The Balance Of Being Sustainable: The Battle To Create Ethical Products The Consumers Want.

sustainable packaging
Olivia Alcorn
by: Olivia Alcorn
Recycled packaging, refillable products and sustainable ingredients- the beauty industry has started to reflect the growing expectations from consumers for their favourite brands to take a more sustainable approach. 

Corporate social responsibility from skincare and beauty brands of all sizes has started to change their marketing messaging as a direct response, but is it possible for brands to change their entire businesses to meet these expectations?

We explore whether it’s possible to create sustainable packaging for our favourite products, the use of sustainable buzzwords and what they really mean, as well as sustainability and ingredients.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Packaging

From measuring the Co2 emissions created from making packaging, to the air miles behind sourcing ingredients, more brands than ever are making sustainable changes to their businesses to meet consumer expectations. 

Reducing the amount of packaging is one of the main demands from consumers, as recycling rates have drastically increased every year since 2005 and in 2020 45% of UK households recycled their waste. 

However, whilst the appetite for recycling as much as we can is there, what about the emissions it takes to make packaging recyclable in the first place?

Using widely recyclable packaging such as aluminium to replace single-use plastics may sound more sustainable, but making it creates a huge amount of CO2. Whilst other materials such as ceramics and cotton are considered reusable or recyclable, making them has a significant impact on emissions which companies need to take into consideration when changing packaging longer term.

In January 2021, our team joined the Beauty Trends conference which covered the kinds of changes we can expect to see in packaging and brand commitments to sustainability. One of the images supplied by skincare brand L’Occitane highlights the amount of CO2 generated from the main materials skincare and beauty brands use for products.

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We still have a long way to go to improve creating sustainable alternatives but brands like The Body Shop are beginning to explore refillable options, and empty swap schemes, as seen by the new brand Function of Beauty, are becoming more popular. Global beauty brand, L’Oreal, recently announced their ‘bottle of the future’ made of entirely recycled plastic. 

Source: L’oreal

This kind of innovative move might seem like an industry break-through for all beauty brands but, unfortunately, it won’t be available until at least 2025. Whilst it provides a wider solution for brands outside of L’Oreal, this kind of innovation takes a lot longer to be adopted by both consumers and companies around the world.

Currently, all of these innovations from the industry are in a trial stage, coming with higher costs for staffing, postage and retail space, compared to simply using single-use plastics. It’s great to see significant changes but the industry has been slower to respond to creating more sustainable alternatives.

The Beauty Industry Is Aiming To Remove Cello Wrap

There is another fear within the industry that removing single-use cello wrap or plastic bottles can be a risk for brands, particularly higher-end or traditional brands whose consumers may expect the additional packaging. Their concern is that their consumers have expectations about how products are packaged. 

By simplifying packaging and getting rid of cello wrap and replacing it with recycled cardboard, you can save money and meet more sustainable expectations, as the image above shares.

The industry is currently on target globally to stop using cello wrap by 2022 with France going a step further to ban the ‘compostable’ claim on packaging. The country is cracking down on the misleading use of the word ‘compostable’ on items that can’t be composted at home. This is a great start within the industry but with so many brands using sustainable buzzwords in their new messaging, it can be hard as a consumer to know what they actually mean.

The Importance Of Transparency

There are plenty of phrases such as ‘clean’ and ‘eco-friendly’ that brands can use that are considered misleading as they aren’t specific but can be used freely in messaging. 

Claims like ‘cruelty-free’ for example, allows brands to create the impression their product is vegan (free of any animal derivatives) when in fact it just means the ingredients haven’t been tested on animals. However, a lot of skincare and beauty products are naturally vegan as they’re largely man-made products.

There’s also an ongoing dispute within the industry too with the buzzword ‘clean’ and what brands mean when using it. The industry is divided by the ongoing ‘clean’ debate as consumer demands for skincare and beauty items that are seemingly natural or ‘clean’ in both packaging and physical products. Brands are using the ‘clean claim’ as an umbrella buzzword to cover both sustainability and ‘non-toxic’ products which reach two main priorities for consumers.

Read: Brace Yourself For The Emerging Trend: ‘Clean Beauty’ now.

Using jargon phrases when it comes to ingredients is also a growing trend within the industry, with consumers becoming more educated on what’s in their skincare and looking for alternatives. 

Our latest whitepaper discusses using ingredient-focused longtail keywords in search and the mixed success both traditional and emerging brands have targeting ingredient-led buzzwords online.

Beauty and skincare brands need to recognise their own sustainability challenges and make transparent commitments to consumers to change them instead of changing their marketing messaging to suit the current narrative. 

And it’s not just packaging brands should review. The ingredients in our favourite products can also have a negative impact on the environment.

Sustainability And Active Ingredients- Can They Work Together?

There are plenty of brands that have always had a focus on using natural materials with no ‘active’ ingredients, as they often use emissions to create. 

Brands like Kiehl’s and Neal’s Yard don’t feature key active ingredients in their products due to the carbon footprints they create. Speaking at the beauty conference earlier in 2021, the Neal’s Yard team shared their passion about being an organic beauty company using 92% of ingredients that are certified organic. They also champion refill schemes from their stores in the UK and have never used microbeads or other single-use plastics.

Another brand sharing its own sustainable journey, The INKEY List, has been transparent about where it can’t be as sustainable as its team would like as the demand for ‘active ingredients’ from the brand is too high. 

This is another debate that continues within the industry as active ingredients are synthetic or man-made and this impacts sustainability for businesses too.

Reaching Carbon Neutral For The Beauty Industry

In an ideal world, brands should be avoiding packaging altogether, using refill schemes or solid toothpaste and shampoos. However, to get to that truly ‘sustainable’ position, brands would need to fundamentally change their businesses and how they function.

It’s key for brands to be transparent and honest with their consumers about their sustainability efforts, and during the process avoid ‘greenwashing’. This happens when brands use jargon buzzwords to stay relevant without actually making sustainable changes to their business. 

Reaching a carbon-neutral state might not be an ideal change for more established brands, but it needs to be a consideration for everyone within the industry. By making smaller commitments like sourcing ingredients from the same country to keep airmiles down and replacing single-use packaging with refill options, brands have the potential to make significant and irreversible changes to their carbon footprint.

Consumers are more likely to adopt sustainable behaviours at the early stages of engaging with brands and if the brand is new, like British make-up brand Spectrum, it promotes the right sustainable changes from the beginning. 

Arguably, it’s far easier for smaller or indie brands to start up with a sustainable approach to their brand, compared to more established brands changing their whole business approach to reduce their carbon footprint.

There is a long way to go globally to reduce the carbon footprint from the beauty and skincare industry but with more brands of all sizes starting to review their own impact, it’s moving in the right direction.

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