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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
‘Clean Beauty’ Is Just a Pipe Dream If Sustainability Gets Left Behind

Every year, 3B trees are turned into paper packaging for the products we buy — including for many ‘clean’ beauty brands. These brands must take the same holistic approach to their packaging as their ingredients.

A new movement is rapidly gaining pace in the beauty industry — with growing demand that our lipsticks, cleaners, and lotions live up to buzzwords including ‘eco-friendly,' ‘vegan,' ‘natural' and ‘responsibly sourced’ — otherwise known as “clean beauty.” Urged on by Gen Z and Millennials, who are quickly assuming monopoly over spending power, today’s top beauty brands are being challenged to address their age-old ways. This pivot requires them to make products that align with today’s conscious consumers — who seek to avoid causing harm to themselves and the planet, and to advance this ethos through the products they use and buy.

However, until now, how we define ‘clean beauty’ has mainly focused on organic formulas and clean-ingredient lists. Despite heightened mindfulness from consumers on the ingredients we put in our hair and on our skin, and whether they are good for the planet, there’s still a lack of awareness around what a more holistic version of ‘clean’ looks like. With the impacts of the climate crisis quickly intensifying, that needs to change fast.

Every year, 3 billion trees are turned into paper packaging for the products we buy — including for many of the clean beauty brands that proudly uphold an eco-friendly ingredient list. Many of these trees are from the world’s most vital forests from places such as Indonesia and Canada — forests that filter air and water, house abundant biodiversity, and serve as massive hubs for carbon storage. Their protection is critical in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises, and to the communities that rely on them daily.

How products are packaged and how that packaging is made has a massive impact on the environment — and ultimately, us.

Most of us are aware of the harmful impacts of plastic on the environment. Many brands are taking steps to reduce the plastic in their packaging; but unfortunately, many are looking to paper made from forests as their “renewable” and “sustainable” alternative. Some brands are even trialing paper tubes and bottles for their products; but because of paper packaging’s link to forest destruction, this approach risks companies jumping out of the plastic frying pan and into the forest fire. There are other — more holistically beneficial — options.

Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, beauty brands committed to ‘clean’ need to develop strategies that take the same holistic approach to their packaging as the ingredients in their products. Using less paper packaging, sourcing high post-consumer recycled (PCR) content, and embracing innovative solutions — such as circular, take-back-and-refill packaging models; or making paper packaging from agricultural residues such as straw — can help brands live up to their ‘clean beauty’ labels without compromising quality.

Clean beauty leader Lush has done just that, in partnership with Canopy’s Pack4Good initiative, which works to guide and support brands to transform their paper packaging supply chains away from forests. Lush has reformulated products from shampoo to concealer, launching solid versions of everything from foundation to shampoo, in a bid to minimize packaging. With products where ‘naked packaging’ isn’t possible, Lush has developed paper procurement policies to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from its supply chains and opted to use lower-carbon, lower-impact alternatives to paper and plastic instead; and it takes back and reuses its famous black pots, which are already made from PCR content. LVMH, Beauty Kitchen and LOLI are other beauty leaders among the over 100 brands that have signed onto Pack4Good and put similar policies in place.

But these brands are only getting the conversation started. Personal care and beauty products still account for a third of all landfill waste, and the cosmetics industry produces 120 billion packaging units annually across the globe.

Fulfilling standards for ‘clean beauty’ isn’t easy; but as consumers insist on higher ethical standards for the products they buy, labels such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ will no longer be enough of a credential for beauty brands to stand behind. Brands need to step forward by ensuring their products — and packaging — are truly climate-friendly.

The power of collective action is far-reaching. As more beauty companies commit to transforming their supply chains, they will not only improve the environmental footprint of their individual brands, but the climate and biodiversity impacts across their entire industry and for the betterment of humanity.

Now that’s clean beauty.

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