Sustainable Beauty packaging and beyond

This week I have been soaking up lots of expertise and different points of view on sustainability at the Hong Kong edition of the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit.

Sustainability is a mine field of possibilities and pitfalls – even with the best intentions it is very hard to be truly sustainable end to end, even for clean, natural beauty brands.

This post looks at some of the areas that the beauty industry is really pushing forward on as well as looking at some of my learnings from the summit.

What does Sustainable mean in Beauty?

There are so many things to consider when it comes to sustainability in cosmetics. Of course sustainable beauty packaging is very important and something that many consumers are focusing on. Brands are seeing that using more expensive packaging actually improves their ROI over the long term as consumers are willing to pay more for something that is not harming the environment.

The problem I see is sustainability is a lot broader than just the packaging, it is not just the environmental impact but also the social one. It should cover every step in the product supply chain – how & where the ingredients are sourced, how are they shipped, in the formulation what are they mixed with, how are they packaged and also how they breakdown often in the water system once a consumer uses them?

That is a lot of due diligence brands need to do when they are creating a product. I’ve broken it down into different sections below.

Packaging – is recycling the answer?

Sustainable Beauty packaging is a very interesting and complex topic. Many, if not most brands make their product packaging out of materials that have a recyclable code but what does that mean in reality. I’ve been learning a lot more about this recently and it is absolutely shocking how little of recyclable products actually get recycled effectively. This very interesting article in the FT is definitely worth a read.

The focus of this article is that the World’s recycling is not working – China, Vietnam, Korea & Taiwan have or are in the process of banning imports of recycled materials. This is because much of it was “dirty” or “hazardous” and thus a threat to the environment. China & HK purchased 60% of developed world’s plastic in 2017 and a year later it was only 10% – this forces the developed world to deal with the problem on their own soil in a proper way with dedicated recycling facilities.

Of course, we know that plastic takes forever to decompose so if it goes to landfill it will just stay there and a lot of plastic ends up in our Oceans – over 80% of the world’s ocean plastic is in Asia.

There are companies really innovating in this space:

REN-clean-skincareRen Skincare (Owned by Unilever) announced in 2018 an initiative to become a zero waste by 2021. They have redeveloping their packaging to be 100% recyclable and have one bottle made from 100% recycled plastic, 20% of which has been collected from oceans, rivers and waterways.

P&G did something similar with Head and Shoulders shampoo – bottles made out of ocean plastic….just wish they would re look at their formula to takeout the many nasty ingredients too;)

So what should you as a consumer do? 

Where you have a choice make sure you are using responsible recycling facilities where they guarantee the used bottles will not go to landfill – see Terracycle below for ideas.

Also know your plastics – see a detailed article on the recyclable plastic codes.

If you can buy brands who are making their packaging out of recycled materials do try to support this by buying the products as well.

Natural ingredients – does this mean sustainable?

Another hot topic that I was discussing this week is all about how sustainable are natural ingredients? Many of the synthetic ingredients used in cosmetics and personal care leach toxins into our waterways causing all sorts of unbalance – but natural ingredients also have problems of sustainability.

It does depends on the ingredient but there are a few key things to consider:

How it is grown & harvested?


Palm Oil is a natural ingredient but it is not harvested in a sustainable way at all with often complete devastation of the natural habitat in the local areas where it is planted. To find out more here is a comprehensive overview on Wikipedia.



Sandalwood is in huge demand globally, it is used heavily used in fragrances as well as aromatherapy. Sandalwood has traditionally been grown in India and Australia. However, India has declared them endangered due to over deforestation and illegal exportation. In Australia the Sandalwood industry is highly regulated and controlled by the government on plantations in Western Australia – therefore grown and harvested in a sustainable way.

Overall Ingredient sourcing needs to be more sophisticated and transparent – Ecovadis provides CSR/business sustainability ratings for suppliers and buyers. They look at 3 pillars – People, Process and Platform, this is an efficient and effective way of companies to track the CSR credentials of suppliers they work with across the supply chain.

Once you’ve used it how does it break down especially into the water ways.

We know about micro beads and how they are clogging up our oceans but these are not natural. Natural ingredients can have the potential to cause Eco toxicity as well.

A major issue facing the natural and organic beauty industry is world does not enough crops to feed all people so diverting this to production for cosmetics seems shameful. In order to resolve this quickly we need sustainable, more efficient solutions of creating natural ingredients for the cosmetics industry like using bio feed or a big trend is also using the by-products of food eg: coffee grounds.

Social impact initiatives

Increasingly and rightly so, consumers are keen to discuss the social impact of the products they buy. We want to know that no one has been exploited at any point of the supply chain of the products we buy but it can be very hard to know this. And some companies do not do full due diligence on their raw ingredients and suppliers. Mica is a very widely used mineral in Beauty but it is synonyms with horrible conditions in mines in India with child labour being common. There are organisations that are coming together to try to change this like the Responsible Mica Initiative that is heavily supported by Shiseido.


Another options are for products to be certified – Fairtrade is well-known in the UK but in the Beauty industry overall it is not very well-established. Odylique is a natural skincare and makeup brand in the UK that is certified fair trade. I think we will see more of this in the future.

Sedex is another resource available to companies that encourages transparency and responsible sourcing information on supply chains, it is used by more than 50,000 companies in 150 countries. They assess company’s performance in terms of labour rights, health & safety, the environment and business ethics.

Who is leading the way in sustainability in Beauty?



Terracycle is a fantastic organisation they say they are “Eliminating the Idea of Waste® by recycling the “non-recyclable” – they work with individuals to very large organisations – their goal is to create a circular, zero waste economy where we no longer clog up the earth with items being sent to landfill.

Insetting vs. Offsetting

Insetting is a new term I have learnt this week and it sounds like more companies should be trying to use insetting vs. offsetting!

Offsetting is the purchasing of carbon credits from a carbon reduction project that is unrelated to the company in question.

Insetting is the fact that the carbon offsetting happens within the company’s own supply chain. Pur Projet is an organisation that helps companies to work on insetting within their supply chain – Chanel and many other beauty companies work with them.

Beauty industry leading the way

There is a lot of good work that is being under taken by the Beauty industry in terms of sustainability. It drives change across many industries – the Responsible Mica Initiative is a good example of this – the cosmetics industry is the 4th biggest user of Mica way after paints & automobile but it is the Beauty companies that set this up and are driving it.

Of course this is partly because beauty consumers associate strongly with the brands that they purchase and they want to see them leading by example.


Over the 2 days at the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit there were many experts and brands sharing their point of view on sustainability in this industry and the overwhelming message I got was that it is a journey. No one is perfect but there is positive momentum and change.

Sustainability is not just about Sustainable Beauty packaging it is across the whole supply chain.

Transparency is a key stumbling block – many suppliers and manufacturers are not willing to divulge sources or formulations but in order for a truly sustainable ecosystem we need collaboration and transparency from all parties.

Consumers are driving brands to care more which will in turn force transparency in the all parts of the supply chain. Companies see that spending more on sustainable raw materials or recycled packaging will in fact have a positive effect on their bottom line because we as consumers are more conscious and responsible and we are voting with our wallets.

We want the brands we buy to reflect our values. So as long as we make our purchase decisions based on sustainability there will be increasing innovation and choice.

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