There’s nothing stopping a company from slapping “natural” or “organic” on a product label as it applies to cosmetics, body care or personal care products — not in America at least. But for many, the plastic packaging is almost more controversial than what’s inside the product.
In the U.S. alone, nearly 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were pumped out to house beauty and personal care products at retail in 2018, according to the most recent data from Euromonitor International.
According to management consulting firm Activate, the online channel “will be the battlegrounds,” with over $30 billion in online expansion in the category, when brands at any price point are championing “health and good intentions” — which Hannah Symons, former global head of beauty research at Euromonitor International, said is today’s leading marketing message.
As seen with apparel, this democratized access means consumers have more information at their fingertips than ever, and they are growing increasingly critical of claims by both budding DTC brands and established ones alike. Largely unregulated in the U.S. cosmetics industry, terms such as “natural” or “organic” often don’t carry the same payoff as their would-be beauty products.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have regulations for either term when it comes to beauty and personal care and the most recent major regulation for cosmetics was signed in 1938, although a handful of bills like the Natural Cosmetics Act and Personal Care Products Safety Act have been introduced in the past year.
Similar to the fashion industry’s recent obsession with climate action, beauty and personal care companies have yielded to back up their claims where regulation is lacking, which invites a thorough reevaluation of their design and manufacturing processes.
“Claims such as zero-waste, waterless and reef-safe are now firmly etched on the minds of both brands and consumers. There is, however, a growing acknowledgment that the production of waste and the use of water cannot be eliminated entirely. Steps to improve the environmental footprint are progressing at a rapid pace, but such initiatives do not erase the damage,” said Symons in a blog post.
Ingredients aside, packaging is the most outward example of greenwashing in the beauty and personal care industry, and a systematic design flaw affecting one’s bottom line, as industry experts professed.
Good, Bad and the Ugly of Plastic
“There’s a ton of packaging greenwashing going on right now,” said Tiila Abbitt, founder and creative director of clean color cosmetics brand Āether Beauty, who was previously head of research and development for sustainability at Sephora on top of acting as senior director of product development at the company.
Because color cosmetics are created with mixed materials, including component packaging pieces like mirrors or magnets (neither of which are recyclable), most go into landfills.
During her time at Sephora, Abbitt frequented recycling facilities and spoke with packaging engineers in the beauty space to gain insight on best practices. “Basically, I asked both groups what material should be used for products. They both told me plastic. Not bioplastic because our recycling facilities are only really set up to handle plastic,” stressed Abbitt.
But again, not even “recyclable plastic” is recycled.
While recyclable plastics seem better in theory, the supporting waste management systems and consumer intent are awry, with overall only about 9 percent of plastics being recycled last year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And one-third of that landfill waste is from the beauty industry.
“The biggest greenwashing issue right now is the idea of plastic recycling and how plastic is ‘OK’ because you can put it in your recycling bin,” said Lindsay McCormick, chief executive officer and founder at Bite, a direct-to-consumer toothpaste brand of eco-refill tabs packaged in a glass jar. The company has taken no venture capitalist funding and aims to become a B Corp.
Abbitt continued, “Also, do you love mini samples? Anything that’s less than 3 inches x 3 inches goes into the landfill as well.”
Concerns like those of McCormick and Abbitt are detailed in reports such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey & Company and the World Economic Forum’s “New Plastics Economy,” first published in 2016, which later garnered over 400 signatories in the global commitment. With plastics #1 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) and #2 HDPE (High-density polyethylene) being the only virtually 100-percent recyclable ones, many traditional companies are committing to recycled PET, or rPET.
Companies are also seeking alternatives to troublesome colored PET and multilayered flexible laminates. Of the former, “black plastic” is what Abbitt called the “most irresponsible unsustainable color to choose for a brand,” because the material is not readily dyed and hence gets lost on the black conveyor belts in recycling facilities (later to be landfilled).
Bio-based and plant-based alternatives convince consumers they’re doing better for the environment, but industry experts believe it’s more of the same — greenwashing. “Something specific we’ve come across a lot recently is companies claiming to have ‘100-percent plant-based’ toothbrush bristles, which from all of my research and talking to toothbrush manufacturers from all around the world is just not possible,” said McCormick.
Certain claims are nothing to applaud until after a material lifecycle analysis in a lab setting. McCormick is also skeptical about the terms “compostable” and “biodegradable.”
Gaining momentum among consumers is the “zero-waste” lifestyle seen in products like the net farmer’s market tote, compostable coffee cups, refillable safety razors, reusable silicone ear swab (a harder sell for some) and metal straws. Package Free, a Brooklyn-based omnichannel retailer, sells all of the above, propagating a zero-waste lifestyle, even listing the “end of life” process for each of its products and perhaps setting a trend that could soon become mainstream among its competitors. (Assisting with the end of life, the retailer even takes and appropriately recycles some products on behalf of its customers).
Since opening in 2017, the company has claimed it has “kept over 4 million plastic straws, over 3 million plastic bags and over 1.5 million non-recyclable bottles and cups out of landfill,” according to its web site.
Cutting down on plastic and unsubstantiated claims is a safeguard (or basic necessity) for beauty and personal care brands operating in the era of responsible retail. In response to the growing consumer demand for clean, eco-friendly alternatives, long-standing players such as Procter & Gamble, Colgate, Unilever and others hope to future-proof their brands by moving toward reuse models, on top of cutting back on virgin plastic.
Designing for Reuse
Instead of viewing packaging as a cost of goods sold, it can be an “asset to the brand,” at least the way Heather Crawford, vice president of marketing and e-commerce at TerraCycle, sees it.
Last January, New Jersey-based TerraCycle founded its e-commerce platform Loop on the premise of circularity but wielded through the lens of traditional brands and the old “milkman” model of service (picking up and returning empty containers to the front porch).
First launching in New York City, Loop has since expanded to other regions, including the mid-Atlantic and Paris areas, and now includes coverage in 10 U.S. states. The U.K., Japan and Germany are next, with brick-and-mortar coming next year via its retail partners (meaning reusable packaging will soon come to the shelves of Kroger in pilot regions).
Partnering with the likes of P&G (the first consumer products company to join Loop), Häagen-Dazs, Colgate, Unilever (Love Beauty and Planet) and others, Loop reimagines household essentials from its brand partners in durable and reusable packaging, which is then delivered in a specialized reusable shipping tote, with pick-up and delivery service by United Parcel Service. When a customer is finished with the product, the packaging is cleaned, collected, refilled and reused all in-house by Loop.
“The current solution is broken,” said Crawford. The “future of packaging” is one in which products are designed for durability, because at present product contaminants and certain costs in recycling mar the option, she said.
Durable packaging can take a number of forms, as Crawford said, with guidelines intended to optimize the number of cycles. Of those, the materials of choice include glass, (e.g. beverages, mouthwash, skin care), stainless steel, aluminum and high-durability engineered plastic (e.g. Tide Pods).
What has Loop not figured out how to reuse yet?
Certain small elements, such as bottle caps, pump bottle nozzles and zip ties for the tamper-evident seal require a more durable reuse option or better recycling solutions. Although Loop’s parent company, TerraCycle, has recycling solutions for hard-to-recycle elements, Loop’s brand partners are working to discover the solutions — which may call for further packaging redesign.
But it’s not just packaging or ingredient overhaul for cleaner consumption that are a focus for many companies, it’s also the transportation of products. Efficiency in transportation can result in an added environmental benefit. Crawford calls out shipping thresholds (in Loop’s case, a “full” tote containing five to seven packages) as an “incentive for consumers to shop smarter.”
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