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Can Beauty Be Sustainable?

"The end of life of a material is determined at the point of design." 

The search for a holistic environmental solution is on.

In an industry known more for reliance on single-use plastic packaging than sustainability solutions, change is needed. Esi Eggleston Bracey, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of beauty and personal care at Unilever North America, and Keefe Harrison, the chief executive officer and cofounder of The Recycling Partnership, came together with Jenny B. Fine, WWD’s executive editor of beauty, to discuss sustainability, recycling and steps beauty businesses can take in order to reach environmental goals.

Keefe Harrison
Keefe Harrison courtesy

Bracey called out environmental pollution and environmental injustice as two of the major issues in the world. “We know the pollution issue on the front end and the back end disproportionately impact underserved communities,” she said.

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“More than 2 billion people use our products every day,” Bracey said. “This is not an issue we can just ignore, and it’s not an issue that we simply can get rid of easily, so we need a holistic solution.”

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For Unilever, sustainability has become a business imperative. In order to meet its goals, the company has set forth different “frameworks,” Bracey said.

“On plastics, we think about how we make sure we…have a total solution. There is better plastic, there is less plastic and there is no plastic,” she said. “Plastics itself is not the enemy, it’s making sure we get rid of single-use plastics.” Better plastic can mean recycled PCR, she added.

Those steps are what companies need to do, according to Harrison.

“When I hear of companies like Unilever leaning in to say, we’re only going to use the right plastic when it’s necessary and never any other time, it gives me hope that we’re stepping away from a gratuitous use of a material and instead thinking strategically,” Harrison said.

Esi Eggleston Bracey
Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer for North America beauty and personal care at Unilever. Stephen Leek/WWD

Back in 2010, Unilever committed to reduce its plastic footprint by 50 percent — today, it has decreased by 32 percent, Bracey said. By 2025, the company plans to make sure packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. To achieve that, Unilever will need retail and manufacturing partners to support the goal, she noted.

“The challenge is how we bring the whole industry and ecosystem together in support of the goals. That helps us for Unilever, but it really makes the difference for all of society,” Bracey added.

For smaller companies that don’t have the breadth of Unilever resources, Harrison suggested looking at and APR design guides in order to devise packaging with a product’s end of life in mind. “[APR has] developed free tools to help designers know when to choose this, not that, and what are the impacts,” Harrison said. “The end of life of a material is determined at the point of design.”

That is particularly important given the consumer-recycling relationship, which is strained, Harrison noted.

“It seems like recycling should have been solved a long time ago, but the truth is only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as they can throw something away, so we’ve got to fix that before we can ever suggest to the public that it’s their job alone to solve this challenge,” Harrison said.

What consumers should be doing, she noted, is calling on companies to do more collaboration in order to make recycling and sustainability goals easier to achieve.

“What consumers can do is call on companies to do more of that. You want to see companies providing opportunities for you to live a sustainable life in how you purchase, how you behave in your home and how you go about your day,” Harrison said.