Aluminum, soy-based ink, and more: How beauty brands are making packaging sustainable

Materials like mixed plastics are increasingly being left behind.
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5 min read

As an editor at Doré, a New York-based lifestyle publication, back in 2014, Neada Deters was used to testing beauty products on the regular. Every week, it felt like there was a new serum or moisturizer to try, an exciting proposition for a beauty lover.

But Deters also felt a pang of guilt as the wasteful packing materials—like plastic and bubble wrap—piled up.

She didn’t forget that feeling when she started her own beauty line, Lesse, in 2018: The organic skin care brand is focused on sustainable ingredients as well as packaging.

“We always use glass or aluminum—that’s always been our focus,” Deters told Retail Brew. “There’s a lot of information out there about the weight of products and what that really means, but when you really dive into the numbers of it, and the impact that it has, single-use plastic is far worse for the environment. Not only the way that it’s made, but how little it’s recycled.”

  • Only ~9% of plastic tossed out in the US was recycled in 2018, per EPA estimates. Meanwhile, the agency found aluminum’s recycling rate to be nearly 35%.

Heavy metal: Aluminum was the material of choice for Uni, too, which this month debuted a range of body and hair care products. Its packaging is refillable and fully recyclable; its founder and CEO, Alexandra Keating, also told us that the products come with an aluminum dispenser that can be used for two years or longer.

After that? “You basically send it back, and we take it apart,” she explained.
“The only alternative is to use surgical stainless steel…but it’s very expensive.”

Beauty brand Aveda, which has been around since 1978 (and is now owned by Estée Lauder), also found a sustainable solution in aluminum for its professional hair color tubes, noted Edmond Irizarry, the company’s executive director of packaging development. And even when Aveda does rely on plastic, it has committed to using post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR).

  • Unlike mixed plastics, which are hard to separate and recycle, PCR uses materials that were previously discarded, including paper, plastic, cardboard, and aluminum.
  • More than 85% of Aveda’s “skin care and hair styling PET bottles and jars contain 100% post consumer recycled materials,” per the company.

“When there are gaps or materials availability, we go out and we start creating those things,” Irizarry told us. In 2008, for example, when the company couldn’t recycle its rigid plastic caps, it “created a commercial stream for recycled polypropylene that at the time didn’t exist in the United States.”

Spread out: Jack Albanese, director of new business development at Lombardi Design and Manufacturing—which makes plastic-mold containers, compacts, and caps for beauty companies including Estée Lauder, Tom Ford, and DKNY—noted, too, beauty’s broader shift towards going green.

“The sector is certainly, without a doubt, moving in that direction towards greater and greater levels of sustainability, but that it is on a project-by-project basis as to what that means,” he noted.

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In full force: Jaclyn Ferber, co-founder and head of product at nail-care brand Tenoverten, said when the company decided to move toward 50% PCR inclusion for its product packaging, she expected it to be a challenging undertaking. But she’s been pleasantly surprised to see the company, on average, exceed the target.

“We didn’t want to create tools that were single-use,” she told us, “that were [at] low price points that people were buying over and over again. So we decided to very intentionally offer a more premium product that spans the test of time. You keep it forever.”

  • A standard nail polish from Tenoverten, for example, goes for $12.

Pay up: Using PCR, while sustainable, certainly comes at a cost given the limited amount of recycled resin available, explained Caitlin O’Keefe, partner in the consumer practice at Kearney.

  • “What is available is typically significantly more expensive than using virgin resin,” she said. “It’s often impossible to secure supply or to get it at a cost that’s reasonable in some instances.”

Ferber noted that using PCR “does slightly affect the margins,” but that the company “really take[s] on most of that impact.”

Deters, of Lesse, noted a similar point: “It’s definitely a much more costly endeavor for us. Our overall cost of packaging is pretty substantial in comparison to what you’ll see from other companies, but we really think it’s worth it.”

What’s next? Expect a shift toward “packaging that simply disappears,” predicts Clare Varga , WGSN’s director of beauty.

“A growing number of beauty brands are experimenting with dissolvable packaging in a bid to lessen their environmental impact and reduce packaging waste,” she told us via email. “Water-soluble solutions allow consumers to wash empty packs down the drain—a tangible solution that encourages consumer participation in the fight against the climate crisis.”

  • Deters, for instance, started using soy-based ink for the print on Lesse’s packaging two years ago. She said it helps the materials break down in “less than half the time.”

Chemically recycled plastic, a newer technological innovation, is also picking up steam, noted Albanese—and positioned itself as an alternative to PCR, which, although a sustainable option, can erode the quality of the product.

  • “With every use of post-consumer recycled plastic, there is a potential tradeoff in terms of color or construction or cost,” he said.

All this progress is exciting, but how close are we to beauty packaging being 100% recyclable?

“Fully recyclable, of course, is the grand prize,” Albanese said. “We’re not there yet as an industry, and it’ll come at a cost. What choices can you use to make a package? And what tradeoffs are you willing to make?”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.