Sense And Sustainability In The Beauty Industry

From packaging to ingredient sourcing and distribution, the beauty industry tends to be anything but sustainable. These companies are trying to change that – for you, the future, and the planet.
Written by Vivien Moon
(10)Is this article helpful?9 min read
Sense And Sustainability In The Beauty IndustryAllef Vinicius/Unsplash

In 2019, the cosmetics industry was valued at some $532 billion, and it’s been growing by nearly 5 percent each year since 2016. The numbers and growth are certainly astounding. And while the beauty industry does much to improve people’s sense of self and wellbeing, it is also responsible for a great deal of waste that has taken a toll on the environment.

Advancements in modern technology means shopping – online and in-store – has never been easier. However, the rapid production and accessibility of any and all products have created a damaging cycle for our ecosystems, wildlife, and planet. And the beauty industry is a big culprit. “According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a third of the landfill is from the beauty industry with the majority of it coming from color cosmetics because they're using single-use plastics and materials” explains Tiila Abbitt, founder of vegan makeup brand Āether Beauty.

While this information might be a bit daunting, many beauty and hygiene brands are stepping up to combat the negative effects of the industry by bringing shoppers eco-friendly alternatives that don't sacrifice quality. In honor of Earth Month, The AEDITION is looking at sustainability practices within the cosmetics, skincare, and wellness worlds, what it means, and how we can all do better to make our world – and ourselves – more beautiful.

Sustainability in Beauty

Sustainability in and of itself is the fulfillment of a modern-day need in a way that does not hinder the future or the present through the production of said need. In beauty and personal care, sustainability means recyclable packaging, decreased use of single-use plastics, consciously curated ingredients, safe-to-use components, and small-footprint production from start to finish.

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But because many of the products go directly on the skin, hair, or teeth, creating safe and efficacious products adds an additional challenge. “It's about sourcing natural ingredients sustainably,” says Bee Shapiro, founder of clean perfume brand Ellis Brooklyn. “But it’s also looking at how green chemistry and biotechnology can be used in the industry to save trees and natural resources.”


In 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics products after research showed its negative effect on the oceans. More recently, brands have started to research and invest in biodegradable alternatives while shifting away from single-use plastics. But there are still aspects of the industry that need addressing.

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“I visited a ton of recycling facilities and talked to packaging engineers in this space and realized that, with color cosmetics, you have mixed materials,” Abbitt explains. “There are heavier plastics where there isn't a secondary market to recycle them, and they're being mixed with mirrors, magnets, and screws. There's nobody there taking these pieces apart.” Not to mention, many of those additives are not recyclable. “Mirrors and magnets are completely unrecyclable,” she says. “And they're in almost every makeup component."

While no one expects beauty and personal care to be zero-waste, procedures and protocols can and must change. Currently, much of what the industry produces is a long-term waste. Paper takes two to six weeks to decompose, while plastic needs nearly 1,000 years. This is why shopping smarter is more important than ever.


Despite its massive presence on the global stage and rapid growth, the beauty industry can be more sustainable so long as brands take the necessary steps. “True sustainability is complicated,” says Lejla Cas, founder of biodegradable facemask brand KNESKO. “Balancing cost, sustainability, and safety, you have to find a fine balance between sustainable items that won’t degrade into our skincare, in addition to looking good.”

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In order to be sanitary and portable, beauty products tend to come in smaller packaging built to be both ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be sustainable. “When you launch a new product, you need to look for the most sustainable alternative for everything, from the cap to the material used for the tool to the paper, the cellophane, formulations, even the scent,” explains Sue Nabi, founder of clean beauty and fragrance brand Orveda. “We are the only skincare line that is scented with a 98 percent biodegradable scent that does not contain allergens.”

What Brands Are Doing

While no company can be completely zero-waste, many are doing as much as they can to offset the environmental impact of their formulation and production process, while maintaining quality and safety. Below are a few steps beauty brands have taken toward sustainability.


When you consider how many layers of shrinkwrap, cardboard, and plastic you have to go through (and discard) in order to open many beauty products, it should come as no surprise that packaging is a major source of waste in the personal care industry.

“Packaging sustainability encompasses everything from design, to production, to transportation, to disposal,” Cas notes. In the case of KNESKO, she says her team is “educating” itself by “exploring new technologies and considering every angle before adopting any new initiatives to always keep improving.”

Mirrors and magnets are two such packaging components in need of an eco-friendly update. At Āether Beauty, Abbitt developed makeup palettes that do not contain either and made sure everything was FSC certified. Additionally, she sought out fair-trade paper from sustainable forests, and she continues to monitor her ink sources to see if recycling is an option.

For Nabi and Orveda, innovation is the natural solution. “We are currently working on sustainable options for the plastic wrap around our products,” she explains. “We have launched the first 100 percent biodegradable and reusable deluxe candles, and we are working on a next-gen, 100 percent sustainable and efficient SPF.”

While moving away from plastic may seem like an obvious solution, it’s not necessarily as simple as it sounds. “If we move from plastic containers to aluminum or paper, where does it come from,” asks Matthew Malin, co-founder of MALIN+GOETZ. “How much more or less energy was used to get it to us and produce it?” Emissions from manufacturing and transportation must be evaluated before deciding on a suitable alternative. “We consider all of our manufacturing and how to keep it local,” he explains. “What ingredients are the most sustainable, effective and best for use? Can we consider and transition to packaging that is more environmentally friendly? And what does that mean?”

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Such efforts don’t just extend to new products. Legacy brands have made similar commitments to evaluating their own systems and processes. “Last year we conducted a ‘plastics scan’ and analyzed our full line of packaging weighing up its impact on the environment from cradle to grave,” explains Charles Denton, CEO of Erno Laszlo. The findings led to an “approved” packaging list that includes resins with a known, viable recycle stream – such as glass, aluminum, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and polypropylene (PP).

In keeping with this commitment, the brand also upgraded its iconic double-cleanse method to be more environmentally sound by removing the soap dish and plastic wrap in favor of parchment paper. The result? A fully recyclable customer experience. “Ultimately, I would like to own and operate a closed-loop recycle stream to recover our own plastic waste for repurposing into new packaging that will wind up back in the hands of our consumers,” Denton says.

And he encourages other businesses to move in a similar direction: “Take action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging,” he suggests. “Take action to move from single-use towards reusable models. Where relevant, 100 percent of plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable, or compostable.”


When speaking about sustainability, product formulations and ingredient sourcing must also be considered. While there is very little FDA regulation in the beauty industry, brands are taking matters into their own hands.

Vegan formulas are increasingly common, as are promises that ingredients are sourced ethically. “There are certain ingredients that you have to be especially wary of, and they generally have to do with wood-derived ingredients,” Shapiro explains. “You can definitely have well-sourced sandalwood, but there is still a shocking amount of sandalwood that is illegally traded or not sustainably grown/harvested at all. Anything palm oil-related also needs a second look.”

Mica, a mineral dust used to add shimmer and sparkle to makeup, is another ingredient with a troubling reputation. “Thirty percent of the world’s mica is child labor-related,” Abbitt laments. “With every single innovation that's happened with ingredients, there's no reason to be supporting brands that source in this way.” As a workaround, Āether Beauty uses synthetic mica when it can’t source ethical mica. “It looks exactly like mica,” she says of the man-made alternative. “But it's clear.”

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Fragrance is another area in which eco-conscious synthetic ingredients can go a long way. Ellis Brooklyn recently released Iso Gamma Super — a 100 percent synthetic scent. “It is made with green chemistry, completely renewable, and allergen-free,” Shapiro says.

Orveda, meanwhile, has figured out ways to reduce its carbon footprint using technology. “We have decided to use mainly biotechnology sourced natural ingredients to avoid exhausting nature’s resources,” Nabi shares. “We are using less than 5 percent plastic components across all touchpoints and have pure glass packaging, FSC papers, and bin-free point of sales where everything is reusable. Therefore, no single usage items.”


But what about all the less sustainable products currently in the market? Brands and retailers have come up with eco-minded programs to help reduce waste and offset manufacturing processes.

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In January, The Detox Market debuted its Sustainability Starts Now initiative, which was inspired by rising global temperatures. Its Earth CPR strategy involves offering clean products, planting more trees, and recycling used beauty products. The goal is to plant 500,000 trees in 2020 and 2.5 million by 2025, in an effort to become carbon negative. The recycling program, meanwhile, is in partnership with TerraCycle and allows anyone to drop off used and/or expired products knowing that it will be recycled properly.

What Can Consumers Do?

As with all businesses, the basic economic rule of supply and demand plays a key role. Those who want to make their beauty and hygiene routines more sustainable and eco-friendly have to make their purchases based on those values. Here’s how you can make your beauty routine a bit more sustainable.

1. Research

There is a lot of greenwashing in the industry,” Cas says. “The words ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are essentially meaningless.” So the best way to know what goes into the product and how it’s made is by doing due diligence. “Consumers can learn about the company by viewing its website and ingredient deck, if available,” she recommends. Resources such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep database verifies beauty and hygiene products based on their chemical makeup to ensure consumers are shopping safely.

2. Shop Smarter

If you are interested in creating a more sustainable routine, look for cosmetic products with a longer shelf life and refillable options that will eliminate the need for single-use products. From fragrance and hygiene to hair, makeup, and skincare products, there are many ways to make your regimen a bit more eco-friendly. “Less is more,” Abbitt says. “Āether Beauty palettes have a huge fill that last three to four years. We're taking the idea of slow fashion into beauty.” Clé de Peau Beauté, Kjaer Weis, L'Occitane, Le Labo, and Rituals are just a few of the brands that offer refillable products.

3. Eliminate Waste

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For starters, try purchasing reusable cotton rounds instead of single-use cotton swabs. When it comes to small changes, Malin explains that “something as simple as egregious use of unnecessary and unsustainable packaging practices can be worth avoiding to make a small impact daily.” Do an inventory of what products can be substituted with eco-friendly alternatives and how your shopping habits can be changed to decrease the amount of waste.

4. Recycle

What many eco-friendly brands offer is recyclable packaging but finding a place to do it can be difficult. And at times, it’s hard to tell if something can be recycled at all. Brands and retailers including The Detox Market, Garnier, Kiehl's, Lilah B, Lush, Origins, and Summer Fridays allow for customers to return expired and/or used beauty products to ensure that not just the packaging but the remaining formula are disposed of properly. Companies like TerraCycle can be a good alternative for those who cannot find a recycling facility near them.

The Takeaway

It’s impossible to be perfectly sustainable all the time, but that doesn’t mean a series of small actions can’t make a big environmental impact. Never is that more true than in the beauty and personal care space. When consuming anything, your money speaks for you — so opt for brands that share your values. While it might seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that the power is in your hands. Consider all the factors: Will you use it? What is in it? How was it made? How will you recycle it? And go from there.

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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