Versed’s Deven Hopp And Clean Filter’s Helen Yang On Recycling, Refills, Takeback And The Holistic Approach Needed To Counter Beauty’s Environmental Effects

No single person, brand, store or strategy is going to fix the beauty industry’s environmental problem. It will take a myriad of stakeholders working together to set standards and objectives that incentivize a better market for solutions. And it will take consumer buy-in, which increasingly appears to be happening.

To examine the complexities involved in questions about sustainability in the beauty industry, Beauty Independent turned to Deven Hopp, founding VP of brand at clean skincare line Versed, and Helen Yang, CEO and founder of bamboo packaging supplier Clean Filter. Below, they weigh in on the challenges with recycling, refilling, composting, takeback programs and more, and offer recommendations for how the beauty industry should move forward.

What do you think has been the most impactful change the beauty industry has made in pursuit of sustainability?

Hopp: The big one that jumps to mind is material options for packaging. When we were developing items in 2018, the options from a sustainability perspective were very minimal. It was like, here’s this one tube made out of sugarcane. Now, there’s a prevalence of PCR (post-consumer recycled content) and the levels we are able to achieve is 80% or higher. That’s a big piece for our brand in reducing our carbon footprint by not using as much virgin material.

Then, there’s measurement and disclosure. I think climate transparency is still in its infancy, but it’s becoming more important in the beauty industry. Fashion is a little bit ahead. We’ve been working on it for a while, and now there is more data available in beauty.

Yang: People actually care. They will read recycling instructions, and I feel that wasn’t the case in the market before. I wouldn’t be running this business if people didn’t care enough to ask, “What’s compostable? Can I actually do something with my packaging besides throw it in the landfill?”

What are you doing now for climate transparency?

Hopp: We are focused on measurement and disclosure, and we are in the midst of reduction planning. The most important thing for anyone is understanding the data and where you stand, where we are today so we can understand what we can do tomorrow. When we initially began this in 2019, there wasn’t a good tool or third party out there able to do it. Since then, we have worked with Climate Neutral and now we are working with Bluebird. It’s a huge undertaking.

Bluebird helps, not just with the measurement piece, but also with suggestions on reduction. We also work with an outside consultant who will say, for example, “Your average toner bottle could be 20% lighter, and that will save you X on climate emissions.”

In the next few months, we are also rolling out that sort of information on our product pages for transparency for the consumer. There’s still quite of education that needs to be done there. Climate emissions is gibberish to most people, so we have to make sure we are contextualizing it by saying, for example, what equivalency it might have to recycling a certain number of bottles.

Yang: The only thing I would add is that, if you want to achieve full transparency, it should start from the beginning of the supply chain at the raw materials.

When you think about communicating to consumers, where does the broken recycling system fit in?

Hopp: We have a lot of education around recycling. We know consumers are conscious of it, but we also want to be realistic that, even if you are doing it perfectly, the municipal facility it is going to may not be. With beauty products, they’re often so small that facilities won’t accept them. That’s a big part of the education on our site and social.

We tell people to check local guidelines. Each of our product pages have a section on how to recycle every individual item. We have a takeback program, and we will recycle the products to make sure they don’t end up in a landfill.

Yang: I think giving consumers options is the only way to move forward: curbside, refills, takeback, composting. This all can be overwhelming to the consumer, but the fact that people have gotten so detailed with ingredient lists gives me hope that they will have the same level of scrutiny for packaging. It will take a lot of time for people to get familiar with the details and learn that each type of packaging is different.

Deven Hopp, founding VP of brand at Versed

How do you view composting as an option?

Yang: Composting is rising, and it’s a much more complete solution than recycling. When something makes it into composting, it turns into dirt. Recycling is limited. Even if something is successfully recycled, it can only be used a certain number of times. Composting is a more long-term solution.

The problem with composting is that there’s confusion. What is home composting versus industrial composting? A consumer is going to see composting, and they are going to think, “I can just throw this outside or in the dirt.” We aren’t always going to want that because, for example, we may not want sunscreen to break down in the backyard.

In the U.S., we see variation in curbside composting. When I was back in Michigan, they didn’t even collect recycling, let alone compost. Now I’m in San Francisco, and we can chuck things curbside, and it’s very easy and accessible. There’s confusion and different levels of accessibility, but composting is the right way to go. We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem.

Hopp: The rate of composting in this country isn’t at a point where we are exploring it in terms of packaging. For the most part, we are focused on climate and reducing waste. It’s interesting to watch and, in unit cartons, that’s a great opportunity to bypass the recycling piece and hopefully get some composting in.

Yang: That’s a great point, and not everything should be compostable. We should divide and conquer. Some things can be durable and reused. If we can reuse a pump over and over, that’s awesome versus something that could be composted and is too small for the recycling system. Not everything should break down. It’s about finding the right solution for the right product. All of it is better than virgin plastic.

Hopp: We always want one solution: Here’s the answer. For so many years, it was throwing plastic in the recycling bin, but that doesn’t work. So, we should think holistically.

Do you think about environmental justice?

Hopp: When we are looking at purchasing offsets, that’s primarily where we can have what at least feels like a tangible impact on that. We are supporting projects taking place in the communities and countries where we manufacture. On the most basic level, it’s using good manufacturing practices that take into account fair labor practices.

It’s something we think about, and it comes into play. It impacts our no-no list when it comes to ingredients that may be carcinogenic or toxic. A lot of it pertains to human bodies, but there’s also ingredients that are detrimental to the environment and sourcing them disproportionately impacts certain communities. So, our no-no list is inclusive of people and the planet.

Yang: We use plant fiber in our packaging. So, should we use bamboo or hemp? We ended up choosing bamboo because of thinking about environmental justice and local sourcing. It’s about trying to use a plant we can upcycle and not pollute locally. I’m from China and am sourcing and manufacturing in my home. I want to contribute positively to the local environmental situation instead of being detrimental to it.

What are brands missing about what’s happening along the supply chain?

Yang: There are quite a few spots along the supply chain that are easy swap-outs. One example that is acute for me is acid etching on glass. It’s used to make frosted glass. There was a point when I thought frosted glass was different glass. I didn’t realize you use acid etching to make it.

The acid isn’t great, and you have to dump it somewhere. Consumers don’t see that. You look at a frosted bottle on the shelf and don’t think about it. It’s not about using crazy new technologies all the time, it’s about avoiding processes that are dumping materials into the environment.

Hopp: I will never look at frosted glass the same way.

Helen Yang, founder and CEO of Clean Filter

What’s occurring in the market that’s obfuscating sustainability issues?

Hopp: The vilification of plastic is probably the most prevalent, second only to recycling. People are becoming much more aware that recycling is not the answer, but it’s something we’ve had to unlearn. Even in school, I remember being told to recycle.

Those are things that work against the movement because anyone can put recyclable on their packaging because it could be recycled, but will it be recycled in your local curbside program? Probably not. It probably needs to go to a special facility.

At the end of the day, no scientist has ever said recycling and reducing plastic is going to save the environment. It’s about prioritizing climate and reducing emissions. It’s not just a single aspect. As consumers, we like to glom onto one thing and really run with it, but it has to be end to end with the supply chain.

Yang: I feel about biodegradability the same way I do about recyclability. You can say plastic is biodegradable, but that’s misleading, and it’s really frustrating to someone who has put a lot of time and energy into something that’s compostable in an industrial facility.

How’s the takeback program going at Versed?

Hopp: It’s not wildly used. The program isn’t perfect, and it’s something that can evolve. We ask you to hold on to three items until they are empty, and then you can fill up the box with everything else. For the most part, it’s our very engaged consumers that are using it who are coming back to shop our site on a regular basis.

We talk about on social all the time, and every single time we talk about it, we have people saying, “I had no idea.” Part of what’s hard is, when you are using small items, you don’t want to send us every single item because you are negating the whole idea in terms of shipping and the carbon emissions associated with it.

Demand wise, it’s similar to what we have seen and heard about refills. We hear all the time that people are excited about refills. In terms of sales, it’s pretty run of the mill. We are not blowing it out of the water with them. We’ve heard we made sizes too big, so people aren’t going through them or they forget about the refills. It’s something our community had been asking for, so we piloted it with two items. It’s still something we are looking into for future items, but it wasn’t like it was a home run.

Yang: I’ve used refill pouches that are awesome, but then the dispenser ends up breaking after two refills and that defeats the purpose. If we go the refill route, the reuse portion needs to be durable. Some solid formulas don’t need a dispenser, and we could really cut down the packaging with them. There’s not just one solution, and brands need to not pigeonhole themselves into one solution like only refills or only compostable.

Where do you see pumps heading?

Hopp: What we have been interested in and are pushing manufacturers on is mono-material pumps. I’ve seen quite a few new ones, but they aren’t perfect. If you are using a cleanser bottle, that’s likely not big enough to make it through recycling anyway. And we are years out from it being an actuality that pumps get recycled because facilities just assume they’re a different material. We try to avoid pumps when the formula works well dispensed in other componentry.

Yang: The usage is better with pumps in certain situations. But, to your point Deven, where we can use other closures, we should. I do think mono-material pumps are the future. I don’t think pumps are bad if they are high quality enough for them to be reused, but many times they just aren’t. What we need to move away from is single-use landfill-bound pumps. Either you can recycle and compost them, and they are mono-material or they last a long time and brands are setting up refills to be used with them.

Versed is piloting refills for two products: Just Breathe Clarifying Serum and Weekend Glow Daily Brightening Toner. So far, sales of the refills haven’t been a home run.

What sustainability initiatives move the needle for consumer behavior?

Hopp: It’s hard to say this is what moves the needle, but I can tell you what our consumers say is important. We do a lot of research within our community. We do quarterly surveys mostly to talk about what products we are working on, but also to track things on a brand level. This is a question we’ve been asking them over the years. If we look back at 2018/19, it was recyclable packaging. Refills have been increasing lately.

It’s early with refills. We’re looking at what can be improved upon. Tubes are big in skincare and in our assortment, so refillable tubes can be a part of it. Sometimes it comes down to the experience of refilling, like Helen mentioned, where you’re like, OK, it’s good in theory, but it doesn’t work. We are still figuring out what options work best.

What should be a part of retail that would make a difference for sustainability?

Hopp: Takeback programs at retail would be impactful. If I’m able to bring my empties to the store versus saving a box of them for a couple of months, for me personally, that’s something I would be more apt to do. The other piece is transparency and establishing better guidelines around greenwashing and the way we talk about sustainability.

We see terms thrown around or sustainability being lumped in with clean beauty, but you can be one or the other. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I would love there to be more differentiation between the clean and sustainability pillars and more clarity around what sustainability means at retail.

Yang: One disparity between shopping at retail versus shopping online is the disposal instructions. They’re written out meticulously online and are missing at retail. I have to scour cartons for them, and sometimes they’re there, and sometimes they’re not. If there’s more access to disposal instructions at retail, I think it will ease the consumer burden for how much work they’re going to have to do.

We’re running across brands spotlighting sustainability issues that arise with retail distribution. 

Hopp: Certainly, the pack out that’s required for a lot of these large retailers is substantial. They are doing that to protect their retail business because it’s a substantial investment they’re making. That’s something we identified early on, and we have been working with a retailer to reduce the poly bags we were using by 3X. That didn’t happen overnight. It was due to conversations we had over a year to a year and a half.

If no one is talking about it, it won’t change, but, if we are all talking about it to our retailers and saying, “I don’t think we need all these poly bags,” I think we can get there. Things at a large scale can take time to change, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to fall on deaf ears forever.

Clean Filter specializes in supplying biodegradable bamboo packaging to the beauty industry.

Where do you believe the beauty industry should go from here?

Yang: One of the biggest things I’m excited about is that, in five years, brands will be pushing toward sustainability no matter which direction they are coming at it from, maybe it’s packaging, maybe it’s raw material sourcing. I don’t think it matters as long as we are all moving away from something. We will see more from the retail, regulatory and consumer sides, too. Since there will be pressure from all sides, brands will respond.

Hopp: For me, it’s about the measurement and disclosure piece. That should create a baseline of expectations for brands in the same way that clean beauty has become table stakes. We should follow in the footsteps of the clean beauty movement around greenwashing and keeping ourselves honest when we are making claims. The only way it’s going to make sense is if we are all speaking the same language.