The Rise of Eco-Friendly Packaging in Cosmetics

Consumers put pressure on companies to be more sustainable

Cosmetics brands are creating packaging that’s sustainable, refillable, plastic-free and even package-free. Getty Images

A growing number of brands—from megabrand L’Oréal to soon-to-be hair care line KIND2—are bucking the cosmetics industry’s reliance on plastic.

Thanks in part to pressure and demand from consumers, brands are turning their efforts to creating packaging that’s sustainable, refillable, plastic-free or “naked” (package-free).

With #shelfies and detailed skin care and beauty routines prominent on social media, forums and YouTube videos, pretty packaging is synonymous with luxury and self-care—and it’s not unusual for consumers to buy products based solely on packaging.

But the cosmetics industry has long had a plastics problem.

“At the moment, the way we consider a normal way of beautifying ourselves is through products that come in plastic containers,” said Rachael Wakefield-Rann, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, part of the University of Technology Sydney, who’s studied waste and sustainability in personal care products and cosmetics.

Estimates of the global market’s production of annual plastic packaging units range between 76.8 billion to over 120 billion. Most are not recyclable or compostable; nearly 70% of all plastic packaging goes to a landfill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But in recent years, brands like L’Oréal ushered in efforts to curb the use of virgin plastic. In an analysis, it found that 50% of the environmental footprint of a product is linked to its packaging, Danielle Azoulay, L’Oréal USA’s head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, told Adweek in an email.

For years, the brand had been moving toward more sustainable packaging with specific initiatives, but last year, it announced its commitment to make all of its plastic packaging rechargeable, refillable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 as part of an initiative called the New Plastics Economy led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“At the heart of all those efforts is a mission to minimize our dependence on single-use plastic,” Azoulay said. As part of meeting that goal, L’Oréal has already replaced 8,705 tons of virgin material with post-consumer recycled material.

It’s significant that brands like L’Oréal are making such commitments; L’Oréal represents 39% of the Asian, 25% of the North American, and 18% of the Western European cosmetics market—it also claims a 12.5% share of the e-commerce beauty market.

“Larger companies and the ones with the most market share in the industry, they’re in a position to be making the changes,” Wakefield-Rann said.

The gold standard in the hierarchy of sustainable packaging is package-free, or naked, products, Wakefield-Rann said. For cosmetics, that typically means creating solid products that don’t need containers.

One innovator in this area is Lush, the cosmetic retailer known for its solid bars; about half of its product range is naked, displayed in-store package-free and shipped to consumers.

Lush director of brand communications Brandi Halls said creating a line of package-free solid shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers and deodorants requires the product development stage.

Lush had to “think about how formulations can still have the effect of the original products, how do we make sure it works for customers” who are used to using liquid products, she said.

But now that’s part of the appeal. “We see the fact that our products are not packaged is an advantage. You can touch, you can feel, you can smell the products because we haven’t bottled it up,” Halls said.

To get consumers to move from common liquids to solid bars, education is a big component of Lush’s marketing. Through in-store demonstrations and a popular video series on YouTube, Lush teaches consumers how to select, use and store solid products.

For Sue Campbell, who is rolling out a plastic-free brand of solid shampoo and conditioner bars called KIND2, the next barrier to break is making these plastic-free products more readily available.

Campbell, like other consumers, began cutting down her use of plastic after seeing daily reminders of the pollution. She soon realized that her bathroom was ground zero for plastic waste, from toothpaste tubes to face cream bottles. “Everything is in plastic,” she said.

While she now exclusively buys plastic-free cosmetics, she saw a gap in the market. “Hair care was an area that was really underrepresented in the movement in sustainable packaging,” she said. “If you go to a supermarket, you simply can’t buy plastic-free shampoo.”

KIND2 will be sold online, but Campbell also hopes the line will be sold in zero-waste stores and eventually grocery stores. “It can’t be just niche stores,” she said. “Eventually it needs to go in supermarkets, which is where most people buy hair care.”

As brands move toward more sustainable packaging, there’s yet another consideration: cardboard, glass, aluminum and other common packaging materials are much more expensive; virgin plastic is often cheaper even than post-consumer recycled plastic.

“It’s going to be a huge challenge at least for the next few years at least until petrochemicals get more expensive to use,” Wakefield-Rann said. “Companies will have to make a decision based on morals rather than cost.”

But that’s where consumer demand will drive change. Wakefield-Rann said people are increasingly aware because they’re finding washed-up plastic on their local beaches or through campaigns showing plastic trash’s effect on marine life and oceans, and they’re finally demanding change.

“Those images really resonate with people and help them start understanding the problem,” she says. “If there is a role that individuals can play, it’s around putting pressure on brands.”

Treviño is a freelance journalist, with work appearing in the New York Times, Pacific Standard magazine, and other publications.