Small Brands Are Shaping the Future of Sustainability in Beauty

Photo: Getty/triocean
Right now, small brands are doing everything they can to stay afloat. And for the health of the planet, let’s hope that they do. It’s the indie labels that are making real progress towards creating a more sustainable beauty industry—and have been since before it was cool. Rather than slowly righting the wrongs of decades-old poor production ethics, the newcomers are delivering solutions. Solutions like reusable staples, refillable containers, waterless formulas, local sourcing, reforestation initiatives—ideas that started from founders who realized healthier options weren’t yet available en masse. Their missions to shake our longtime reliance on disposable products beg a closer look at the long game—in every possible way.

With the personal care industry being a top contributor to packaging waste, it’s worth taking a minute to assess what we really need from any brand. “Beauty packaging is tricky from a sustainability perspective because it's often composed of a mixture of metal, glass, plastic, and sometimes paper—and they're often not very reusable,” says Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. “Think of a foundation pump that can't be opened, let alone refilled, or a traditional razor cartridge, which is typically a blend of metal, plastic, and other polymers,” she points out. Once these items are used up, the mixed materials mean that there’s no real way to recycle them. (Many of us don't even see the bottom of the bottle before tossing it in the trash. “Recent surveys show that women treat their beauty regimens much like their wardrobes," says Piper. "We tend to own an average of 40 makeup products, but use only five, about 12.4 percent.”)

The packaging issue is only the tip of the sustainability iceberg. Below, we spotlight the sustainable moves that brands are making in hopes to create greater change (and greater demand) as we reimagine our own routines.

1. Graduating from disposables

It’s no longer a secret that much of what gets thrown in your recycling bin is never recycled. “Some of the 4.1 pounds of trash individual Americans produce each day can be recycled, but according to the EPA, even though 75 percent of our waste is recyclable, only 30 percent actually makes it into the recycling stream,” says Piper. Plus, recycling still requires a ton of energy. “Before you recycle, think about reducing, reusing, and repurposing items already in your possession,” Piper suggests.

One way to reduce and reuse is to cut back on your use of disposables in the first place, even ones you think are bio-friendly. For instance: “Cotton production is problematic—it often involves child labor and the nastiest pesticides, but it’s also a massive water hog,” says Amanda McIntosh, founder of Take My Face Off. “A cotton ball takes about 17 ounces of water—about the volume of one S’well water bottle—to grow. This doesn’t even cover the processing, which uses more.” Furthermore, cotton is usually combined with plastic before it's doused with some sort of makeup-removing formula to produce disposable wipes.

Indie brands are helping to solve this issue by coming up with reusable solutions that stick around for far longer than one simple use. According to McIntosh, a single Mitty Mini ($10) reusable cleansing cloth can save over two thousand cotton balls a year (give or take, depending on how many you use each day), or 88 packages of face wipes. Croon and Face Halo offer similar alternatives, which are not only a greener option, but many believe offer a deeper microfiber clean than traditional wipes.

2. Refillable beauty is no longer niche

Within the cosmetics industry, refillable packaging has become more expected. Alima Pure Pressed Eyeshadows ($26) are packaged in refillable mirrored cases, while Jane Iredale PurePressed Base Mineral Foundation ($44) refill pans pop in and out of recyclable compacts. Elate Cosmetics even offers discounted refillable bamboo packaging that’s been flawed in production. As small as the efforts might seem, the savings adds up. “According to a Pew Research Center Survey, 59 percent of Americans believe ‘most types of items’ can be recycled,” says Piper. “While there are exceptions, here are some things from common beauty products that most areas will not recycle: plastic caps, mirrors, pumps, applicators or magnets.” Those pumps and caps are often tied to the staples that are arguably the most easily refillable.

In Canada, Saponetti’s delivery service drops bulk soap refills right at your doorstep in reusable glass mason jars. "There's been a lot of focus on bottled water and how bad it is, but beauty is more than double the bottled water industry,” says John Cascarano, founder of Beast Brands, of the beauty industry’s ability to generate waste. For its shower range, the label developed an oversized aluminum Beast Bottle that can hold body wash or be used as a water bottle. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and our refill pouches offer a 78 to 82 percent water, energy, and plastic saving versus a plastic bottle,” he says, pointing out that since one fill lasts about half a year, they will have saved over 20,000 plastic bottles in the first six months as a brand.

Likewise, with Bathing Culture’s new one-gallon Home Refills Kits of Mind & Body Wash, the biodegradable, organic, Rainforest-Alliance-certified soap is packaged with 100-percent pre-existing recycled material. Plus, it lasts for three years while refilling eight of their 16 ounce glass pumps.

3. Utilizing other industries' by-products to build a beauty movement

“One third of all food produced is wasted. It’s one of the most wasteful industries in the world, meaning that it gives companies a huge number of ingredients from which to do better things,” says Anna Brightman, co-founder of UpCircle Beauty. By creating a "by-product beauty movement," UpCircle’s range of coffee-based skin-care products has already saved 250 tons of coffee grounds (collected from small coffee chains, independent shops, and restaurants) from being sent to landfill “where it rots, producing methane.” Again, UpCircle's sustainable solution is good for the environment and the consumer: “The level of antioxidants in coffee increases through the brewing process, so it arguably becomes even better for your skin,” Brightman explains.

4. Moving towards a palm-free future

“I believe the biggest environmental impact cosmetics have is really in their supply chain,” says Brianne West, founder of Ethique. “So many ingredients, such as surfactants, emulsifiers, and emollients, are made of palm oil, which is almost all unsustainably produced, in an industry full of forced labour, land theft, and environmental destruction on an incredible scale. There are very few cosmetics out there that don’t contain it simply because it is so hard to avoid.”

That's because many chemicals and materials in the beauty industry (and in many other industries, as well) are derived from palm (alcohols, sulfates, and the list goes on). Ethique’s waterless products are certified palm-free, which presents its own challenge. Finding and using chemicals that are palm free is incredibly difficult, because it means that brand founders must rigorously research raw materials and find certifications of products made from other sources. Often times that means supply chains can't be streamlined for efficiency while manufacturing.

Still, every company should consider making the same effort toward change. Palm oil plantations contribute to the deforestation of Amazonian rainforests that indigenous people, along with the entire planet, depend on for survival. Through its Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative, Rahua helps fund legal fees for Ecuadorian tribes to secure property titles to their ancestral land in order to prevent corporations from destroying the “lungs” of our planet. “The protection of ancient forests and its veteran trees are not only producing oxygen and preserving precious biodiversity, but sequestering CO2 output for approximately 100,000 people per year,” says Rahua co-founder Fabian Lliguin. “Through these means, in under one year, we have saved 95,000 acres—that’s over six times the size of Manhattan—of pristine and biodiverse tribal lands with oxygen-producing trees in the Rainforest.”

5. Taking a cradle-to-cradle approach

"Packaging and the CO2 footprint only tells one part of the story," says OWA founder Kailey Bradt, who developed the brand’s Moondust waterless shampoo ($29). “A life cycle assessment (LCA) considers the impact of a product or service from the procurement of raw materials all the way to how the materials are disposed of—components are generally described as the following: procurement, production, distribution, use, disposal,” says Bradt, explaining that cradle-to-cradle certification, which uses the LCA metric, is defining the next wave of responsible production.

Environmental impact categories include water source depletion, ozone depletion, particulate matter, and land use to name only a few. For example, brands practicing responsible “procurement” might harvest chemical-free ingredients locally. Why? “By sourcing a large percentage of our organic ingredients within a 100-mile radius of our headquarters, we are meaningfully contributing to our local economy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by not shipping ingredients over long distances,” says Greg Starkman, co-founder of Innersense Organic Beauty. “According to a McKinsey report on Sustainability in Supply Chains, the typical consumer company’s supply chain accounts for more than 80 percent of their greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 90 percent of the impact on air, land, water, biodiversity, and geological resources,” he says.

Local organic farming, meanwhile, has the reverse impact on CO2. “Soil farmed organically has been shown to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, reversing climate change and utilizing that carbon to feed the plants,” says Alison Czeczuga, sustainability and social impact manager at Gaia Herbs. While they grow and manufacture their expansive range of supplements and internal wellness blends on their farm in North Carolina, regenerative agriculture practices like cover crop rotation, pollinator-friendly plants, and crop diversity enabled Gaia Herbs to capture approximately 2,490 tons of CO2 in 2019.

6. Reducing waste in water streams

Hair dyes don’t have an invisible footprint. “The EPA reports that a large portion of the world's fresh water resides underground, stored within cracks and pores in the rock that make up the Earth's crust. Half of the United States population relies on groundwater for domestic uses as local water waste management can only decontaminate only 50 percent of the water waste,” says Bill Deliman the director of business development at Green Circle Salons, of the impetus to help salons (like Biolage) across the U.S. and Canada recycle toxic waste from dyes and chemical treatments that are normally washed down the drain and seep back into groundwater.

“While all hair dyes are not the same, some of the most common and dangerous ingredients we want to keep out of water are: ammonia, peroxide, p-phenylenediamine, diaminobenzene, toluene-2,5-diamine, resorcinol. Our chemical recycling partners use a centrifuge to separate the solid chemical waste from the liquid waste,” Deliman explains. “We have two solutions: The solid waste (5 percent) is incinerated and pushed into clean energy power grids and the liquid waste (95 percent) is decontaminated and goes to greywater treatment plants for recirculation into parks, golf courses, and more.”

More broadly, in ocean water, the oxybenzone chemical filter in sunscreens has been proven to deplete coral reefs. “In a 2016 study, a team of international scientists found that a common chemical in many sunscreen lotions and cosmetics is highly toxic to juvenile corals and other marine life. Oxybenzone is found in more than 3,500 skin-care products worldwide for protection against the sun’s harmful effects,” shares Josie Maran, the founder of an eponymous skin-care brand. “The compound has been found entering the environment both through wastewater effluent and directly from swimmers wearing sunscreens.” Formulated without oxybenzone or octinoxate, two common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens that are known to cause harm to marine life, Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer Mineral SPF 47 ($34) offers a reef-safe solution that protects more than just your skin.

7. Considering the end life of all products

“In terms of beauty products, you can also check whether the brand or store you purchased the product from has their own recycling program,” says Piper. “A few examples? Credo Beauty has a partnership with TerraCycle, a third-party recycling program, and will take empties in exchange for customer loyalty points.” Since partnering with TerraCycle three years ago, 6,300 customers have brought their empties into Credo stores, resulting in the proper recycling of over 30,000 pounds of products.

Hawaiian skincare company MAHALO highlights that beauty brands have to account for 8 to 15 percent of product loss in their bottom line (which is reflected then in how items are priced on shelves). This can include bottles, caps, and packaging. It's a stat that inspired the indie brand to launch its Perfectly Imperfect Program (aka PIP), which redirects damaged products from landfills to people's countertops through clever customer discounts on lightly dinged packaging. Since 2017, MAHALO has been able to save over 3,000 hand-made products this way.

“The estimated amount of glass containers recycled in the U.S. in 2017 was 3 million tons, or 33.9 percent of generation across all industries,” says Belinda Smith, founder of St. Rose, who developed the sustainable initiative The Cool Factor. “About 13 percent of the glass containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder 53.1 percent was landfilled.” St. Rose’s Recycle Program encourages customers to mail their empty Eau de Parfum bottles back for proper disassembly and ensured recycling processing. In return, they’re issued a $25 gift card towards their next purchase. Ayond’s containers (including caps, pumps, and droppers) as well as recyclable containers from other beauty brands can be returned for free recycling in the box the Ayond products were mailed.

If these initiatives are an expense that small brands can cover, larger brands have no excuse to not follow suit. If these ideas are ones that small brands can facilitate, why can’t the companies that bring in billions a year do even more? The answer is that they can. Let’s demand that they do.

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