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The beauty industry has a packaging problem

Given the effects of climate change and other environmental disasters, many consumers are looking to be more sustainable with their shopping habits. It’s common to go after easy wins in this situation—bring reusable bags to the grocery store, buy cleaning bottles that can be refilled, recycle whenever possible—but there are sneaky culprits going largely unnoticed by consumers.


The beauty industry is one such culprit. According to beauty mag Allure, in 2018, the United States produced almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic for beauty and personal care items. Unfortunately, it's not just the exterior boxes that products arrive in. The waste also includes jars and bottles themselves, which are almost always tossed out after use. Very few beauty brands offer products that are refillable or recyclable in any capacity, meaning that every product leaves a waste shell behind.

Plus, similar to the fast fashion industry, beauty consumers often have a “more is more” mentality to their purchases. Many see no problem with purchasing products just to try them out despite having other similar products that are already working well. Heavy marketing also draws in buyers, who feel like they have to try the latest brands and formulas whether or not they’re actually in the market for the products they’re buying.


So, how do we solve this packaging problem?


The good news is that many brands are taking notice. Tata Harper is using reusable packaging to limit waste. Loli is a beauty brand that keeps sustainability in mind for both packaging and ingredients - their formulas come from food waste and they don't even add any water to their products. Larger companies like the L’Oréal Group and Procter & Gamble have put processes in place to mitigate the industry’s waste. However, some of these brands (particularly bigger companies) still use a large amount of plastic packaging.


The conversation currently focuses on two distinct solutions: increasing the availability of refillable containers that don’t have to be discarded after a single use and expanding the use of recyclable materials that consumers can send back to the brand. While these measures are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, they don’t address the issue of excessive consumption in the first place.


To solve that problem, we may need more widespread adoption of minimalist shopping practices. Alternatively, brands could focus their marketing on encouraging buyers not to buy products without a purpose. Patagonia took this approach to the fashion industry with its “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, showing consumers all the waste involved in its production and urging them only to buy if they really need it.


Only time will tell how brands and consumers choose to solve this problem in the long term—although time is a scarce resource when it comes to sustainability. As a consumer, you can take this information to heart and help to move the tide in the right direction.