- In the US, the volume of plastic waste hit 44 million metric tons in 2019.
- Some beauty companies are ditching plastics in favor of aluminum, glass, or plant-based materials.
- Consumers are willing to pay a higher price for sustainable products.
- This article is part of the “Innovation at Work” series exploring the trends and barriers to workplace transformation.
Retail buzzwords like clean, green, and sustainable are the face of consumer-product goods today. But for the beauty industry, they’re becoming an identity — for the companies creating their products and to the consumers who use them in their everyday routines.
As more people seek out smaller, purpose-driven companies — i.e. companies whose missions go beyond products and services to making a positive impact on the larger world — sustainable packaging can make or break a user’s loyalty to the brand.
“Beauty products come in bottles and pots with pumps and lids, and we’re noticing the first question a consumer asks is, ‘Is this all recyclable?'” Michelle Brett, the CEO of REN Clean Skincare, told Insider.
Single-use-plastic packaging, especially in the beauty industry, has long been under scrutiny. A 2022 report by Greenpeace indicated that most of the plastic items we’re encouraged to wash and recycle actually end up in landfills. In the US alone, the volume of plastic waste reached 44 million metric tons in 2019, and only about 5% to 6% was recycled in 2021, Greenpeace found.
That’s where smaller beauty brands come in. These companies are on the cutting edge of the industry, making real changes to their products, and paying attention to what consumers want: an unboxing experience that aligns with their identities — sustainable packaging included.
Purpose-driven beauty companies are ditching plastics in favor of aluminum, glass, or plant-based materials. If they use plastic, they’re trying to ensure that it’s designed to be recyclable (mindful of inks and coatings). And some companies are using refillable packaging, so after consumers finish using the product, they can send back the bottle to be washed and refilled.
Consumers are more informed than ever
Denise Masi, the founder of MAED, a lifestyle website devoted to natural and alternative beauty and lifestyle content, said today’s consumers are smarter than ever about their purchases. “They want to know their purchase isn’t contributing to a problem,” she said. “If a brand is going to make a sustainability claim, they need to lay it out and explain where and how they are making a positive impact.”
Consumers aren’t just more knowledgeable about eco-friendly products — they’re willing to pay a higher price. A study conducted by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that 72% of consumers say sustainability is important to them when making a purchase. “Consumers are absolutely proving that they’re voting with their dollars,” Angela Ubias, the cofounder and CEO of Common Heir, told Insider.
Lindsey McCoy, the CEO of Plaine Products, told Insider that today’s consumers are savvier at picking up on when a company might be “greenwashing,” or trying to appear more environmentally friendly on the surface. And they’re demanding more transparency because of it.
Being able to give consumers an inside look at sustainability efforts is a competitive edge for smaller, purpose-driven beauty companies, McCoy said, adding that her company puts out annual sustainability reports for customers to understand how Plaine Products cuts packaging waste, eliminates greenhouse gas, and more.
“We are transparent and have an honest understanding with our customers,” she said. “I absolutely think it’s helped with our growth.”
Some beauty brands have already made the switch
Embracing consumer demand for more sustainable packaging — and leaning into it as a brand — is a way for smaller companies to stand out in the crowded beauty field.
Brands like Gisou, for example, package some of their products in glass that’s sourced from a solar-power-dependent manufacturing site and include recycling instructions. And Everist, a hair and body brand, said it’s gone “zero-waste” with the entire product experience, including 100% recycled aluminum tubes and a CapBack program that covers postage costs for customers to return their used tube caps.
Brett’s REN Clean Skincare is also a major player in the sustainable beauty industry. The brand’s bottle is made from 80% recycled plastic and 20% plastic debris reclaimed from the ocean. For every 150,000 bottles that are made, about 1.5 tons of waste is removed from the ocean.
The growing interest in sustainability — with a push for fewer plastic products — is also drawing attention from lawmakers at all levels.
Last June, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a law requiring packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. The federal government has also taken action with initiatives like the National Recycling Strategy and the WasteWise Program. Internationally, countries like Australia, Canada, and India are working to minimize packaging waste.
Online spending brings sustainable shipping into the equation
Ubias, Masi, and other beauty experts interviewed by Insider say that while the push for sustainable packaging in the beauty industry has been ongoing, the pandemic accelerated the discussion as people stayed home, consumed more health-and-wellness information on social media, and prioritized self-care routines.
As a result, shoppers, namely millennials and Gen Z, are skipping the store and ordering their beauty products online. This means beauty companies need to consider the sustainability of their shipping materials, too.
The US Postal Service reported it shipped nearly 8 billion packages in 2021, with the vast majority packed in plastic or cardboard. When you add other shipping companies like UPS and FedEx into the mix, the numbers increase significantly.
Some purpose-driven beauty companies are switching to recyclable or reusable shipping materials. Boox is one startup that works with smaller companies, some of them beauty brands, to provide reusable packaging.
Boox told Insider it’s grown its business from providing 75,000 packages a year to 2 million in 2022. Matt Semmelhack, the company’s cofounder and CEO, told Insider it’s a drop in the bucket now, but a wave is coming.
“It’s going to seem like overnight to the average consumer, but there will be a big shift in the next 10 years with more sustainable, reusable packaging,” Semmelhack said.