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Luxury Brands Are Going ‘Sustainable,’ But Is It Really Making a Difference?

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When you're shopping for a luxury beauty product, you want the luxury experience. But though all that pretty packaging looks great on a bathroom counter, it comes with an ugly consequence: increased waste production. The cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging each year, and these containers are often made from materials that are either difficult or impossible to recycle. The good news is that luxury brands are starting to become more mindful of their environmental impact, but the bad news is that creating sustainable products is expensive and incentivizing sustainable practices is difficult.

"Beauty products in general, high-end beauty products especially, tend to be very heavy-packaging laden," says Randi Kronthal-Sacco, senior scholar of marketing and corporate outreach at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business. "So any opportunity to reduce the plastic, carbon, and energy associated with production is a really good thing."

Sustainability in beauty product packaging is a big deal because most products are made from containers that municipal recycling centers can't process. So if you're dropping your moisturizer in your home recycling bin, it's likely going to end up in a landfill. In addition to paying more for these higher-end sustainable products, consumers also have to ensure that their waste is handled correctly. So far, the industry has come up with two significant solutions: refillable products and mail-in/drop-off specialty recycling. Neither option is perfect, as they rely on the consumer to go the extra mile. But they're a step in the right direction.

"The fact that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 is not just hyperbole, crazy exaggeration. It is a disgusting fact, and we can't run away from that," says Mia Davis, Credo Beauty's vice president of sustainability and impact. "We have to acknowledge that, and we have to work on all fronts to try to stem the flow of plastic and other waste into the ocean."

Exploring refillable beauty products

When Kirsten Kjaer Weis founded her eponymous makeup brand in 2010, mindful packaging was top of mind. "In all my years in the field as a makeup artist, I saw first-hand the volume of virgin plastic that I would toss on a yearly basis," she says. As a result, the brand has had refillable items since its launch in 2010. Brands like Augustinus Bader, La Bouche Rouge, and Kérastase also make products in refillable containers to cut down on your waste. This means you can buy one serum, lipstick, or shampoo, for example, and refill it when you're out using a container that's either free of plastic or uses far less plastic than the original container does.

While foregoing a new lipstick tube may not seem that impactful, Davis says it all adds up. At La Rouge Bouche, that looks like an $80 reusable leather case and a $40 interchangeable insert. At Kjaer Weiss, that's a $48 reusable and $30 for subsequent refills.

"When you look at a refillable lipstick tube and you think about the volumes of plastic, it can feel a little bit hopeless," says Davis. "But everyone is using different products. If we all were able to purchase those in refill, or even just some much greater percentage of them were in refill, the amount of waste reduction would be massive."

In order for refillable items to be meaningful, consumers have to be willing to shell out more money for the initial refillable container and actually commit to using it. "It is a great brand loyalty strategy for companies," says Kronthal-Sacco, who spent over 20 years working in the beauty industry at brands like Johnson & Johnson and Rodan+Fields. "So that rather than you moving from brand to brand, as is common with people really into beauty products, it is a way for companies to engage and reward loyalty."

Kjaer Weis and Augustinus Bader both report consumer loyalty when it comes to refills. Kjaer Weis says that nearly a third of her business is the purchase of refills, with the number growing every year. Augustinus Bader offers refills for three of its 20-plus products. Refills account for nearly 50 percent of all serum and eye cream purchases from launch to date. And while the Ultimate Soothing Cream ($280) has only been available for a little over two months, the refill accounts for nearly 10 percent of total sales.

Unpacking the recyclability of beauty containers

The harsh reality is that most beauty packaging doesn't get recycled, because properly disposing of these items is admittedly a challenge. First, consumers actually have to remember to recycle. If you're in your kitchen, you're likely steps away from your recycling bin, so it may be easier to remember. But is that where you're applying your products? "Most of your beauty product engagement is happening in the bathroom where people do tend to toss and not necessarily even think about the recyclability," says Kronthal-Sacco.

But the bigger, more damming issue is that most of the beauty products that make their way to recycling centers end up going to landfills anyways. That's because out of the seven different types of plastic, only types one and two (think: water bottles, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles) are commonly able to be processed by municipal centers. And no matter the type of plastic, if it's colored, small, or mixed with other materials like metal or glass, it won't be recycled.

"The reason why products and packaging aren't accepted through local recycling solutions has very little to do actually with the ability to technically recycle those products and packaging and rather more to do with the economics behind it," says Stephanie Moses, senior account director at waste-management company TerraCycle. Basically, recycling types one and two is simple and cost-effective, meaning recycling centers can profit from doing so. For the other types, it's the opposite—recycling centers would lose money trying to recycle them.

That's why TerraCycle partners with brands to cover the recycling costs. Individual brands like Murad pay directly for their customers to mail in their empties while stores like Nordstrom allow consumers to drop off their containers. Then, they're broken down and recycled into items like storage bins, flooring tiles, and outdoor furniture. But it's hard enough to get consumers to drop items into recycling bins. Getting them to put their trash in the mail or bring it back to the store is an entirely different hurdle.

"The best-case scenario is that TerraCycle would not have to exist in that there would be the infrastructures in place to be able to offer recycling for all materials," says Moses. "But the reality is that what we are here to do is provide a solution where solutions don't already exist, based on where the world is."

Given that recycling these materials is such a cumbersome process, it seems like the best option would be to put beauty products in easy-to-recycle containers. But it's not that simple. Some brands are doing this—OSEA and Alpyn Beauty, primarily use glass containers, while brands like Eva NYC and Sándor house their products in aluminum. But, the ability to do this is determined by various factors like cost and product type. For example, given that SPF stops working after a few hours of sun exposure, you probably don't want it stored in a glass jar. And a serum housed in plastic that's as thin and malleable as an easy-to-recycle pop bottle likely won't hold up well, either.

"There are properties with the harder plastics that may reduce damage or contamination," says Kronthal-Sacco. "It may also have to do with supply, aesthetics, and technical challenges to produce a beautiful package that is recyclable."

The next step

A handful of refillable brands and mail-in recycling are by no means the end-all-be-all—there's still a long way to go. We're starting to see seeds planted of what could, in time, turn into true systemic change, but for now, sustainable beauty remains a bit of an oxymoron.

"We can't consume our way to sustainability. They're inherently at odds," says Davis. "I'm a sustainability expert in a space that sells stuff. So I get the tension there—I live that tension. But you can't just be like, 'This is sustainable,' if you're making a product and putting it out there in the world to sell it. If you're packaging a product, if you're flying ingredients around the world, you are having an impact on the planet and on human health. What we need to do is to have the most thoughtful, holistic, and transparent lens that we can have, to really lessen the impact on the environment."

That's why Davis has taken all of her learnings from Credo and her 15 years in the industry to launch the Pact Collective, a group of 100-and-counting beauty brands working to make the industry as sustainable as possible. They're connecting packaging manufacturers, brands, retailers, customers, and material recovery facilities to try to work toward a central goal—no more products going to landfills.

"Beauty does have a lot of work to do on the road to sustainability, but there's also a lot of interest," says Davis. "That's really exciting."

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