Sustainable packaging and the beauty sector – wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Sustainable packaging and the beauty sector – wolves in sheep’s clothing?

The longer I’m involved in the beauty industry, the more this nagging feeling grows, that when it comes to sustainably packaged products, consumers are being sold a pup. We’re led to believe that by buying plastic free products, we’re making a difference to environmental issues, doing our bit, ensuring that we’re not part of the problem. This irks me for several reasons, each of which I will carefully unpack in turn below.

1 - Blame setting

My first gripe involves blame setting. By placing the emphasis on packaging, we’re also placing the emphasis on consumer choice; if consumers would only make the correct choices then we could stop these environmental crises in their tracks. This of course couldn’t be further from the truth with most environmental impacts being hidden from the consumer behind a barrage of clever marketing, ambiguous wording and confusing certifications.

For example, the packaging issue alone extends much further than that in which the final product is cloaked, with each individual ingredient arriving (behind the scenes) in its own mess of waste.

2 - How sustainability goes deeper

Second, the beauty industry may only be skin-deep, but sustainability goes much deeper with packaging being but a small cog in a much larger machine. Its tentacles reach far into subjects of air and water pollution, material waste, energy consumption and biodiversity loss and wide into the details of individual ingredients, manufacturing processes and distribution.

Making consumers believe that by selecting a product that is wrapped in a sustainable material, all these other factors are somehow negated is simply a case of greenwashing at its finest.

In my book the buck stops firmly with the pedlars of these myths, those wielding their buckets of green, not with end users blinded by the wash. And there are those who should know better, online multi-brands stocking ‘eco-goods’, high street stores offering ethical wares and most irksome of all, those bestowing ‘sustainable beauty’ awards often onto highly unsustainable goods.

The current focus on packaging alone is masking these wider impacts, as George Monbiot puts it, by placing such an emphasis on packaging we are focusing on ‘micro-consumerist bollocks’, allowing the real issues to be overlooked. Take for example a solid stick deodorant; packaged in a cardboard tube with a recycled paper label, it is the very embodiment of sustainability.

However taking a look at the ingredients label we find a whole house of horrors; the product contains a range of hugely environmentally damaging ingredients including cocoa butter (which often results in deforestation e.g. in West Africa experts estimate that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming), soya wax (again associated with wide-scale deforestation as well as biodiversity loss, rising carbon emissions, soil erosion and water contamination), and packed full of essential oils (requiring vast tracts of land to produce tiny quantities of product).

Or looking to a face oil packaged in a returnable glass bottle yet containing a range of oils imported from far and wide across the globe (and with shipping being one of the most damaging sectors when it comes to carbon emissions I find this particularly difficult to digest), or to a moisturiser poured into an aluminium tin yet created using hot process emulsifiers (which are energy intensive, requiring heating over long periods to form their stable lotions and creams).

These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing, (commonly found in our eco stores and online sustainable multi-brands) and we’re all falling prey.

3 - Why plastic isn’t all bad

My third point is a controversial one but it’s important to say; plastic isn’t all bad. Many plastics are widely recyclable, take 40% less energy to produce than cardboard (and producing less waste in the process), and are lighter and less bulky to transport than glass. For example the environmental impact of producing an organic cotton tote bag is equivalent to that of 20,000 plastic ones.

It is our poor waste management systems that give plastic a bad name, the majority of plastic sent to landfill ending up in the natural environment, breaking down to produce toxic chemicals and microplastics that enter our watercourses and airways.

I’m not saying we should drop our war on plastics, but it’s important to make the point that packaging isn’t the solve all, clear cut subject that we’re led to believe.

All materials come with an environmental impact and many brands are hiding behind the myth that by going plastic-free their packaging is innocent of environmental crimes. In fact, having now delved into this subject so deeply, i’m now questioning whether to switch some Seilich products from their current glass bottles to recycled (and recyclable) plastic ones instead (and i’d love to know your thoughts on this, do drop me an email and let me know!).

Diving into the truth of what lies beneath

In essence, it seems that we’re all suffering from packaging blindness, we’re judging our books by their covers instead of delving in and asking what lies beneath. And I’m not blaming consumers here, with no holistic comparative and communicable environmental impact scheme out there, consumers have no way of getting a true picture of the footprint of their products.

The blame here lies with the industry, with the manufacturers, the influencers, the retailers, the journalists; it is our responsibility to equip ourselves with the knowledge we need to navigate this complex labyrinth of sustainability and to share it in a clear, honest and concise way.

It is impossible to produce a beauty product that has negligible environmental impact, and the sooner we come clean about that the better. Trade-offs must be made, and although packaging is a hugely important piece of the puzzle, it’s just one piece of many.

Look out for my next blog post when I’ll share my own top ten ingredients to look out for (or avoid!) when buying sustainable beauty products.

Back to blog

1 comment

I really enjoyed reading this article. It is so true! I found this to be a sobering reminder that in a society saturated with “eco-friendly” products, sustainable beauty packaging won’t solve our environmental problems.

It would be naïve and unethical to think that substituting plastic with a “sustainable” alternative alone makes a product environmentally friendly.

This essay emphasises that sustainability extends beyond packaging, from ingredient sourcing to manufacture.

Greenwashing—covering bad practises in a “green” guise—irritates me the most.

Plastic isn’t good for the environment, but it’s not the only villain.

Consumers should look beyond eco-marketing buzzwords and consider the environmental impact of their purchases. The beauty industry, influencers, and journalists may help define a sustainable product more accurately.

Steve Last

Leave a comment