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Pretty Ugly: Why the Beauty Industry is in Dire Need of Sustainable Packaging

ByDave Stopher

Jul 1, 2021

Not one of those “I’m a journalist and need a good way to illustrate my point, so I’ll just make something up”, but an actual true story. Not too long ago, I jumped online and ordered some cosmetics from a local big box store. As we were currently smack in the middle of ravenous lockdowns, I took to my computer in order to snag some of my (less than) daily essentials, ones that I would normally just pop to the shops for. It wasn’t much, an eyebrow pencil and tube of mascara. Shipping was free, and all and all the e-commerce laden experience was a pleasant one.

Two days later, I’m presented (by my harried, but always incredible post lady) with a box, roughly the size of a loaf of bread. My first instinct was to give this large and somewhat suspicious package back to said postal associate, as I couldn’t imagine what it was that I had ordered. But, I saw the return label, the box store’s logo and quickly remembered my purchase. Yes, inside this cardboard canyon was indeed my small, 0.04 gram pencil of eyebrow color and accompanying 8.5 g tube of lash paint. To ensure the safety of my purchases, both were encased in a thin film of heat shrunk plastic, as well as their own decorative cardboard box, cased delicately in bubble wrap. Following that, a metric mile of puffed plastic pouches were also along for the ride. Making the unboxing of my semi-standard purchase an event to behold. I felt like Indiana Jones unearthing some sort of archaeologically significant artifact.

What is it that the post office encounters on such a regular occurrence that could necessitate a veritable bomb shelter for an already fairly formidable tube of face paint? Suddenly, I worried for my post lady and her relative safety. In what world are we living in that layers upon layers of protective materials are applied to something that can survive the depths of my purse? Outside of the cardboard box it came in, none of the packaging was biodegradable, and only a small amount of it was recyclable. These are the types of purchases that are made on the regular, all over the world. Suddenly the weight of that package felt much heavier than when it was handed to me. We are in a dire situation, and that situation necessitates sustainable packaging. Not just for the products themselves, as that’s a whole new barrel of worms— but for the shipment companies.

EEeee! Commerce

In the United Kingdom alone, there are an estimated 58.8 million people who engage in e-commerce. The industry is booming. Not just because of the coronavirus, although that’s definitely increased trends, but because we’re now interacting with online purchasing at a rate that dwarfs any previous years. And it’s a trend that’s only predicted to grow. Where e-commerce packaging alone is expected to reach a blinding $98.2 billion by 2025. With global markets on a whole projected at over $1 trillion.

Which is great news for online retailers, and even local mom and pops alike. Creating an accessible marketplace with wide reach for anyone who’s interested. In the modern era, online shopping has been a way where most retailers can find common footing in the marketing and order fulfilment game, whether that’s through the use of social media advertising campaigns or via large marketplaces like Etsy or Amazon. The beauty industry is a big gainer in this area, where online beauty outlets have been shown to grow 4x faster than brick and mortar stores. In the United States, one out of every $3 spent on beauty products is spent online, and statistics in Europe report similar results. Which could be thanks to the beauty bloggers and vloggers that dominate social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.

But with great power comes great responsibility, or so they say. If the industry is booming, and stores of all sizes and in any location are benefitting, what lengths are they willing to go to provide better packaging for their products? Because not only has beauty been dominating the e-commerce space— it’s also consuming our oceans. Where 12.7 million tonnes of plastic end up each year. To the point where micro plastics are present in nearly every new generation of sea life, our tap water, and ourselves. So while we spend insane amounts of cash to make ourselves beautiful on the outside, we’re actively demolishing our insides. Single use plastics are one of the biggest contributors to this mess, and the beauty industry is responsible for a huge amount of it.

One 50mL bottle of anti-aging creme was tested and found to have 1.48 million micro plastic particles in the creme. Now, compound those ingredients with the decorative product packaging, and any packaging related to e-commerce and it’s easy to see why the time for better solutions has come.

Zero Waste, Added Expense?

However, many brands are unable, or completely amotivated, to change their product ingredients— which could be understandable, as these formulas have been specifically created to behave in certain ways. But if we can’t count on our products to cut the plastic, we have to rely on the packaging not to compound the problem. This is because of the superfluous nature of the packaging to begin with. As the lion’s share of packaging is used for aesthetics or shipping— having no relevance in product performance whatsoever.

Reduction may not solve the problem at hand, but it can definitely help, and shouldn’t be ignored. As 95% of the packaging our products come in is considered single-use, and a mere 9% of it ever gets recycled, we need to rethink these strategies at minimum. If, say, beauty companies dedicated themselves to using non-virgin plastics, fully biodegradable aesthetic packaging, and the shipping materials were also biodegradable, we could see millions of tonnes of environmental plastic reduction. Using recycled and non-virgin packaging is slowly starting to become a trend among some of the biggest names in beauty. Lush is a great example.

As these companies continue to transform their own packaging, shipping materials should pay close attention to the example they’re leading with. Creating sustainable packaging, as well as biodegradable, and recyclable to keep your conscious products safe. Which could serve to save you, and shipping companies, money in the long run. While it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that sustainable packaging is more expensive to produce than plastics, the truth is, they often aren’t. However, because of low demand, creating low market competition, sustainable packaging is often seen as a great expense. But should demands change, so too should price, and the health of our planet.