By Lucia Fontaina Powell
For Earth Day 2023, we’re looking at how the beauty industry is adapting to ever-increasing climate concerns - and why brands need to build a plastic-free future.
These days, most of us know of the dangers of using chemical beauty products on our skin, both to our own health and to the environment.
As a result, the clean beauty industry has boomed. 1 in 3 beauty products in the US is now labelled as “clean” and the global market is expected to exceed $22 billion by 2024.
But when it comes to truly “clean” beauty, it’s not just the ingredients list on the back of the pot that we need to worry about. It’s the pot itself.
The global cosmetics industry churns out 120 billion units of packaging each year — from intricately designed lipstick tubes to the layers of cellophane that pad out Insta-ready beauty hauls.
And just like the chemical-heavy formulas they transport, all of this packaging is taking its toll. Particularly if that packaging is made of plastic.
What is the impact of plastic packaging on the environment?
The packaging industry is the biggest user of virgin plastic (that’s “new” plastic produced from natural gas or crude oil, i.e. non-recycled plastic).
For starters, turning fossil fuels into plastic has a whole set of environmental and health implications in itself.
The plastic production process releases toxic gases that contribute to air pollution, and if the chemicals found in plastics find their way into our system (for example, from food or cosmetics packaging), they can cause major and long-term disruption.
One of the main worries is our hormonal health. Chemicals like phthalates and BPA can upset the balance of our endocrine system, which produces and regulates our hormones, by actually mimicking our natural hormones. Research strongly suggests that this can lead to all sorts of reproductive and fertility problems (like lower testosterone levels and sperm count in men), and even cancer.
Of course, growing awareness around the dangers of plastic and its chemicals is the reason “clean” beauty and natural products have become so popular. But the biggest problem when it comes to plastic? Waste. And that’s why we need to tackle packaging.
Around 75% of all plastics produced before 2015 were thrown away. Or rather, they’re here to stay — because once plastic has found its way into the environment, it’s incredibly hard to get rid of.
Right now, 25 trillion macro and 51 trillion microplastics are littering our oceans, putting marine life in grave danger. Plastic pollution affects most marine species, from seagulls to whales, with entanglement and ingestion responsible for killing entire populations, and putting some on the brink of extinction.
Since the ocean influences the weather and climate of the whole planet, it’s vital that we protect marine life and ecosystems. And if we don’t act now, it’s predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans (source: UN Environment Programme).
Why are beauty brands still using plastic if it’s so bad?
It’s worth pointing out that plastic plays an important role in the global economy, and it’s pretty ingrained in our infrastructure. So it’s not possible to get rid of plastic packaging overnight — and in some industries, such as food and healthcare, plastic allows us to distribute products safely and hygienically.
However, when it comes to the beauty industry, consumers think brands can do better.
According to a study by GlobalWebIndex, 82% of consumers consider products with sustainable packaging more important than ever. And in the US and the UK, customers want brands to help them be more environmentally friendly in their daily lives. That means not only is it time for beauty brands to clean up their act, but it’s also time for them to stand for something.
“In the age of cancel culture and de-influencing, brands can’t afford to not listen to their customers,” says sustainability strategist, researcher and writer, Amy Nguyen. “Citizens have a huge sway in voicing their opinions and thoughts on industry standards and a company’s environmental performance, [and] they can write to brands and communicate on social media.”
Beyond the brands
But as Nguyen is keen to stress, it’s not just consumers that brands need to be talking to: “For the level of change we need, regulation must come from policymakers and brands need to collaborate and join forces through industry initiatives to lobby for urgent reform of plastic policies. The best thing a brand can do is advocate for change at a government level too.”
That’s why the British Beauty Council has formed its Sustainable Beauty Coalition, following their ground-breaking sustainability report, ‘Courage To Change’. Made up of industry experts, brand owners and industry body representatives from across the beauty sector, one of their goals is to create stronger frameworks and policies for the beauty sector in the UK with sustainability and green credentials as a key focus.
As The British Beauty Council explains in ‘Courage To Change’, “unlike other sectors, beauty lacks agreed standards to meet in the areas that matter the most. This lack of shared framework for action is a significant hindrance to accelerating positive impact.”
To move forwards, beauty needs to follow the examples set by other industries, like food and fashion, where universal standards and certifications offer guarantees about ingredients, impact and harm.
One such certification comes from The Soil Association, a charity that works with everyone — brands, governments and consumers alike — to transform the way we eat, farm and care for the natural world.
The Soil Association looks well beyond what’s inside beauty products to carry out a holistic analysis of a brand’s entire supply chain, manufacturing and storing processes. Their certification ensures organic integrity both in the ingredients (which must be 100% organic, with no chemicals like pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilisers) and packaging (which must be non-GMO, with no BPA, no bleached cardboard, no chlorine, no plastic materials/coatings/dyes or inks that contain phthalates if they will be in contact with food, and no PVC).
Looking for The Soil Association certification on a brand’s packaging is a really helpful way to ensure that a brand is walking the walk in its sustainability efforts. Another reliable sign is a COSMOS Organic or COSMOS Natural certification, which ensures both ingredients and packaging are made using no animal testing, no controversial chemicals, no parabens and phthalates, and no synthetic colours, dyes or fragrances.
As Paige Tracey, Business Development Manager at The Soil Association, points out, smaller startups and younger brands are well ahead of the industry stalwarts when it comes to obtaining these certifications:
“Although Soil Association Certification certifies beauty and wellbeing brands of all sizes, many of our certified brands are smaller-scale or start-ups. By certifying with us from their businesses’ inception, these brands are ensuring they go to market being as sustainable as possible by having their ingredients, formulations and processes audited by us to the international COSMOS Organic standard. They are ready to be industry disruptors and put some of the large multinationals, who would not pass our rigorous requirements, to shame.”
At Dr Jackson’s, we’re proud to be both Soil Association and COSMOS certified.
Going plastic-free: the solutions
While it’s necessary to be aware of the impact of plastic packaging, it’s important not to lose hope. There are people across the globe who are working to eliminate single use plastic and develop greener packaging alternatives, and the results are promising. So what are the solutions to packaging waste that can help us build a plastic-free future? Let’s take a look at the options.
A good place to start is facing up to the plastic packaging waste that’s already in the environment. Grassroots communities have sprung up all over the world, spearheading cleanup initiatives that are making fast work of eliminating plastic pollution: it’s estimated that plastic is being reduced at a rate of 43 million items per year, thanks to these campaigns.
Adding to the cosmetic industry’s growing rainbow, there’s a new movement of “blue beauty” brands making ocean-friendly products. One effort to solve the problem of marine pollution is by using plastic collected from beach cleanups (often referred to as “ocean-bound plastic or OBP) to make their packaging.
Next, we need to keep up the circularity. Beyond using recyclable or recycled materials, Nguyen notes that more brands are encouraging customers to return their packaging via in-store recycling boxes.
However, she warns that these schemes can be a form of greenwashing:
“There are limitations to recycling schemes like TerraCycle, which many beauty brands tout as their attempt to recycle packaging. In the last two years, TerraCycle has faced a lawsuit in the US for misleading labels on recyclability claims.”
In fact, only 7% of plastic waste actually makes it to the end of the recycling journey and is successfully repurposed. That’s why many brands are exploring another option…
Refills are hitting the mainstream, with very good reason: it’s a solution that cuts back on production and waste.
Rather than having to purchase a whole new bottle, pot or jar of your favourite product every time it run outs, brands are offering refill pouches to top up a one-time purchase starter kit.
It’s a smart solution, with the added benefit that brands will put more effort into creating packaging that’s a thing of beauty (at Dr Jackson’s we invest in thoughtful design to encourage our customers to reuse their empties).
Glass and paper can be more sustainable options than plastic, but brands and innovators are also experimenting with alternative materials.
For example, sustainable packaging startup notpla recently won Tom Ford’s Plastic Innovation Prize for its pioneering work creating “disappearing” packaging from plants and seaweed.
Cameron Saul, the founder of regenerative design brand BOTTLETOP, tells us why sustainability is no longer enough:
“We’re starting to see more and more brands take their environmental footprint more seriously and they’re replacing sustainable designs with regenerative designs. The biggest difference between the two is its lasting impact on our planet. Where sustainable designs seek to minimise waste and reduce negative impacts on the environment, regenerative designs take sustainability one step further and actually work to heal aspects of nature.”
That’s why BOTTLETOP partners with Parley Ocean Plastic®️ to create its signature handbags, made from plastic waste from remote islands, shorelines and waters in coastal communities.
Their regenerative mission also ecompasses the brand’s wider impact, with a big part of their design and campaigns focused on restoring and uplifting global communities: “At BOTTLETOP, we’re constantly trying to empower women, Indigenous communities and the natural world,” says Saul (their latest collection ‘Memphis Dream’ was created in partnership with the Yawanawá Indigenous community).
The reason this work is so vital is that the burden of plastic waste often falls on developing countries — particularly, women in developing countries. Historically, the majority of plastic has been produced by rich countries, then dumped in the poorest. It’s vital that we reverse this damaging practice in order to build a fairer and greener world.
Off course, there’s another solution that’s much less complicated than disappearing packaging and in-store recycling schemes: simply consuming less.
Being mindful of what we want versus what we truly need is something we can all do to reduce the impact of plastic packaging on the environment.
Plastic-free packaging at Dr Jackson’s
The plastic packaging problem is vast, and we’re just one brand (neither are we a packaging manufacturer). But at Dr Jackson’s, our mission has always been to challenge the status quo.
We aim to go far beyond being “eco-friendly”, and instead see ourselves as environmental activists. Not only have our natural, clean formulas won awards, but so has our zero waste packaging.
That’s because we skip the foil printing, plastic wrapping, coated or bleached paper, and polyester ribbons. Instead, we avoid using plastics as much as the packaging industry allows, choosing recyclable boxes and glass jars, and encouraging our customers to give their empties a second life.
From our biodegradable tea bags, right down to our bio-based printing inks, if we don’t think an industry norm is the most sustainable option, we’ll push our network of green-suppliers to find an alternative.
- Our packaging board comes from recycled paper or well-managed, sustainable FSC-certified forests
- Our wellness teas are packed in paper tubes
- Our OneEarth® teabags are 100% biodegradable — made from a heat-sealable plant starch material derived from non-GMO sugarcane, they come inside a compostable and renewable NatureFlexTM bag
- Our products are internationally certified as Vegan, Soil Association Organic, Soil Association Cosmos Natural, FairWild, and Leaping Bunny cruelty-free.
Plus, we’re committed to giving back to the planet and its people. We’re proud members of 1% for the planet and donate our profits to regenerative projects, like Baobab conservation.
How can you go plastic-free?
Earth Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our relationship with the planet, and how we can take better care of it. So this year, we’re encouraging fellow beauty brands and consumers alike to rethink our use of plastic. Let’s use our imaginations boldly and bravely to build a plastic-free future.