From biodegradable deodorant tubes to refillable jars, Caro’s Creams and Wheesht Masks are examples of how small beauty brands are prioritising sustainability. But is ditching plastic always the best choice?
If there was a troop of comic book style villains who represented the threats facing life on Earth, a plastic overlord would likely be among them. It’s incredibly useful, sure, but oh how we’ve overstepped our bounds. According to campaigning organisation, Surfers Against Sewage, there are 500 times more microscopic pieces of plastic in the oceans than stars in the galaxy.
With the public increasingly motivated to do something about plastic – Plastic Free July, for instance, is in full swing – businesses are responding by re-thinking their packaging and overall environmental policies.
Not to be left behind, the cosmetics industry is right there among them. Nearly 50 per cent of cosmetics packaging is made of plastic, and the industry is actively searching for alternatives, particularly those brands with a more natural or ethical ethos. Luckily, small companies don’t have to look too far for inspiration: with many of their products sold in solid form, high street chain Lush was an early pioneer. And Increasingly, zero waste shops across the UK provide opportunities for eco-brands to sell their wares.
Gareth Després is the director of the UK-based School of Natural Skincare, whose graduates often go on to launch their own brands. He says he’s impressed by how many have dropped plastic from their operations.
“Recently, we bought loads of products from our students – we had about 10 boxes arrive,” says Després. “Products came in from all over the world – and there was no plastic in any of them. They all came in recycled cardboard boxes; the [packaging inside was] recycled paper; the products were either packaging-free, had paper or hemp packaging, or came in glass bottles. And inside [every single box] was a little leaflet about [the companies’] eco policy.”
Caroline Lee-Smith, a graduate of their Diploma in Natural Skincare Formulation course, and owner of Bristol-based skincare brand, Caro’s Creams, says that when she started her business six years ago, plastic-free wasn’t the norm.
“Everything tended to be in plastic. And at first, I didn’t know why. I wondered if plastic is more hygienic because maybe alternatives can’t be sanitised or sealed to the same extent. But actually, that’s not true,” she says. “As long as the packaging is food grade, then it’s acceptable for the cosmetics industry.”
Lee-Smith prides herself on being environmentally conscious within her operations: she has written an extensive eco policy that covers everything from renewable energy to sustainable water use to packaging. Virtually all of her product packaging – jars, labels, lids, tubes – is made from non-plastic, recyclable or biodegradable materials. Customers can also return their empty glass jars, which she sanitises and reuses.
But in the quest to be as sustainable as possible, interestingly, Lee-Smith does still use some plastic. Products are sometimes shipped in bubble wrap, but importantly, all of it is pre-used. “My whole street, [everyone on my] school run, my Facebook neighborhood group, they all supply me with their used packaging. And I pile it all up and reuse it,” she says.
So while claims such as ‘plastic-free’ and ‘zero waste’ sound quite impressive from a marketing and eco credentials point of view, the most sustainable, or practical, choice may not be to give up plastic completely. For Lee-Smith, who worked previously as a bulky waste reuse advisor for government, using up what’s already circulating felt more impactful than sourcing new, more recyclable packaging. Indeed, anyone familiar with the waste hierarchy would agree.
Like Caro’s Creams, Scottish brand Wheesht Masks, based in Stirling, puts sustainability front of mind. Owner Kelly Ford makes vegan, cruelty-free clay-based face masks and other skincare products, such as beard oil and cleansing balms. Her products come in glass jars with aluminium lids, and trial sizes are sold in biodegradable pouches. Additionally, masks come in powder form and are preservative-free. This means the customer gets better value and a less wasteful product: “They can [make up] exactly how much they want; they’re not buying a jar that’s already full of water,” says Ford.
Being mindful of plastic and waste are priorities for these brands, but for companies that want to minimise their environmental impact, Lee-Smith and Ford say that holistic decision-making is key. The only plastic product packaging in Lee-Smith’s line is the lid of her pipettes for face and hair serums. But they serve a very specific purpose, delivering a small amount of product to a desired area in a mess-free way. And they are reusable.
Plastic-free and zero waste are great buzzwords – they make people aware that there is an issue with waste
“The idea is that you buy them the first time and then in subsequent purchases you just buy the glass bottle with the aluminium lid,” she says.
‘Zero waste’, with its connotation that every opportunity to reduce or eliminate packaging has been taken, and that the businesses behind these products align to a higher moral code, is quickly rising to buzzword status. But Lee-Smith doesn’t see this as a negative thing.
“Plastic-free and zero waste are great buzzwords because they make people aware on a daily basis that there is an issue to do with our waste. And that is a really easy way for people to think about sustainability in the broader sense.”
Main image: Autumn Goodman