Beauty's Toxic Relationship with Plastic: 3 Things They Don't Want You to Know

I spent a lifetime uninformed about the impact skincare containers have on our environment and oceans. That changed in August 2019 when we took a family trip to Vancouver. We visited the art exhibit by Douglas Coupland at the Vancouver Aquarium - a provocative display highlighting the extent and the impact of plastic trash in our oceans.

It really stuck with me.

Always one for a good case of mom guilt, I felt overwhelmed about my own contribution to the problem. I ruminated about the fact that somewhere out there lies every single toothbrush I’ve ever used. Every single diaper my kids ever used (and the ones from when I was a baby, 40 some odd years ago). Every straw. Every ribbon, piece of packaging, grocery bag, and iconic coffee drink stopper. 

Everything. It’s all still out there somewhere.

I felt hopeless that my changes would not matter. As a working mom with 2 little boys, our life is chaos and convenience always wins. However, I realized that nobody is perfect and that little changes always matter.

If millions of people all make little changes it really will have an impact. 

(but... there's always a but...) people need to come together to create meaningful structural change. YES an individual can make a difference, but the collective is more powerful. 

So, I cancelled my beloved beauty sample box. I LOVED my beauty sample box. It was like Christmas every month. That shiny, pink bubbly envelope would arrive and I could feel my brain bursting with glee, knowing I’d get 5 shimmery, fragrant, joy-bringing items (most of which would shortly find their way into my cosmetics graveyard). When I got my “tell us why you cancelled” email, I answered: "Too many single-use plastic items, nothing recyclable, have to make a change.” Nobody really cares if I personally subscribe or not, but if 1000 or 10 000 or 100 000 people all did the exact same thing, companies would pay attention. 

As a consumer, I make choices and tell companies why I make them. If they feel the bottom line shifting and consumer sentiment matches the shift, they will be forced to adapt or fade away.

As a brand owner, I make deliberate decisions and build them into my business model from day one. While creating the bareLUXE brand, I witnessed a whole world of marketing gimmicks and schemes aimed not just at consumers, but also at brand owners. We too are bombarded with options when making business decisions. Having the opportunity to pick something that “sounds” better (even if it isn't) can be tempting because of the huge cost of sustainable skincare containers. Brand owners have a corporate (and ethical) responsibility to do our research too.

Truly eco-friendly packaging exists, and the technology is ready to replace plastic. However, the only way that will happen is if consumers change what they buy. Big corporations will not likely change until their bottom line is affected. Consumers have the power to challenge the status quo and force change! 

 

A Brief History of Skincare and Petroleum

Gasoline wasn’t thought to have much value until the late 1800s when the automobile industry began to develop. In 1920 there were 9 million vehicles in the U.S. and gas stations were opening. Plastics were invented in the late 1800s but also didn’t gain much use until later. The end of World War II brought about a surge in plastic production. Plastics were new, exciting, and extremely useful. Not only was plastic light, durable, and inexpensive, it was readily able to replace metal and glass, created from an abundant source material (petroleum). However, by the 1960s some downsides were starting to be noted: ocean debris, persistence of plastic waste, and concerns about pollution (petroleum refining, fires) and contamination (oil spills).

Along with the oil boom in the early 1900s and the post-war plastic boom, the beauty industry also began to grow. In the U.S. it was valued at $60 million in 1920, $400 million in 1930, and into the billions by the 1970s. As the variety of products exploded, so too did the packaging. Predominantly plastic. 

The petroleum, plastic, and beauty industries all started to develop exponentially in the 1920s. That’s only 100 years ago. In less than 2% of our time here on Earth, consumerism has created a climate catastrophe that threatens our own survival.     
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There is no debate about the harmful nature of both producing and wasting plastic. The energy implications for bottled water alone are staggering. At an annual consumption of 33 billion liters of bottled water in the U.S., in the year 2007 it was estimated that 32-54 million barrels of oil were required to produce them - a number that triples when you consider the global bottle water demand.

The global community is estimated to consume 1 million bottles of water per minute. That's 1.5 billion bottles per day. And these are all single-use plastics. If you have access to clean drinking water, immediately stopping the use of any bottled water is a very meaningful change. 

The impact of giving up plastic bottled water alone could have an immediate effect on climate change - oil consumption, emissions, plastic waste, and microplastics.

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The Beauty Industry and its Toxic Relationship with Plastic

The beauty industry relies on hundreds of billions of cheap plastic skincare containers. In 2017, the beauty and personal care market size was over 455 billion. It’s estimated that global production of cosmetics containers is 120-150 billion per year.

In 2019, the top 10 lip balm brands in the U.S. sold almost 200 million units of lip balm. In our previous article about ethical beauty brand design, we highlighted a case study example about the lip balm industry and packaging costs. A switch to truly sustainable skincare containers is something that big corporations want to avoid given the (up to) 50x increase in packaging costs alone.

 

Beauty Packaging and Skincare Containers

When it comes to beauty packaging there are a lot of common and recognizable options, along with some newer, exciting alternatives. The product you buy will likely have many different levels of packaging and labelling. For example:

  • Shipping materials: envelopes, boxes, branded tissue paper, promotional material, free gifts, and samples.
  • Additional inner packaging applied to the container: decorative tag, safety/hygiene seal.
  • The label applied or printed onto the product container.
  • The container that holds the actual product (this is the largest driver of cosmetic plastic waste).

At each level, there are different options and the brand developing the product has key sustainability choices along the way.

The brand gets to decide whether to make sustainable choices all the way down to the bubble wrap, packing peanuts, and the ink used to print labels. Spoiler alert: Sustainable, eco-friendly options exist for everything. They just cost more. Those packing peanuts can be 100% biodegradable, but the brand needs to make that choice.

When compared to the cheapest option, both the sustainable route and the customer experience route are more expensive to both the brand and the consumer. However, the heart of the matter surrounds the amount paid in creating the consumer experience versus the more sustainable option.

Bottom line: when you buy a $300 face serum, you don’t expect it to arrive in a kraft box, wrapped in newspaper! However, we guarantee that the actual product inside the vial does not cost $300 to manufacture... consumers have the choice for how much they are willing to pay for the experience of buying the serum.

There are many eco-friendly packaging companies. It is completely possible for brands to use sustainable options that still provide customer experience. A few we like are: NoIssueecoencloseThe Better Packaging Co, PackHub, and Elevate Packaging. Two interesting sustainable technologies we are watching are packaging made from mushrooms and ink made from algae (note: these are unsolicited, non-affiliate links).

Simply packaging skincare products into 'recyclable containers' and thinking they've done enough is an error companies make. It puts the responsibility on to the consumer. What needs to happen is total redesign of our system and our nature as consumers.

The beauty industry needs to step up

 

Is There Any Material Perfect for Skincare Containers?

Nothing is perfect. We love glass as an alternative to plastic. However, glass is heavy. It costs more to ship. It can shatter (so not the best option for bath products). It persists in the environment literally forever if it’s thrown away. Mining sand from ocean and riverbeds also has environmental consequences.

The great thing is that glass is infinitely recyclable, and it will never leach toxins into the environment or produce microplastics. 

One thing we discovered (the hard way unfortunately) is that even some glass cannot be recycled if it’s painted a certain way. This is similar to how plastics get removed from the recycling stream when they’re a certain colour (even if labelled as recyclable). Another area where corporate responsibility is required.

 

bareLUXE Infographic about skincare containers

 

3 Secrets the Beauty and Plastics Industries Don't Want You to Know

1. Words without easy-to-find details are probably meant to distract you or improve your chance of purchasing based on the idea that something is cleaner or greener, regardless of whether it truly is. Bioplastics and the prefix "bio" imply eco-friendliness. Biodegradable implies the item will harmlessly disappear in a reasonable time. Labeling something as “recyclable” does not mean it will get recycled. Labelling a product or a brand with keywords, such as "Green Beauty" or "Clean Beauty" is important because it helps classify brands for consumers (and search engines) to easily find them. The issue is that none of these terms are truly defined nor regulated. But it’s not all just marketing gimmicks and tricks. These terms do serve a purpose. 

Details should be easy to find. Brand transparency is critical.

2. Sales and profit depend on impulse shopping - add-ons, paid samples, mini-trial sizes, subscription boxes. Brands know you will buy more to get free shipping. Serotonin and dopamine fuel our consumerism. Pretty little things matter to shoppers. I'm as guilty as the next person. However, just as brands need to deeply examine their corporate choices, so do consumers. There is an endless list of things we can buy. Supporting the best ethical skincare brands will help send a message to the giants who are unwilling to change. There is a way to find a happy medium. 

3. Skinimalism = Minimalism: buy less stuff (gasp!). Overconsumption of sustainable products isn’t sustainable either. Use what you have. Choose new products with intention.  

 

 TL:DR? The Bottom Line

  • The Green Beauty movement is about more than just using eco-friendly, toxin-free skincare products on your face. Skincare containers also need to be toxin-free and safe for our earth.
  • Consumers drive change in the cosmetics industry.
  • Brands want you to think you’re making the right choices and they rely on you being seduced by the beauty or the idea of a product.
  • Informed consumers take their decision-making a bit further and consider the brand, not just the product. Align your values with a trusted company. 
  • When consumer sentiment starts shifting, big brands and corporations are forced to adapt or fade away. Consumers (that’s you!) drive that change. We all do.

 

bareLUXE Skincare is working to educate consumers and challenging the big brands to step up when it comes to skincare containers and beauty packaging. They take simple Green Beauty ingredients and elevate them using Performance Botanicals that work