Packaging is a customer's first introduction to a product. For prestige beauty brands, this first impression can define the consumer experience. As many claims about the ingredients between skin products can be hard for consumers to discern, the packaging is immediately memorable and creates a surefire way to differentiate between options. However, consumers who care about sustainability are increasingly asking beauty brands what their packaging is made of.
- Plastics used in cosmetic packaging have come under increased scrutiny because of negative environmental effects.
- Some governments have banned microplastics used by cosmetic companies in an effort to protect wastewater treatment plants and marine animals.
- Global cosmetic companies like Estée Lauder, Aveda, and Origins have developed sustainability strategies to reduce dependence on plastic packaging materials.
- Some of the strategies these companies employ include low-impact sourcing for packaging materials, pursuing more recyclable primary packaging, and eliminating packaging components wherever possible.
Beauty Industry's Packaging Problem
There's no avoiding it: The beauty industry has a packaging problem. Plastic, ubiquitous in cosmetic packaging—from thin cellophane wrappers on eyeshadow to plastic bottles and pumps for lotion and shampoo—has come under increased scrutiny for its negative environmental effects.
It's not just the beauty industry that has contributed to the plastic pollution crisis. A 2020 study showed that some of the world's most well-known consumer brands and product manufacturers—such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive, and Unilever—are responsible for a significant portion of plastic waste found in global cleanups.
A Plastic Crisis
National Geographic estimates that humans contribute 18 billion pounds of plastic waste to the oceans each year. That's the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash occupying every foot of coastline around the world.
Governments have taken small steps to ban plastics by implementing various regulations, with some success. A 2015 U.S. law forced manufacturers to eliminate microbeads—tiny, exfoliating plastic particles—from rinse-off cosmetics. The ban keeps microplastics, which can't be filtered out by many wastewater treatment plants, out of waterways and, eventually, the stomachs of fish and other marine animals. Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. have passed similar bans, with many companies voluntarily phasing them out altogether.
Unfortunately, the bans and pledges are often riddled with loopholes. And microplastics, while a major problem, are a drop in the bucket compared to plastic packaging.
While many consumers are quick to point to recycling as a potential cure, only 8.7% of plastic trash in the United States is recycled each year. And recycling import restrictions by China may make recycling more difficult: the U.S. exports a significant amount of its plastic waste.
1. Estée Lauder: Making Sustainable Packaging a Priority
With so much resting on its packaging, it makes sense that cosmetics brands may be hesitant to make any sudden changes. Estée Lauder, however, has made environmental sustainability a key pillar of its business. In 2020, the company reaffirmed its intention to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) material in its packaging by up to 50% by 2025.
The beauty brand knows that the design and aesthetic of its packaging must reflect the prestige of its products. But today’s consumer, particularly young entrants into luxury cosmetics, cares not only about preserving their skin but also about protecting the environment. While the sustainability trend has been in vogue for decades, today it is more pronounced and advanced than ever. The beauty industry recognizes the importance of addressing sustainability in packaging and along the entire value chain.
While niche beauty brands are seemingly everywhere, Estée Lauder's brands have wide appeal. A consumer may not even be aware that they are buying a product associated with the empire: Estée Lauder's product mix includes Aveda, Bobbi Brown, La Mer, Origins, and Smashbox. In total, Estée Lauder owns 26 well-known brands sold in approximately 150 countries and territories. It's the only corporation in the world that focuses solely on prestige makeup, skincare, fragrance, and hair care.
Estée Lauder's approach to sustainability requires an ongoing understanding of global consumer expectations for more sustainable products while meeting their changing needs worldwide. And it demands scientific and innovative design acumen. The EL group launches thousands of packages a year for its skincare, makeup, fragrance, and hair care products. Managing complexity gives them a competitive advantage when it comes to both product and packaging innovation.
300 million tons
The amount of plastic waste produced globally each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Corporate Governance Practices
The company’s board of directors has developed corporate governance practices to fulfill its responsibilities to stockholders in providing direction and oversight of the management of the company. Estee Lauder's goal was to be carbon net-zero, a goal it announced it had met during the fiscal year 2021. By reducing its dependence on fossil fuel-derived plastic packaging materials, EL can meaningfully reduce its overall impact on climate change.
Estée Lauder uses life cycle analysis (LCA) software to monitor the environmental impacts of its packaging and design choices. In collaboration with suppliers, the company tests sustainable materials: plant-derived plastics, new packaging formats including refills, and post-consumer recycled content.
In order to reduce its environmental footprint, Estée Lauder lists the following sustainable packaging approaches in its 2020 citizenship and sustainability report: low-impact sourcing, or making sustainability one of the core criteria in pricing decisions; leveraging bio-sourced materials; recycling; substituting materials that come from less carbon-intensive materials; pursuing more recyclable primary packaging; reducing the overall footprint by eliminating packaging components wherever possible.
Through relationships with key bio-material suppliers, EL is working to better understand the challenges, costs, and performances of these materials and to assess the human health and environmental safety of the raw materials they procure. The results are in the numbers. In the fiscal year 2020, the company had increased the amount of post-consumer recycled (PCR) material in their packaging by 15% and 55% of their packaging was either recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled, or recoverable, up from 53% in fiscal year 2019.
2. Aveda: Committed to Sustainability
Estée Lauder's Aveda line is also a great example of a brand that puts sustainability at the forefront of its production. Aveda finds inspiration in nature—not merely something to be cherished and protected, but also to be emulated as a model of sustainability. Aveda was the first beauty company to use 100% post-consumer recycled PET. As of 2020, 90% of Aveda high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles used a minimum of 80% PCR content.
3. Origins: Recycled and Recyclable Packaging
There are multiple approaches luxury brands can take to be sustainable. While Aveda incorporates the circular-economy approach by offer packaging that can be recycled whenever possible, EL’s Origins brand also incentivizes customers to return empty containers and will recycle anything they bring in. To date, Origins has also planted over one million trees to help offset its carbon emissions.
For any consumer that has purchased an Origins skincare or makeup product, there is always a lingering question: what is the Origins packaging made of? The unique feel of its bottles and jars is due to strides in its packaging: by 2023, the brand is committing to ensuring at least 80% of its packaging by weight is recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled, or recoverable. It's already at 55% for its all FSC-certified cartons. The company already powers all of its freestanding stores in North America with 100% renewable electricity.
The Bottom Line
Estée Lauder isn't the only cosmetics company with an eye toward sustainability. Other cosmetic and beauty companies have committed to making their packaging reusable, compostable, recyclable, or otherwise more sustainable than they have been in the past. Such approaches are not only sustainable but encourage brand loyalty so it’s a win for the environment, the business, and the customer.
Most importantly, luxury cosmetic companies need to challenge their packaging partners to meet the same standards. Being sustainable extends beyond addressing consumer needs. It’s taking into consideration the business’ employees, vendors, stockholders, and institutional portfolio managers all of whom are making more intelligent decisions on what to buy, where to work, and how to invest.
Correction—Dec. 17, 2021. A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the company Bobbi Brown.