Elevating sustainability: the allure of green cosmetics packaging

Elevating sustainability: the allure of green cosmetics packaging

Beauty and cosmetics packaging has long stood as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, with elaborate designs and the excessive use of materials designed to evoke emotional responses in consumers. And it makes sense; packaging is a customer’s very first introduction to a product. In a society where we are driven by aesthetics and visual appeal, a product’s shelf presence, and the resulting first impression, has a significant impact on purchasing decisions. The old adage, ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ comes to mind, but when it comes to cosmetics, the cover often takes precedence over the content.  

This was how the world of cosmetics was running until the climate crisis took hold and today, packaging across all industries is undergoing a remarkable evolution towards sustainability. Indeed, the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), aims to ensure that all packaging in the European Union (EU) is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030, in line with the EU Green Deal and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan.  

A number of packaging associations and leaders have signed the agreement, signalling their commitment to the prevention and minimisation of packaging waste. Ergo, the lavish and extravagant packaging that we once craved and coveted, has now become a symbol of irresponsibility and reckless consumerism. Today, shoppers are increasingly prioritising eco-conscious choices. Sustainable packaging is the reality that brands need to work towards to remain competitive and relevant in today’s market. According to a survey conducted by Trivium Packaging, 47% of consumers claimed they would not buy products in packaging that is ‘harmful to the environment’, and 74% of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging, with 25% willing to pay an additional 10% or more. Pro Carton’s Consumer Survey echoes these figures, finding that 72% of consumers would pay more for a sustainably packaged item. 

Smurfit Kappa’s Sustainability Reshapes the Business Landscape For Good report also found that 42% of consumers claim to have ‘always’ or ‘often’ purchased a product specifically because it has reusable or biodegradable packaging, and nearly a third (32%) ‘always’ or ‘often’ rejected a brand based on sustainable packaging. 

The consensus is that sustainability is no longer a mere trend or ‘phase,’ but a fundamental aspect that shapes the purchasing decisions of the modern, environmentally conscious consumer. 


Cultural differences  

Examining the industry from a broader perspective, Paris-based Christine Ansari, Vice President of Korean company, CTK Cosmetics, says Europe is at the “forefront of green initiatives” which is largely due to the “high levels of regulation” compared to other regions. She adds: “Europe has always led in this space. This comes down to increased levels of regulation compared to other regions such as the US or Asia. I think it’s definitely a movement taking a global hold, and social media has played a big part in educating people further.”  

Speaking from the luxury consumer packaged goods sector, Ansari explains that while the industry is making considerable progress, it is an area that could “certainly grow and have a significant impact.” She continues: “It is becoming apparent to consumers that not only can they save on costs, but eliminating excess packaging is generally helpful. The challenge to the industry lies in presenting this in a way that the value and quality is not compromised and is still highly regarded.” 

As the industry adapts to ongoing changing consumer preferences, the emphasis will remain not only on reducing the environmental footprint, but also on redefining how value is perceived in high and luxury quality cosmetics.  


Minimising waste first 

Winfried Mühling, Marketing and Communications Director of Pro Carton, the European association of carton and carton board manufacturers, says when it comes to reducing cosmetic packaging, the importance lies in distinguishing between what is truly necessary and what is merely excess. He explains, “There are still several elements to packaging. You have the container the product comes in, the primary packaging, the secondary packaging, and the supply chain packaging, most of which gets disregarded before the product is even on-shelfs. It all starts with the primary packaging, so if you design it in a smart way, you can avoid all these unnecessary elements and what is called ‘overpackaging’.”  

He continues: “In cosmetics and personal care, consumers want beautiful, visually appealing packaging with special protection, and companies might have the tendency to take a 50ml liquid product and place it in a 200ml container to create impact. Subsequently, the primary and secondary packaging are impacted too, so you are overpackaging throughout the supply chain. Of course, this is not only unnecessary, wasteful packaging, but it fools customers about the product they are buying.” 

Mühling stresses that by prioritising simplicity, efficiency, and eco-friendly materials from the point of packaging design, businesses can not only contribute to environmental conservation but also meet the evolving expectations of conscious consumers in a global market. 

Another key element in reducing waste is in materials, which Ansari notes is where she has seen the most significant shift. “We’re experiencing more emphasis placed on material; the type of material, the amount of material, and then, whether it is new or post-consumer recycled material to replace and eliminate certain others,” she says. “It’s pushing us, as an Asian supplier, to reassess the products we use, but ultimately, it comes down to cost. In many cases, PET is traditionally a higher cost material than plastic. But when the consumer is demanding it, you don’t really have a choice, so it is helping [us] shift in the right direction.”  

Adam Lowe, Head of Sustainability at The Hut Group, emphasises a proactive approach to addressing packaging waste, stating that “understanding the problem” is the “first step” towards finding effective solutions. “You can’t fix a problem that you don’t know is there” he explains. “The first strategy I would always recommend for minimising packaging waste would be to complete a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on the current ways of working and understand where the low-hanging fruit is in terms of process optimisation and materials reductions.”  

Lowe suggests that conducting LCAs enables businesses to pinpoint areas of improvement and can provide valuable insights into the environmental impact of existing processes, guiding them toward more sustainable alternatives. Within the LCA, Lowe notes multiple assessment categories can be tailored to specific purposes, allowing for a more detailed analysis of the packaging process. Completing the LCA, he argues, is a cost-effective investment that yields critical information for developing budgets and plans for implementing new, sustainable solutions.  

Ahead of the game, Estée Lauder, the beauty giant and owner of 26 globally-recognised brands including Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Bumble and Bumble, Clinique, La Mer, MAC Cosmetics, Origins, Smashbox, and more, already uses LCA software to monitor the environmental impacts of its packaging and design functions. It reported in 2022 that 63% of packaging used by the company was recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled, or recoverable. 


Taking the plunge 

Addressing some of the challenges in the pursuit of sustainable packaging and shedding light on potential trade-offs that businesses may encounter, Mühling emphasises the significance of consumer acceptance. 

He explains: “The consumer wants to have a good feeling and enjoy the ‘unboxing’ experience, but many studies have shown the most important packaging feature to consumers is recyclability. Consumers are increasingly wanting to feel responsible and know what will happen to the product after its initial use.”   

This stance aligns with a broader trend of consumers increasingly prioritising environmentally responsible practices, and highlights where compromises must be made to achieve a healthy balance between environmental impact and consumer satisfaction. Mühling also advises against having “too many loose parts coming together,” and that it is important to “streamline” the product design process to facilitate easier and better recycling. 

When it comes to consumer expectations, Ansari acknowledges that instilling value in new packaging concepts such as refillable systems can be a significant challenge, as customers often associate value with the excitement of acquiring a brand-new product.  

“The consumer has a certain fantasy with getting something new, so it can be challenging to create value in refill systems. But there is a bridge to cross to get to the point where the consumer accepts using their existing compact or lipstick, for example, because it’s durable, beautiful, and still works perfectly. This is where a level of education comes into play. The paradigm has shifted from a simple product purchase where you ‘just have to take the cap off and go,’ to a more involved process that necessitates consumer education and understanding.” 

While the allure of novelty can pose a hurdle in convincing consumers to embrace refillable options, consumers are increasingly taking awareness to a more meaningful level. Ansari notes that different brands have different methods of managing refill systems, and this is where investment in R&D becomes pivotal, especially in developing biomaterials that can replace conventional plastics. 


Looking ahead 

Looking towards the future trends of sustainable packaging, there’s a strong prediction from Ansari that refills will take center stage, particularly with skincare’s refillable jars gaining traction over the last few years. She notes that the perception around refills has evolved, challenging the notion that they compromise on aesthetics or luxury, and that visually appealing refills, even with glass packaging, are now a reality, blending aesthetics with sustainability.  

“I think refills will become important because it’s a very effective way of eliminating extra, excess material,” she said. “Up until now, the challenge has been in making refills sexy and alluring to consumers, and now we’re seeing you can do attractive refills. It’s mostly been in skincare with refillable jars and lipstick, so I think this year and beyond, we’re going to see that trickle down to touch a wider range of products.” 

Lowe contends that the traditional model of packaging is seeing an evolution, with an increased focus on return schemes for empty products. “Companies are starting to introduce take-back-style processes whereby once the container is used, it can be returned to the sender, free of charge, for recycling, cleaning and re-use. While these return schemes are still in their nascent stages and face challenges related to costs, this is expected to be a key driver for companies looking to distinguish themselves in a competitive market where eco-conscious choices are becoming increasingly prioritised.” 

In addition, the role of packaging as a messenger for brands is set to become even more crucial. Packaging will always serve as the first point of contact for consumers, and this initial touchpoint presents a significant opportunity for brands to leverage sustainability as a powerful sales tool. Mühling notes the key lies in creating packaging that “not only entices but also captures” the attention of consumers amidst the myriad of choices on the shelves.  

The ongoing discourse around sustainable packaging within the cosmetics and personal care industry is helping move it towards making better, eco-conscious choices. Leaders like Mühling, Ansari, and Lowe echo a call for true innovation and action, urging the industry to reconcile sustainability with consumer expectations, aesthetics, and operational viability.  

Sustainability stands as one of the key pillars of the in-cosmetics Global show and this year, it will focus on championing a more eco-conscious industry by providing a pivotal platform for those looking to drive real, positive change. The Sustainability Zone will return, in partnership with The Green Chemist Consultancy, promising to help and inspire suppliers and manufacturers on their journeys to becoming more sustainable. A new addition to the show this year will be the Sustainability Zone Forum, a one-day programme that will delve deeper into practices that companies are employing throughout the lifecycle of cosmetic products, hosting leaders who will share and discuss new advancements that can help minimise environmental impact. Offshoot features on the show floor will also include the Sustainability Display and Presentation Theatre, sponsored by AAK, and the Sustainability Pavilion, powered by Farmforce. 

Stay tuned for the next article in our Sustainability Series looking at Greenwashing, Bluewashing and Honest Marketing. 

in-cosmetics Global, powered by KSM, returns from 16-18 April 2024 at the Porte de Versailles, Paris. For more information and to register to attend, visit here. 


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