Sustainable Packaging – Is It a Fad?

25th September 2019

It’s far to say that at the moment we have something of a plastic problem. The UK alone uses around 5 million tonnes of plastic every single year. A goodly portion of that plastic is…

It’s far to say that at the moment we have something of a plastic problem. The UK alone uses around 5 million tonnes of plastic every single year. A goodly portion of that plastic is either recycled at home or exported to other nations like China and Malaysia to recycle for us. The rest, however, can find its way into landfill waste. This invariably means that it can come into contact with our oceans and our natural environment, with often devastating effects on our ecology. Plastic waste can leach harmful compounds into the oceans which have a knock-on effect on all fish and other marine mammals, birds, soil and plant life. Not to mention indigenous populations that use the sea as their primary source of sustenance. 

We have heard scary soundbites from experts like Dame Ellen MacArthur about how unless we mend our ways there will be more plastic than fish in the UK by 2050. And both inside and outside of the cosmetics industry, brands are engaged in an arms race to make their packaging more sustainable and eschew single-use and non-recyclable plastics. 

Bt is this all a fad? An example of brands trying to get one up over their competitors and appeal to eco-conscious consumers rather than being driven by a genuine sense of Corporate Social Responsibility? Let’s wade into an ocean of debate and address the steps taken by leading brands to address the issue of plastic waste. 

Development of sustainable packaging 

Since the 1950s, we’ve been reliant on plastics in virtually every aspect of day to day living. And as consumers have become increasingly aware of the effects of this on the environment, this has led to increasingly extensive research and development. All over the world, companies are commissioning research into the development of more sustainable packaging.

This ranges from returning to more sustainable (but still finite) resources like the paper card and plastic to the development of sustainable polymers. Yet, while these are certainly a step in the right direction, they are not infallible. Sustainable polymers use readily renewable feedstocks like plants for production rather than traditional oil-based plastics. Which is great! But in terms of waste, some of these plastics differ little from their traditional counterparts. While some of these sustainable polymers can be biodegradable under the right conditions, not all of them biodegrade in landfills or garden compost.

This is why it’s essential for consumers to do their research before assuming that sustainable polymers can be recycled or composted.

Cost of changing packaging to sustainable packaging

A key issue for businesses reconsidering their packaging materials is that of cost. What will it cost to move to more sustainable packaging options for their products? Is sustainable packaging even viable for their products? (More on that later). Can they recreate the look and feel in their packaging that resonates with their target market? What are the implications upon product shelf life when switching to different packaging materials? 

The cost can vary wildly from product to product and industry to industry. Some brands claim that the move is cost-effective with minimal downtime but this may vary for industries with more complex needs. 

Generally, the majority of the cost is born not by brands but manufacturers. Brands can expect a typical 1% increase in costs, but manufacturers can bear increases by more than 10%.

Why are sustainable materials are so expensive at this moment in time?

Changing in packaging materials, regardless of brand or industry, can have a huge knock-on effect on the whole supply chain 

Using recycled and new materials are generally more expensive than using virgin materials. The laws of supply and demand dictate this. They almost always cost more because they usually have the same scale of production. What’s more, manufacturers need to invest in additional research and development investment in order to change the machinery line.  

However, as the demand for more sustainable materials grows, this may change and costs may even out. It’s also worth noting that studies show consumers (especially younger consumers) are happy to pay more for products and packaging that are more sustainable. 

In a global marketplace, wildly varying national policies on recycling can also have a knock-on effect on other nations such as China’s restrictions on the purchase of recyclable materials. 

Why do certain products need certain plastics in their packaging?

While the future seems bright for sustainable packaging across the board, there are some industries for which the waters are muddied somewhat. The cosmetics industry, as well as other industries that deal in complex chemical formulations, may encounter stumbling blocks when it comes to switching to different packaging materials.

After all, chemical compounds react to one another. It’s what they do. Cosmetics manufacturers carry out extensive research into the packaging materials they use in order to ensure that the packaging doesn’t change the composition of the product. Such a reaction could, at the very least reduce the product’s efficacy and at worst prove potentially dangerous to the consumer. 

That’s not to say that the cosmetics industry can’t invest in more sustainable packaging practices. But brands may have to carry out more extensive research and development than equivalents in other industries. 

Which companies in the skincare and cosmetics companies are adopting sustainable packaging practices?

The inherent complications and challenges of moving to more sustainable packaging options haven’t prevented a multitude of cosmetics firms from doing sterling work in making their operations more sustainable. Many, such as Hourglass Cosmetics and Surratt Beauty shifting towards reusability of packaging and offering refills at lower prices while pulling out all the stops in their packaging to make it more of a keepsake and reduce the idea of disposability. Likewise, beloved brand L’Occitane’s have developed refill pouched for their 500ml hair and body care solution with 90% less packaging weight.

Aveda is also doing laudible work in eliminating virgin plastic packaging by using bioplastics made from sugarcane. Currently, 85% of the brand’s range is made from 100% post-consumer recycled materials. 

What is the scale of the damage to the global environment from the cosmetics and skincare industries? 

The word “natural” is big business in the cosmetics business, and the global organic beauty market is expected to grow up to roughly 10% each year until at least 2024. As such, it behoves manufacturers to ensure that the processes in place when sourcing and cultivating natural ingredients is ethical and sustainable. The Mica scandal also demonstrates the importance of allowing total transparency in terms of production methods and the human and environmental cost of production both for products and their packaging. 

In conclusion, sustainable packaging is only a fad if brands treat it as one. If environmental stewardship is woven into the fabric of their operations there are a multitude of ways in which brands can reduce the environmental impact of their packaging with minimal impact on their bottom line. 

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