An alarming number of 120 billion units of cosmetic packaging is produced annually, globally. The environmental footprint in the skincare industry is a very hot topic and the main root of why sustainable packaging even exists. But of course, every brand approaches the conversation differently.
Brands have refillable cartons, airless containers, dissolvable sheets, etc. to help reduce their impact on the planet. And yes, every little bit counts, but it’s important to remember that a lot of sustainable packaging is a nuanced issue. Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution. There’s a bottomless amount of room for brands to improve. Many brands say they are “100% sustainable,” or “the most sustainable brand in skincare,” it’s all a load of bull.
Sustainability is the goal, but it is a moving target. The bigger brands get, the more waste they create. To claim sustainability, it must exist in your entire supply chain—which, a lot of brands don’t look into. Brands choosing the least harmful packaging, giving options for refill and biodegradable packaging, and making products that deliver on claims, have the right approach to sustainability. I believe the best thing brands can do is adopt a decision matrix (this might be different from brand to brand) and decide what their non-negotiables are and where they can improve.
Some brands believe in marketing terms like zero-waste packaging or zero-carbon footprint. Lately, I’ve seen a lot plant trees as a way to tell their customer they care, then go about business practices that aren’t sustainable. Instead of taking responsibility in their recycling measurements with call to actions, they do the bare minimum (read: performative) to fit into cushiony buzzy labels.
Brands need to consistently benchmark themselves to understand if they are doing better or worse. While the bulk of the responsibilities fall on the brands to do better, we as customers should be slow to purchase from brands that align with this mentality. Instead, each product a consumer is considering should be well-thought out and researched, to make sure it aligns with their values.
When a brand says they are sustainable, we should challenge it and ask how. There needs to be transparent metrics on the impact of products and business. Until then, it all feels like a marketing scheme. If you have any interest in eco-consumerism, now is the time to educate yourself on the various types of packaging. Ahead, we detail some of the main ones.
Types of cosmetic packaging
Known as one of the cheapest and lightweight options to transport, plastic is not an eco-friendly material. Plastic, a by-product of greenhouse gas-emitting oil, harms the environment every time it is produced. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 8.7% of plastics were recycled in 2018.
Translation: Over 90% of plastics made end up in landfills or pollute the environment further. Non-recycled plastics often end up in wildlife habits, endangering many species. For that reason, some brands and formalists dip their toes in bioplastics (biodegradable, or produced from renewable materials) to combat the impact of plastic. It’s designed to be broken down through natural processes and prevent pollution.
Recycled and reused at a higher rate than plastic, you might purchase a lot of skincare products that come in aluminum tubes or containers. It’s made from bauxite, a sedimentary rock in Central and South America, West Africa, India, Vietnam, and Australia. It can often cause environmental pollution — affecting clean and safe water, food, air, and shelter.
One of the most environmentally-friendly packaging options, it is bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable.
A fully recyclable material and has the option to be recycled repeatedly without compromising quality. However, high amounts of energy are required to melt glass. During the production process, carbon dioxide is emitted, so as long as the manufacture has systems in place that address energy efficiency and reduce emissions, glass is a fine material.
Essentially, this packaging doesn’t allow air to contact the product — helping it be more effective for a longer period of time. You’ll see airless products come in pump form, tubes, jars, and other containers. It’s the best material on the market for prolonged shelf life of a product and reduces the risk of contamination. However, it tends to be really pricey.
It’s not easy to be a sustainable cosmetic shopper. Brands are using technology to make it more simple, however.