Zero Waste Is The Beauty Industry’s New Green Crusade

Waste not, want not is a phrase our mothers favored when attempting to convince us to consume our veggies. It’s also the new battle cry of the green beauty revolution as zero waste becomes the cause célèbre of the industry’s most environmentally-conscious minds.

Following a recognition by natural brands and consumers that not all beauty ingredients are equally OK, zero-waste proponents are opening consumers’ eyes to the role the beauty industry plays in stuffing landfills. In 2016, Euromonitor estimates the global beauty market was flooded with nearly 19 million squeezable plastic tubes. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates plastic accounted for 13% of the 258 million tons of waste generated in the U.S. in 2014.

Recycling isn’t significantly stemming the tide of plastic. Mentioning a University of Georgia study revealing a mere 9% of plastic has been recycled since the 1950s, Shilpi Chhotray, founder of the skincare company Samudra Skin & Sea, asserts, “Brands need to be pushing for reusability in their packaging to be truly zero waste.” Samudra depends on boxes that are compostable, and jars constructed from glass and bamboo. Customers experiment with repurposing the encasements as greeneries, candles and spices.

The remedies pursued by beauty companies to the plastic problem are as diverse as the sources of the problem. Ren, a skincare brand that’s pledged to become zero waste by 2021, is introducing a bottle with reclaimed ocean plastic and collaborating with the Surfrider Foundation on a Clean to Planet, Clean to Skin initiative to rid pollution at over 300 beaches across the country. The initiative is a response to the dirty fact that 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons winds up in the ocean annually.

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Addressing the results of packaging pollution wasn’t enough for Shane Wolf, a general manager at L’Oreal for hair care brands such as Redken, Pureology and Mizani. The brains behind Seed Phytonutrients, a brand incubated within L’Oréal, but not owned by it, concentrates on the root of the issue. Seed Phytonutrients sources ingredients from organic farmers and houses them in first-of-its kind eco-friendly bottles.

Wolf worked with green packaging company Ecologic to fashion outer containers made from recyclable, compostable and waterproof paper, and an inner liner formed from food-grade recycled plastic. Wolf asserts the bottle contains 60% less plastic than standard personal care packaging. Because the outer carton is paper, its chances of getting recycled are much greater than the chances plastic packaging will hit recycle bins.

Wolf doesn’t consider Seed Phytonutrients zero waste, however. He’s not a huge fan of term. “It’s disingenuous,” he says. “The reality is that even producing post-consumer recycled packaging requires some type of industrial methodology that will generate waste of some sort.”

Rather than propagandize zero waste, Wolf prefers radical transparency that lets consumers in on exactly what they’re buying and how their beauty consumption plays into the pollution equation. “Rather than setting an expectation of something that’s impossible to achieve, we should set realistic goals and strategies to obtain those goals,” he suggests.

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Tara Pelletier, co-founder of small-batch beauty brand Meow Meow Tweet, agrees. “We don’t think that zero waste is something literal that we can do,” she contends. “We think of it as a mindset, an aspiration, a motivation for problem-solving when it comes to the materials and logistical details of producing products.” Pelletier notes Meow Meow Tweet doesn’t claim to be zero waste because “you are setting a precedent of an impossibility because every action creates waste.”

Pelletier likes to talk about the circular nature of packaging. An item doesn’t vanish once a brand is finished with it and, as such, she thinks about the life of items persisting behind Meow Meow Tweet dispersing them and how the brand can aid in keeping them out of landfills. Both Pelletier and Wolf indicate that zero waste is a trendy term, but low waste is a more realistic goal.

For Meow Meow Tweet, pursuing low waste means paying a premium to house its natural deodorants in paper tubes rather than the much less expensive plastic options. “It can take more time, and there are certainly frustrations involved with using things that people aren’t used to,” says Pelletier. “It’s really hard to look at a 10-cent plastic tube and look at a $1.85 paper tube and make sense of that. It was probably the scariest check I ever wrote. That paper tube has been the most rewarding and the most frustrating thing that I’ve ever done with the business. It’s a fancy toilet paper roll, and it was keeping me up at night.”

She’s not alone in stressing about packaging. Brands dedicated to less waste share an almost obsessive commitment to reimagining how consumers use and dispose of beauty products. Mix-it-yourself beauty concept Loli Beauty relies on food-grade ingredients and packaging like certified compostable plastic and reusable glass containers. “We consider ourselves a food company reinventing beauty versus a beauty company using food-grade ingredients,” says Tina Hedges, founder and CEO of Loli. “The food industry is much more advanced in its approach to clean and green sourcing, formulating, and packaging. That’s where we look for inspiration and guidance.”

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Low waste doesn’t have to refer just to packaging. Some brands like Laurel Whole Plant Organics are tackling the byproducts of ingredient production. Founder Laurel Shaffer, who sources ingredients from organic farmers near her brand’s Northern California headquarters, implemented a program in 2016 called Abundant Harvest that utilizes plants from farms that would traditionally go to waste. Each year, Shaffer unveils a seven-piece back-bar line for professional application and one to four limited-edition retail products with those plants.

“Our farmers were always asking us if we had use for ingredients that were growing wild on their property or simply ones that were producing too high of a yield for them to sell,” says Shaffer, adding, “I love being creative and using ingredients that are off the beaten path, so it was a no-brainer for me to do something that benefitted our farmers as well as our consumer.”

The low-waste efforts in the beauty industry could be rendered ineffective if consumers don’t adopt less wasteful habits. Brand leaders state shoppers are ultimately accountable for their actions, and helping to spur change in the industry with their dollars and voice. “Consumers shouldn’t care about only buying into a zero-waste brand. They should also care about ascribing to the lifestyle that it embodies,” says Josh Wadinski, founder and CEO of sustainable skincare brand Plantioxidants. “Living a zero-waste lifestyle means you are purposefully making a choice to create less waste.”

Wolf concurs, but underscores it’s on brands to communicate with consumers honestly about the packaging they’re purchasing. “Understanding what does zero waste actually mean is an obligation in my opinion, and anybody who makes that claim should have an obligation to explain what they mean by it,” he says. “Having these education opportunities for consumers is important, but having the steps in your mind of how you’re going to ultimately achieve your big objective is more important to me than making an untrue or lofty claim.”

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Wadinski fears that, if the zero-waste concept takes off and consumers plead for brands to adhere to it, big brands will take advantage of the movement with products that don’t live up to their environmental promises. He draws a parallel between zero-waste hype and greenwashing of ingredients. “If zero waste and sustainability become a fad that beauty companies exploit, it will undoubtedly dilute what we are trying to accomplish,” he conjectures. “I want us all to be able to live on the planet for a bit longer. In order for that to become a reality, companies have to do the right thing and put sustainability at the forefront.”

Before they make promises, brands aspiring to diminish waste flows must be realistic about the challenges they’ll face. The challenges range from high prices for components to packaging compromises. “It’s not an easy undertaking. Don’t do it just to check a box,” cautions Hedges. “It demands alignment, responsibility, passion and creativity from the full team.” Pelletier laments that it’s not easy for a small brand to make expensive choices to limit landfill waste. However, as the number of brands that make those choices increase, lower costs proliferate industry-wide.

“I would love it if more brands would switch over to using the paper tubes,” says Pelletier. “It would bring the cost of them down, and it would also maybe make other manufacturers see that there’s a market, and there wouldn’t just be one single company in the U.S. that makes them…I think that innovation would make it seem more doable to other beauty brands.”

Wadinski points out the industry isn’t moving toward lower waste across the board, making it difficult for brands to take certain measures. “We were not going to use boxes at first for our products, but retailers and shipping demanded we have them,” he says. “I struggled with this reality, knowing I wanted to create as little waste as possible.” He elaborates, “Rather than creating larger boxes with excessive filler cardboard, I used the thinnest 100% post-consumer recycled paper I could find and boxes that tightly wrapped around the bottles. Small shifts like this in such a big industry will pay dividends.”

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  • Advocates of zero waste in the beauty industry are focused on reducing the trash produced by beauty brands primarily in the form of plastic packaging.
  • While zero waste is a trendy term, lower waste is more likely the reality.
  • Packaging innovations can lead to higher rates of recycling and less waste.
  • As more brands adopt low-waste packaging options, those options become less costly.