Circular economy or bust: A Q&A on sustainability with Emma Lewisham

Circular economy or bust: A Q&A on sustainability with Emma Lewisham

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword, it is an integral part of the future of the cosmetics industry, not to mention the world we live in. We chatted to Emma Lewisham, an expert speaker at in-cosmetics Korea 2021 and a pioneer in the world of sustainable beauty, about the circular economy and why it’s so important.


Tell us a bit about how the circular economy could be better utilised by the cosmetics industry?

Reducing waste is the biggest challenge the beauty industry faces. It is estimated that alone, the beauty industry is responsible for over 100 billion units of waste every year – all of which are either incinerated, sent to landfill or end up in our oceans. Alongside this, the sheer volume of single-use packaging produced makes it the biggest contributor of carbon emissions in the industry. However, there is a solution – it is predicted that in moving the beauty industry away from the existing linear model of ‘take, make, waste’, and towards a circular model, of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, not only could we eliminate billions of units of waste, but carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 70%, there could be up to 60% less energy used and 45% less water used (according to the LCA Centre).  There can be a cost to developing refillable moulds, but if more brands switched to refillable products and designed their products in a circular way, this would have a huge impact.

We are extremely passionate about leading this movement towards circular beauty. All Emma Lewisham products will be refillable by mid-2021 – a world first – and we go a step further by taking ownership of everything we produce, taking back all of our used packaging globally, to ensure that it is either reused or recycled through our ‘Emma Lewisham Beauty Circle’. It is important to understand that most beauty containers are not kerbside recyclable, so initiatives such as this are vital in order to redirect waste from landfill and move towards circularity. 

How could the idea of the circular economy translate into the retail space and do you think technological innovation during the pandemic will act as a catalyst for these changes?

We believe the retail space has a critical role to play in the evolution to a circular beauty industry. Due to the global pandemic we are seeing a rise in selling direct to customers, but the need and want to go into stores and speak with experts, test multiple products, and enjoy the shopping experience won’t disappear.

We are relying heavily on our retail partners to help engage and educate our customers on our story and our journey as well as providing a space to drop of our packaging to be collected for the Emma Lewisham Beauty Circle.

We’re seeing a lot of innovation in the sphere of sustainability, but what’s inspired you the most?

Another New Zealand company who has innovated in the sustainability space is Sandfords. Sandfords is a large fishing company in New Zealand that has recently bought into a beauty brand. At first it seems like an odd partnership, but it all started when Sandfords looked into the materials they were wasting in their operations. They looked into the skin of the Hoki fish and found that they were very high in collagen. That collagen is now being used in skin care products and is worth more than the fish fillets. This is a great example of thinking outside the box and turning what would otherwise be waste, into something that’s of value.

When we talk about sustainability, a lot of the focus is on product packaging but how important is it for brands to also look at making their formulas more environmentally friendly?

It’s really important to have ingredients and formulations that are environmentally friendly – looking at the totality of the product, not just the packaging and where this ends up, but where each part of a product comes from and any environmental and social impacts.

When selecting an ingredient for our formulas, we don’t just select it for its wealth of skin benefits, we also review it against strict criteria:  

  • Animal welfare – Ensuring individual ingredients are not tested on animals (it’s not enough for us to say we don’t test our products on animals)
  • Environmental management – Preservation and promotion of biodiversity, meaning we are not putting too much demand on an ecosystem, and also looking at the resources used to farm that ingredient (for instance, is it water intensive).
  • Organically certified
  • Responsible water use – Whether the farm re-uses water
  • Fair working conditions

For each ingredient, there are many environmental management issues that need to be carefully considered and worked through. For instance, sunscreens which use chemical screens such as oxybenzone or octinoxate are harmful to coral reefs, while different oils can cause different environmental and social issues (e.g. Palm Oil is a driver of reforestation, Coconut Oil has issues around forced animal labour).

The term “greenwashing” has become commonplace, meaning when brands make minor changes and use specialist terminology to appear sustainable without making any real impact. In your opinion, what can brands do to avoid this?

You’re right in saying that brands in this space can be very greenwashed. That’s why we have made huge efforts to be transparent to our customers and take them on our sustainability journey – sharing with them our achievements and clarity around the challenges that we have not found the ideal solution for yet. We have an actionable sustainability strategy available for everyone to read on our Emma Lewisham website that sets out our plans for the next two years and our customers can track our progress through this.

Our goals are measurable – and this is really key for brands who want to avoid greenwashing.  If you set a clear benchmark and measurable goals, you can truly show the impact you’re making and track progress.

We also have a glossary of terms on our website which is continually being updated, where we define important terms (e.g. what we mean when we say we use “natural” ingredients) and link to credible research that helps us to explain the decisions we’ve made so people can read deeper into a subject if they wish to. 

Demand for sustainable cosmetics is evolving and more and more brands are looking to improve the sustainability of their practices as a result. What differentiates Emma Lewisham cosmetics from other products and how do you communicate this to your customers?

As a business, Emma Lewisham is continuously innovating and challenging the status quo, particularly in the area of sustainability. The current take-make-waste linear model of beauty is not sustainable and we need to bring an end to it fast. We believe for beauty to truly be sustainable, it has to be circular. 

We’re taking ownership for our impacts. We’re giving Emma Lewisham customers the information they deserve– from the carbon impact of products, to ingredient source information. We’re taking ownership for our packaging, and were the first facial beauty brand in New Zealand to offer a free beauty recycling programme to fill a gap in the market – because the majority of beauty packaging that is put in local kerbside recycling ends up in landfill due to the complexity of the material used. Our recycling programme ensures that it is recycled and given another life.

We’re prioritising reusable packaging, and not settling for things which are only recyclable. We are really excited about being a 100% circular-designed brand, a goal we plan to achieve by mid-2021.

It will take a large-scale effort from many parties to reverse the current state of the planet. We believe all businesses must play a role in moving the needle forward and attacking the problem. We are collaborating with others who are working towards the same sustainability goals – with recycling providers, with sustainability experts, with our laboratory and packaging suppliers.  We’ve pushed our suppliers to find innovative solutions, in areas such as refillable packaging.

We have a sustainability strategy available for everyone to read on our Emma Lewisham website. We also have comprehensive sustainability pages which include detailed information on every ingredient we use (source location, how it is extracted, certifications it holds, confirmation of no animal testing etc), and breaks down a range of sustainability issues such as palm oil.

At Emma Lewisham cosmetics, you’re advocating across all your products and messaging for more sustainable beauty. Why is it so important to you and what inspired you to pursue this important issue?

When we were developing our very first products, it became apparent to me how the beauty industry was contributing to many of the environmental issues we are facing today. The take-make-dispose model of beauty was worrying to me, seeing billions of units of packaging being sent to landfill and our oceans every year. I learnt that in the beauty industry, packaging is the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions. Somewhere along the way, that became an acceptable standard.

I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the beauty industry. Emma Lewisham was founded to set a new benchmark in beauty. To provide skincare that has a positive impact on your skin, your wellbeing and the planet. We care deeply about ensuring that our children can enjoy Mother Nature – clean and beautiful, just as we have. Therefore, it is our mission to lead a movement towards a circular, carbon positive and transparent beauty industry, where refills, recycling and regeneration are simply responsible business practices.


Want to get to know more about sustainable beauty with Emma Lewisham? Check out her session at in-cosmetics Korea 2021.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.