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 brands like Estée Lauder, Aveda, and Origins what their packaging is made of.

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. In fact, a 2017 study in Science Advances showed that packaging is the number one use for plastic around the world.

Global Plastic Usage and Waste

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, with some success. A 2015 U.S. law forced manufacturers to eliminate microbeads—tiny, exfoliating plastic particles—from rinse-off cosmetics by mid-2017. 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, according to a Greenpeace report. 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 9% of plastic trash in the United States is recycled each year. And recent recycling import restrictions by China may make recycling more difficult: the U.S. exports a significant amount of its plastic waste.

Top Importers of U.S. Plastic Scrap

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 October 2019, it announced that by 2025, it would develop signature Estée Lauder refillable packaging that is reusable.

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 she is buying a product associated with the empire: Estée Lauder's product mix extends includes Aveda, Bobbie Brown, La Mer, Origins, and Smashbox. In total, Estée Lauder owns 29 well-known brands sold in over 150 countries. 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.

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 is to be carbon net-zero by 2020 while meeting the highest standard in every location it operates in and sells to. By reducing its dependence on fossil fuel-derived plastic packaging materials, EL can meaningfully reduce its overall impact on climate change.

Estée Lauder uses lifecycle 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 2019 CSR 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 2019, Estée Lauder reduced its carbon emissions by 24% from 2016 and sourced 39% of its product packaging from post-consumer recycled content or renewable materials.

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. Today more than 85% of its skincare and hair styling PET bottles and jars contain 100% post-consumer recycled materials.

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.

That's not to mention that the brand already uses 100% renewable electricity in its manufacturing facilities, and is aiming to achieve zero-industrial waste-to-landfill by the end of 2020.

The Bottom Line

Estée Lauder isn't the only cosmetics company with an eye toward sustainability. As originally reported in Teen Vogue, both Unilever and L’Oréal have committed to making all of their packaging reusable, compostable, reusable, 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.