary packaging

The next progression into more sustainable packaging would be to replace virgin materials with recycled ones. Many beauty and personal care brands have started incorporating recycled materials into their packaging, even Unilever has recently launched a range of beauty products housed in 100% post-consumer recycled materials. It’s worth asking your current packaging supplier if they offer any recycled packaging options. If not, there are multiple suppliers available who specialise in this - Ocean Waste Plastic, Spectra Packaging or Davpack.

Image credit: Beauty & Planet's ocean plastic bottle on Wild Alma

Consider alternative materials

Another way to rethink the materiality of your packaging could be to diverge from plastic altogether and introduce alternative materials. Take cork for instance. Cork is a natural product, harvested from living trees which helps mitigate the effects of climate change due to its carbon sequestering abilities. Because cork, traditionally used for wine stoppers, is water-resistant, anti-bacterial, flexible, strong and compostable - it offers an environmentally sound alternative for some packaging. Lush is one of the leading beauty brands incorporating cork as an innovative packaging solution which is also carbon positive. Besides cork, there are many other materials to consider (see here) as well as a plethora of brands leading the way with alternative packaging to help inspire and drive change (see here).

Image credit: Lush's cork pots

Take into account the full lifecycle of your product

Rethinking the recyclability and material makeup of your packaging offers a more accessible first step to reducing products’ environmental footprint, however it is worth noting that these options are not always clear winners. With recyclability, local infrastructure and consumer behaviors pose major obstacles - only 50% of Brits recycle bathroom waste such as shampoo and conditioner, compared to a 90% recycling rate for kitchen waste. Even the incorporation of recycled materials can have further implications (read our Recyclable Materials proof point page for a further breakdown). Also, Life Cycle Assessments often make choosing the optimal materials quite challenging. For example, glass is a very accessible packaging option for beauty. It touts many environmental benefits like helping to reduce waste and demand for plastic. But, some LCA’s have found glass’ carbon footprint to be much higher than plastics - further muddying the water.

Look to brands that have moved to multi-use packaging

While choosing the right materials for your packaging can seem daunting, there are programmes and initiatives brands can implement that go beyond packaging. Here are some pioneering brands that are thinking bigger;

  • Kiehl’s ‘Recycle & Be Rewarded’ programme which offers shoppers one stamp per returned bottle, with five stamps earning you a free product.
  • Origins’ ‘Return to Origins’ recyclable programme accepts all empty cosmetics containers - regardless of brand.
  • Kjaer Weis offering refillable packaging since conception and is now seen as a leader in the sustainable-luxe cosmetic industry.
Image credit: Elle - Selfridge’s sustainable and refillable beauty display

Not only do these schemes help reduce waste and carbon miles from shipping, they also help build brand loyalty by creating an incentive for consumers to make repeat purchases. The LCA Centre found that if all cosmetic brands adopted refillable container schemes, the industry could reduce its carbon emissions by 70%. Even at the retailer level, the success of refillable beauty is seen through Selfridges’ recent dedicated space highlighting refillable brands and concepts.

Trade-offs are inevitable, so communicate your choices clearly

With so much varied research and opinions on the environmental impact of packaging, it's hard to know the optimal solution. But sustainable choices can’t be made without trade-offs. First, you must understand where your brand’s priorities lie in the supply chain. Are you more focused on minimising carbon footprint? Or prioritising the reduction of waste and plastic? Once decisions are made, the key is to then articulate the ‘why’ at a product level. Shoppers will always have opinions on your choice so make sure you can justify decisions based on your priorities and impact. A journey to sustainable packaging doesn’t happen overnight, but if you can navigate the materials, impact trade-offs and communication challenges you will be able to engage a new generation of conscious shoppers.

Click here to learn how Provenance helps brands communicate on sustainable packaging

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