The truth about beauty packaging and the environment

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Perdita Nouril
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The days of excessive beauty packaging are numbered. As sustainability becomes more pertinent, Stylist charts the move towards eco-friendliness.

Beautiful packaging winks at you. It flirts from the shop shelves, luring you in with its stylish decadence. And the more sumptuous (and Instagrammable) it looks, the more joy we get from it. Just think of the myriad ‘unboxing’ videos online, hooked on the suspense of watching swathes of cellophane, tissue, luxury cardboard and ribbon being removed to reveal the bounty. It’s part of the reason we adore beauty so much.

And yet, the legacy that beauty packaging leaves behind is far from pretty. Zero Waste Week, an annual awareness campaign in September for reducing landfill, reports that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. The cardboard that envelops perfumes, serums and moisturisers contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year.

If this level of consumption continues, by 2050 there will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills, the equivalent to 35,000 Empire State Buildings. The UN has declared our current situation a ‘planetary crisis’ and no industry is exempt from scrutiny, including beauty.

Driven by this, the first beauty environmental success story has happened in the UK as legislation banning products containing microbeads (plastic particles used in many cleansers, toothpastes and scrubs) was passed last year. But that’s just the start as the beauty industry continues to listen to its customers’ concerns. Research from Euromonitor has found that eco-friendly packaging is more important to consumers than ever – those aged 25-34 in particular now check that packaging is environmentally friendly before purchasing their beauty must-haves.

Millie Kendall, founder of online retailer BeautyMart and CEO of British Beauty Council believes it’s a logical segue from the ‘clean’ beauty trend. “We’ve seen the removal of unnecessary parabens and chemicals over the last few years and now this has filtered into packaging. From brands using biodegradable materials such as Ecolean, which is made from chalk, to packaging created from bamboo and seaweed, it’s a movement that’s rapidly gaining momentum.”

One tub of moisturiser comes with all of this…

Initiatives launched by the major beauty players also signal that sustainability doesn’t solely apply to small eco brands. Garnier is setting its sights on reducing our bathroom waste. While 90% of us recycle kitchen waste, 50% of Brits don’t recycle bathroom waste such as shampoo, conditioner and shower gel bottles simply because it’s inconvenient, meaning 2.7 billion plastic bottles hit landfill every year.

To tackle this, Garnier has teamed up with recycling firm TerraCycle to allow you to drop off bathroom rubbish at its depots (or post it for free) in exchange for points that can be turned into a donation to a non-profit group. The scheme goes nationwide this month, but the initial soft launch has already saved 33 million items from landfill.

One of beauty’s biggest eco challenges is bodycare – the tubs for creams are hard to recycle because of their shape. “They have a tendency to crack and deform when they’re recycled, so we opted for post-industrial plastic, which is much sturdier,” reveals Katie Bowes, marketing manager for naturally derived bodycare brand Soaper Duper. “It was a two-year process from sourcing to design, but was worth it because we haven’t compromised on affordability or ease for our customers.” Elsewhere and Faith in Nature offer the use of refill stations to encourage their customers to recycle more plastic. Anyone who sends back the 5L containers to their UK headquarters will get 20 percent off their next 5L purchase. Once the empty containers are returned, they’re cleaned and reused in the Faith in Nature supply chain.

As for luxe brands, Dior is already using natural ink in packaging cartons and wood from sustainable forests for its paper and card. Estee lauder now avoid sending any waste to landfill when it comes to their screw cap tubes. Crimped at the end, an eighth or sixteenth of an inch of plastic is trimmed off during production, resulting in tons of small, lightweight strips. Now, each one is collected and recycled. As for the MAC make-up emptys you return to store for a free lipstick? These go into making Aveda pencil sharpeners amongst other beauty tools that fall under the Estee Lauder umbrella. The BodyShop, who have always led the charge when it comes to ethical beauty, are even looking at pulling plastic from thin air. As part of the Enrich Not Exploit campaign, they’re developing ways to harness greenhouse gases in order to create packaging. Other brands are using incentives to increase the appeal of their eco initiatives: & Other Stories offers a 10% off voucher for beauty empties, while Kiehl’s recycling loyalty card lets you collect stamps towards a free product.

So whether your motivation is saving the planet, spending less, or both, you can take action now. Beauty has a long way to go and many products still have an element of excess, but as the movement gathers pace, expect radical new changes, from bring-your-own-bottles to zero packaging. This is the start of something big in beauty.

Read on for our pick of the best sustainably-packaged beauty buys…

Lush Dreamtime Solid Bath Oil

Lush Dreamtime Bath Oil Solid Packaging-Free
Lush’s unwavering commitment to sustainable packaging is mightily impressive. Always ahead of the curve, they just opened their first plastic free store in Manchester and now sell their solid range of skincare and bodycare totally unpackaged, which they claim saves three million plastic bottles from landfill with their shampoo bars lasting three times longer than an average liquid bottle. The bars also take up 15 times less space than a bottle of liquid shampoo, so when transporting the items only 1 lorry is needed compared to 15 needed for bottles. 

Tackling the issue of excess paper cups, they’ve team recycled water with paper pulp to create trays that can be used to store the solid bath oils. For the packaging enthusiasts who don’t want to compromise on the prettiness factor, Lush still offer organic knot wraps to transport or gift your lush cosmetics. Last year they upcycled 10 tonnes of vintage scarves and converted them into the wraps. Worried you won’t be able to decipher what’s in the product? They’ve thought of that too. Their Lush Lens app allows you to scan a product before presenting you with all the related info.

Lush, £3.50

Precise Zero Fragrance Ozone Defence Nutrify Serum

Previse Zero Fragrance Ozone Nutrify Serum
Beauty products have unique packaging needs that make sourcing eco-friendly materials challenging. Beauty products are a bit like food and can deteriorate much faster when they’re not stored correctly. Vitamin C is notoriously tricky. This skin reviving ingredient can destabilise, rending it useless if it isn’t packaged properly. In other words, it has to be a real marriage of form and function, as it’s too simplistic to place formulations into recyclable bottles. 

New skincare brand Privise have cracked it when it comes to volatile ingredients. “It took time, but we realised we could stabilise Vitamin C by adding Vitamin B5 and B3. This was a significant breakthrough, because not only does it mean the consumer can buy one product instead of two, but we use less packaging, less petrol and much less paper stock through the supply chain,” reveals founder Sean Harrington.

Wolf & Badger, £69

REN Atlantic Kelp and Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash

REN Atlantic Kelp And Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Wash

In a bid to become a zero-waste brand, Ren have teamed up with NGOs to source plastic from oceans, beaches, rivers, and lakes which then goes into making the bottles for their latest body wash. Cleverly, the pump has also been made without the metal coil spring, which serves to reduce the environmental impact of the bottles even further. Ren has also announced that the recycled plastic packaging will be expanded later this year to include additional products in the range such as hand and body lotion. Watch this space.

REN, £22

Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser

Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser

This skin-soothing cleanser is housed in recycled glass because “unlike plastic, glass can be recycled indefinitely”, explains Tata Harper. “So for every 10% increase in recycled glass, CO2 emissions go down 5%.” Any plastic that the brand does use is derived from renewable corn rather than petroleum and containers are constructed from 100% recycled paper. Even the gilded font is made from soy ink. Clear skin and a clear conscience.

Tata Harper, £51.74

Weleda Wild Rose Pampering Body Lotion


Weleda has created a recycled ‘airless’ bottle to house this skin-softening, antioxidant-rich body lotion. Cosmetic pumps are hard to reuse as recycling plants can’t separate the metal spring from inside the plastic pump, but this pioneering bag-in-bottle technology harnesses an airless system. When you pump the lotion, the bag inside the bottle is tightened until it is empty and because no air can get into the bottle, the formulation requires no chemical preservatives. Genius.

Holland & Barrett, £24.95

Floral Street Neon Rose Eau de Parfum

Floral Street Neon Rose Eau de Parfum

In a bid to stop the 2.5 billion paper coffee cups used in the UK every year from going to landfill, British perfumer Floral Street is using them to house its signature scents. The brand has teamed up with paper mill company James Cropper to convert 90% of each cup into moulded, compostable cartons. The glass perfume bottles are then stored in the cartons with reusable bands, making these the ultimate feel-good, do-good scents. 

Harvey Nichols, £55

Aveda Invati Advanced Exfoliating Shampoo

Aveda Invati Advanced Exfoliating Shampoo

Aveda’s cult hair thickening shampoo is the first to deploy 100% recycled plastic in its PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, helping the company to save 600 tonnes of virgin plastic each year. Aveda also applies an earth-friendly approach to what is inside the bottle. The nourishing formula uses plant-based wintergreen extract to gently exfoliate your scalp and remove dead cell build-up, encouraging hair growth so you can achieve glossy locks without any of the guilt. 

Feel Unique, £25

Dior Lift Sculptor Lifting Serum

Dior Lift Sculptor Lifting Serum

Dior has removed all cellophane and cardboard wedges from its products. And those luxury skincare instruction leaflets? They’ve been replaced with a scannable QR code. It is also swapping the plastic display shelving on counters with glass, and wants all its formulas to contain 90% natural ingredients by 2020. The latest serum firms the skin with natural polyphenols taken from green and white tea, which don’t negatively impact water sources or soil. 

Dior, £75

Guerlain Orchidée Impériale La Crème 

Guerlain Orchidee Imperiale Cream

“Our customers expect prestigious packaging – heavy glass, big boxes and lots of paper,” says Sandrine Sommer, Guerlain’s head of sustainability. Even so, the brand has managed to cut its carbon footprint. By making its iconic moisturising cream’s pot 60% lighter, Guerlain has halved each cream’s carbon emissions. A package redesign helped too: “Simply using a condensed square box requires up to 40% less resin than round packaging and takes up less shipping space,” reveals Somme.

House of Fraser, £305

Main image: Courtesy of brands

This article was originally published on 16 January 2018 and has since been updated.