According to the organization Zero Waste, more than 120 billion units of cosmetics packaging are produced each year globally. The beauty industry's massive (and problematic) environmental footprint has led sustainable packaging to become a very hot topic, and every brand is approaching the conversation differently. In recent years, we've seen major industry players adopt more eco-conscious packaging methods—from refillable cartons to airless containers to dissolvable sheets—to help reduce their impact on the planet.
Meet the Expert
- Charlotte Palermino is the co-founder and CEO of Dieux and a licensed esthetician.
The Realities of Sustainable Packaging
While every effort to reduce waste should be applauded, it's crucial to remember sustainable packaging is a nuanced issue. There's no universally perfect solution, and there's ample room for brands to improve. With this in mind, there are several important intricacies to be aware of regarding sustainable packaging.
One of the most glaring issues surrounds the language and claims brands promote. Dieux co-founder Charlotte Palermino particularly finds flaws in hyperbolic marketing statements like, "We're the most sustainable brand in skincare."
"It's the bare minimum," she says. "For us, we have changed our language from saying 'we are sustainable' to 'sustainability is the goal.' It's a moving target, and as we get bigger, we create more waste. Our goal as a company is to make products that deliver on claims, choose the least harmful packaging, and give consumers the option for refills."
Dieux has adopted a decision matrix that helps them navigate the vast packaging options on the market. Palermino says the brand's packaging must be recyclable or reusable, easy to recycle (i.e., most facilities in the U.S. take it and actually recycle it), and the materials must move towards being made from non-virgin materials.
Another qualm rests in using terms like "zero-waste packaging" and "zero-carbon footprint." Palermino takes issue with the carbon offset schemes some beauty brands engage in to fit into these categories. "Instead of taking these measurements and the lack of recyclability of their products as a call to action to change, they'll plant some trees and continue with business practices that aren't sustainable," she notes.
For this reason, she encourages brands to focus less on fitting into buzzy labels and more on measuring impact. "We need to consistently benchmark ourselves to understand if we are doing better or worse," Palermino says. "Right now, brands say they are sustainable—in comparison to what? We need more metrics on the impact of products. Until then, it all feels like words and marketing plans."
Dieux is currently working with Bluebird Climate, a software platform that helps consumer brands measure, improve, and communicate the sustainability of their product. "We are in the process of doing an analysis on all our packaging and looking at options that help reduce our footprint," Palermino notes. "Our goal is to take action based on this analysis on how we can change our packaging and do yearly audits."
The Pros and Cons of Each Type of Packaging
While the responsibility falls on brands to do better, we can also take an active role in pushing the industry forward by educating ourselves on the various types of packaging. Ahead, we dive deeper into the most popular packaging options and their impact on the environment.
Plastic packaging has been a staple in the beauty industry because it's cheaper to use, durable, and lightweight to transport. However, it's not the most eco-friendly material. The production of plastic harms the environment as it is a by-product of greenhouse gas-emitting oil. As it continues through its life cycle, the presence of plastic can cause more issues.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports only 8.7% of plastics were recycled in 2018, meaning a significant amount of the remaining plastics sit in landfills or pollute the environment each year. A 2014 report noted not all recyclable plastic gets recycled "due to difficulties with the collection and sorting of plastic waste."
Non-recycled plastic often finds its way into wildlife habitats, posing several health risks to species. According to a 2009 report, "Over 260 species, including invertebrates, turtles, fish, seabirds and mammals, have been reported to ingest or become entangled in plastic debris, resulting in impaired movement and feeding, reduced reproductive output, lacerations, ulcers, and death."
There's been a push towards bioplastics to combat the mounting impact of plastic. This term refers to plastics that are either biodegradable or those that may or may not be degradable but are produced from biological or renewable materials.
In theory, biodegradable plastic is an improvement because the material is designed to be broken down through natural processes and prevent pollution. In reality, it's still complicated. "Many biodegradable plastics may not biodegrade rapidly enough under ambient environmental conditions to avoid accumulation from continuous inputs; and biodegradable plastics also can contaminate and disrupt the current recycling stream, due to their similar appearance, yet distinct makeup," researchers Emily J. North and Rolf U. Halden point out.
One of the most popular bioplastic materials, sugarcane is technically a better option because it is a renewable resource and doesn't depend on fossil fuels. However, many have drawn attention to its toll on the environment. In Brazil, the world's largest sugarcane producer, the manual cutting and burning of sugarcane has exposed workers to large amounts of pollutants that can adversely affect their health. The World Wildlife Fund also points out that sugarcane farming has led to deforestation in threatened ecosystems like Brazil's Atlantic Forest.
If brands are going to use plastic, post-consumer recycled plastic (plastic that has already been used once and has been repurposed) is one of the best ways to do so. This approach helps lessen the burden on the environment as less virgin materials are used and decreases the number of recyclable materials in landfills.
You've probably noticed some of your favorite products come in aluminum tubes or containers now. This is because of its clear sustainability perks as it is recycled and reused at a higher rate than plastic, ringing in at 34.9% in 2018.
Aluminum isn't without its pitfalls, though. The material is made from bauxite, a sedimentary rock that exists in high concentrations in Central and South America, West Africa, India, Vietnam, and Australia. Bauxite mining has been a topic of concern due to its environmental and social impact. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences stated extensive bauxite mining has contributed to severe environmental pollution in the Kuantan region—affecting access to clean and safe water, air, food, and shelter.
Humans Rights Watch has been vocal about the environmental and health consequences of bauxite mining in Guinea, Africa. The organization specifically takes issue with the low wages miners are paid (despite the nation being a top global exporter), and the threat dust produced from bauxite mining poses to their health.
Paper is one of the most environmentally-friendly packaging options. Some brands have begun to incorporate post-consumer recycled or FSC-Certified (the products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits) paper into various aspects of their packaging. Origins, for example, ensures all of its cartons are FSC-certified and that 55% of its packaging by weight is recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled, or recoverable.
Researchers Omobolanle O. Oloyede and Stella Lignou write: "Paper has the advantage of being bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable. Studies from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (Germany) showed a significantly lower impact of paper-based packaging on the environment compared to many other materials."
While it's a largely promising material, post-consumer recycled paper presents a few technical challenges for brands to navigate, like durability and compatibility with water-based formulas.
Glass is an attractive packaging alternative because it is a fully recyclable material and can be recycled repeatedly without compromising quality. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, 80% of recovered glass is made into new glass products.
In terms of impact on the environment, it's important to note high amounts of energy are required to melt glass. During the production process, carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) is emitted. However, the U.S Department of Energy notes American glass manufacturers are actively working to address energy efficiency and reduce emissions.
Airless packaging is a packaging system that doesn't allow air to contact the product. It's typically available in a pump form but can be used with jars, tubes, and other containers. This packaging method is extremely beneficial for consumers as it extends the shelf life of a product and reduces the risk of contamination. The one downside? Opting for airless packaging can be a pricey decision for brands.
When it comes to sustainability, airless packaging is another suitable option. "Airless packaging manufacturers started offering refillable airless packaging or one-material bottles, which allows the consumer to reuse or recycle their products," cosmetic scientist and founder of Stubborn Cosmetics Analise Branca previously told Byrdie.
Packaging is complex, especially when you bring sustainability into the fold. Opinions about the most eco-conscious and ethical packaging are constantly evolving. It's essential for beauty brands to continue fine-tuning their packaging philosophy as new information and resources become available. Despite the many nuances, the most important thing is that brands always keep the best interest of the planet and consumers top of mind when making decisions.
"Ultimately, there is no ethical consumption, and brands need to stop demonizing each other," Palermino says. "We all could be doing better. The only thing we can do is have less impact in our practices and pass that on to consumers."
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