How will beauty brands meet new sustainable standards?

Marketing Assistant, Annabelle Mayor, explores the state of sustainability within the beauty industry and what brands are doing to tackle consumers’ increasing concerns.

By Annabelle Mayor
Posted 29. 05. 2019

The spotlight on beauty only seems to be shining brighter. New brands spring up on a frequent basis; others enjoy explosive growth. Beauty influencers attract even more views and likes. Customers continue to add to their shopping carts wanting to try out the latest hit products.

The industry is certainly thriving. In 2017, it was valued at $456 billion; by 2032, it’s estimated it will rise to $905 billion. However, concerns over the industry’s sustainability are also growing. Stylish packaging and the promise of an effective formula are often what draws us to beauty products, but at the same time these are wreaking havoc on the environment.

The packaging problem

Every year, more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the cosmetics industry worldwide. It generates 70 per cent of the industry’s waste, filling up landfills or littering the environment. Plastic packaging in particular is a huge concern both inside and outside of the beauty industry. 50 per cent of all plastic is used just once before it’s discarded, a stat made even more alarming by the fact that plastic can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. The BBC series Blue Planet II raised awareness of plastic pollution in our oceans, where more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up each year. By 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Plastic Pollution

Bad ingredients

When it’s not used to package the product, plastic can sometimes be found in formulas. Microbeads, tiny balls of plastic, are commonly used in scrubs and other beauty products. Thousands of tonnes of them end up in the ocean each year where they’re ingested by fish and other sea creatures. They’ve even been reported to have made their way up the food chain to humans. In recent years, several countries have banned the use of microbeads in products.

There’s a plethora of other cosmetic and skincare ingredients that are detrimental to the environment. The widespread use of palm oil (across multiple industries) has led to the destruction of habitats. Around 8% of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008 is believed to be down to palm oil production as forest land is burned down to make space for oil palm trees. Silicones are another common beauty ingredient and while they’re recyclable, they’re not biodegradable. Traces of silicones have been found in plants and sea life.

What does this mean for brands?

Both companies and consumers have started to address their concerns over the beauty industry’s sustainability. Recycled and recyclable packaging is becoming more and more common. Lush has been expanding its collection of packaging-free ‘naked’ products. It’s also opened Naked shops in several cities, which are stocked exclusively with naked products as well as contain libraries with books on sustainability. Skincare brand Ren has created a 100% recycled bottle, with 20% of it made from reclaimed ocean plastic. Multiple brands now have recycling programmes where customers can bring product packaging back to stores to be used again.

Ros argan soap in use
© Lush

Water-free beauty products are also on the rise. The UN predicts two-thirds of the world’s population could face water scarcity by 2025 due to climate change, population growth, rural to urban migrations and our current consumption rates. Consumers are becoming more aware of water usage and the thought that water may be a luxury in the future. Companies are responding too – L’Oreal is aiming to reduce 60% of water consumption per finished product by 2020 compared to 2005. Unilever is also working to reduce its ‘water footprint’. Brands like PWDR formulate their products to be mixed with water before use so they can be stored in smaller, lighter containers, cutting down on packaging and shipping weight.

Demand for natural or clean beauty products has been on the rise, partly down to consumers believing these are safer for their skin. However, the world of natural beauty isn’t clear-cut; companies are free to label a product natural or clean according to their own definition. However, the growing preference for natural ingredients over plastics or other synthetics is leading to more products being developed with sustainable ingredients. Retailers are also taking note of this trend. Sephora has a “Clean at Sephora” category on their website where brands free from certain ingredients appear with a special seal marking them as such. Credo, launched in 2015, has been dubbed the Sephora of clean beauty, selling a curated range of natural beauty products online and in several US locations.

Reversing the beauty industry’s adverse effects on the environment is going to take a long time. Packaging, formulas, production processes and other factors will need to change alongside consumer habits. However, there’s plenty of opportunity to innovate in order to meet new sustainable standards. As more and more people get on board with sustainable beauty and brands make more efforts to be environmentally conscious, progress will continue to be made.

Key takeouts:

  • Consumers are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of products and brands.
  • Every year, the beauty industry produces billions of units of packaging and many products are made up of unsustainable ingredients.
  • In response, recycled and recyclable packaging is becoming more common and some brands are starting to ditch packaging altogether.
  • Retailers are creating product categories dedicated to ‘clean beauty’ – products free from ingredients harmful to people’s health and the environment.

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