sustainable packaging beauty hero

Today’s beauty brands are finding a more sustainable future through packaging innovations

Retailers and manufacturers in the personal care and beauty category are seeking ways to reduce waste.

Beauty is notorious for its wasteful packaging. The industry produces more than 120 billion units of plastic packaging each year, according to Zero Waste Week. About 95% of that is discarded after use. Add to that miles of cellophane, paper waste and cardboard, and it becomes one of the worst offenders for the world’s waste problem.

For years beauty brands embedded products in excess packaging for two reasons: the perception that elaborate boxes and adornments equated to luxury and the need to protect against pilferage. 

The personal care and beauty category is only one piece of a bigger problem. Each year 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally and only 16% of that is collected for recycling. Worse yet, only 12% is actually recycled, according to McKinsey & Company. Twenty-five percent is incinerated, 40% goes to landfills and 19% ends up as litter.

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Signs of change are coming. “The U.S. is entering a new era of consumption where sustainability-based values are increasingly influencing purchasing decisions,” said Tara James Taylor, senior vice president of beauty and personal care vertical at NielsenIQ. 

NielsenIQ’s research reports that 46% of beauty and personal care shoppers would pay more for products with sustainability features. Almost 43% of those shoppers would pay more for products with recyclable packaging.

Americans have finally gotten the message, and retailers and manufacturers have responded. L’Oréal, Unilever, Burt’s Bees, Target, Walmart and CVS are among the industry leaders that have published goals calling for ways to reduce waste. Smaller brands such as Spinster Sisters, Urban Hydration, HiBAR, Pacifica and Raw Sugar built their brands on sustainable packaging and responsible ingredients and have been catalysts for change. 

“The U.S. is entering a new era of consumption where sustainability-based values are increasingly influencing purchasing decisions.” — Tara James Taylor, senior vice president of beauty and personal care vertical, NielsenIQ
sustainable beauty web

“We need action now from companies, retailers, governments and consumers to tackle the climate change and waste crises we are seeing,” said Niki King, head of sustainability at Unilever. “The really heartening details we’re seeing in data is that there’s increased interest in making a difference across the board.”

Jennifer Walsh, a former beauty retailer and biophilic expert, said the time has come for the industry to change. “As the beauty industry continues to explode in growth and scale, we as an industry have a moral obligation to create packaging that is more sustainable. We can’t go on making products like we used to, where sustainability was either not thought about or just an afterthought,” she said. “There is so much waste in the packaging and most of it is completely unnecessary. I think we are going to see more and more brands going ‘naked’ without any packaging at all.” 

That is welcome news to Nora Schaper, who co-founded HiBAR with a goal to create a movement away from single-use plastic. The breaking point was seeing plastic strewn while walking on a beach. While working in the personal care industry supplying natural products retailers, Schaper and her husband realized they could eliminate the need for packaging, especially single-use plastic. “We were eager to do something for the planet. Our mission is to inspire people to do things differently,” she said.

[Read more: Packaging innovations for sustainability]

HiBAR started with shampoo and conditioners in uniquely shaped bars to reduce the alarming statistic that half a billion shampoo and conditioner bottles are tossed every year. Many products require packaging, she said, because the formulas are more than 80% water. Removing water eliminates packaging but not performance. “We intended to eliminate the plastic, but since then we have thousands of reviews where people talk about how their hair health has improved. When you take the water out and you have a concentrated bar, it works better,” she said. 

The pandemic actually helped push HiBAR’s sales, she said, because while people were at home, they were more likely to try new products. In social listening the company undertook during the pandemic, Schaper said conversations about plastic waste increased 3,000%.

Unilever put doing better for the earth on the front burner.

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“We need action now from companies, retailers, governments and consumers to tackle the climate change and waste crises we are seeing. The really heartening details we’re seeing in data is that there’s increased interest in making a difference across the board.” — Niki King, head of sustainability at Unilever.

“In packaging, we are excited about our recent launch of Dove’s refillable body wash, which is now available at major retailers including Target, Walmart and Amazon,” King said.

Matt Kuhlman, co-founder of Purezero Beauty, said being conscious of plastic usage has always been part of the brand’s mission since it was founded in 2018. “We were originally working off a five-year road map to complete carbon neutrality, and we’ve already delivered on that goal in just over three years after our recent Carbonfree Product Certification, a globally recognized carbon-neutral designation from,” he said.

“That road map included the implementation of a carbon life cycle analysis, which helped us identify areas in which our business was creating carbon emissions and solutions to reduce them, including sourcing sustainable packaging materials,” Kuhlman said.

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Using the analysis, Purezero was able to decrease the amount of plastic in its bottles. “We originally produced a 12-oz. bottle containing 30 g of HDPE plastic and have successfully updated our bottle mold to decrease the net plastic to 24 g — a 20% decrease — just by modifying the thickness of our bottles’ plastic walls.” The company has a three-year goal to achieve 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, or PCR, bottles. 

Spinster Sisters is another trailblazer in responsible ingredients and reduced packaging. Founder and CEO Kelly Perkins started making her own soap and skin care in the 1990s with a goal to avoid toxic ingredients. According to Hannah Faust, director of brand strategy, the company now has more than 36 SKUs across skin, hair, bath and body. 

The brand also has new items in the pipeline, including bath bombs, shower steamers, body butter and a Free From plastic-free line. “We are in R&D to develop additional plastic-free SKUs as we are committed to be a plastic-free skin care brand,” Faust said.

Supply chain issues have made it harder to secure sustainable supplies, but it has also opened the door to new and innovative partnerships, Faust said. 

Caitlin O’Keefe, partner in the consumer practice at consultancy firm Kearney, confirmed that supply issues could impede sustainability efforts. “Advances in supply chain innovation are unfortunately being set back, especially for mass beauty,” she said. “Part of that is that post-consumer recycled materials or PET are more expensive or not available.” Some brands have even had to change packaging from touting 70% PCR to “made with recyclable” content. “There is still the focus to deliver on the promise, but it is becoming more expensive and set back a little.”


Product picks

Seed Phytonutrients Balancing Shampoo Powder, SRP: $24
This shampoo powder is infused with sunflower and camelina seed oils, transforming into a creamy foam once water is added. Hair will be left cleansed with volume, bounce and shine, according to the company.

HiBAR Solid Face Wash, SRP: $14.95
HiBAR has expanded beyond shampoo and conditioner bars with a solid face wash. A 2-oz. bar is designed to last as long as one 8-oz. bottle. The formulas do not contain soap, mineral oils, parabens, sulfates or phthalates and the packaging is plastic free.

Gelo Hand Soap, SRP: $15 
Gelo products feature biodegradable refills and reusable bottles made from 100% recyclable glass. Along with Gelo Refill Pods, the system reduces packaging waste by 97% when compared to ordinary single-use bottles.

FusionPKG Tru Jar
New from FusionPKG is Tru Jar. Recycling has to start with the contract manufacturers where brands secure their packaging. FusionPKG offers its Tru Jar, which achieves an elevated look with a bottle that features high levels of PCR without excess materials.

E.l.f. Cosmetics Clear Lip Lacquer, SRP: $3
E.l.f. stripped away its secondary cartons, vacuum-formed trays and paper insert cards with its Project Unicorn. Since then, the brand has eliminated over 1 million lbs. of packaging waste. One SKU, the Clear Lip Lacquer, has shed 66,000 lbs. of packing. Its new packaging has sustainably sourced cartons that are made with Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper.

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