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For a More Sustainable Beauty Industry

Rome was not built in a day. This adage, which attests to the need for time to create great things, is a worthy illustration of the challenges we face as a society to become more sustainable. This is especially the case for the beauty packaging industry, which, driven by its brand fragmentation and requirement to be aesthetically pleasing, has a litany of challenges that will take time and concentrated efforts to tackle. Beauty packaging comes in all shapes, colours, and materials, by and large consisting of plastic, glass, paper and metal. It is estimated that 120 billion units of packaging are created every year, and an estimated mere 10% of these are recycled. It is not for a lack of interest that such a small share is recycled, but rather a mix of reasons, the leading ones being our consumer desires and habits. When I speak of desires, I am referencing our human need to be accepted by our peers, and our appearance playing a clear role in this interaction. Since we were cavepeople, we have been known to use tools to improve our appearance, from using brushes to tame our hair or applying coal to our skin to accentuate our features. In our modern-day society, these tools have developed into a fragmented market with many brands and products that speak to our individual and differentiated needs. Accordingly, we expect these beauty brands to mirror our own values, of which packaging plays a key part.

An example of this, which can be widely found in premium- positioned brands in the skincare and colour cosmetic segments, is the gold and silver metallization of the packaging. This does not come out of thin air, but from our centuries- long learned behaviour to recognize silver and gold as sought-after precious metals. Clever beauty brand marketers have used this aspect of humanity to raise the desirability of their products. While this is a great marketing tool, it is not sustainable due to the chemical nature of the lacquers used to generate this optical effect. These types of packaging cannot be recycled as it would contaminate the recycling stream, and thus they end up in a landfill, ocean, or similar non-recycled destination. While many manufacturers are eagerly working to identify solutions that allow for the product to remain aesthetically pleasing while achieving the requirements for sustainability, this example is but one of many, and I see little chance that we can solve all of them in the near future. The only possible solution is that we, as consumers, must be open and willing to accept new packaging norms that might not be as aesthetically pleasing as we are used to from the past, therefore recognising this necessity to make the packaging sustainable. Tackling our consumer habits is also a key step in increasing the share of recycled packaging in our efforts towards a circular economy. For beauty packaging to be recycled, we, as consumers, must adapt and separate the materials into their dedicated recycling streams. We have learned behaviours where we often dispose of beauty packaging as a whole. These products are then not recycled because the recycling machines cannot separate these materials into their dedicated streams. A prime example of this are skincare jars consisting of a glass jar and plastic closure. This simple process of separating a package into its components, which can have such an outsized benefit, is only done by a small minority of consumers. It is true that we are getting better at recycling, a trend that is greatly helped by recent movements such as the “Fridays For Future”, but we are still a long way away of achieving a lasting effect. This is where education plays a key role, be it the industry, government, or self-learning as consumers. If we can further raise awareness of how products are to be treated and disposed of after use, we will be able to greatly increase the share of recycled packaging. In conclusion, it is on us as individual members of our societies to drive our efforts towards a circular economy with a sustainable product lifecycle. Do not expect our governments or industries to solve this challenge when we ourselves are at its root, and have the highest impact to improve the status quo.

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