Making beauty packaging more sustainable will be more than just switching plastic for paper packaging

Is paper packaging more sustainable? How beauty brands can avoid jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire

The last decade has ushered in huge changes in the beauty industry. Not only has beauty become a $532 billion USD[1] global business powerhouse, it has also risen to the demands of a customer base that insists their favourite brands keep up with important cultural shifts. In the age of social media, beauty vloggers, and customer engagement, we have seen beauty companies make huge strides in areas like inclusiveness, ingredient safety and efficacy, price, and variety.

Improving the environmental performance of packaging is an area where these companies can make major strides to reflect their customer’s desire for ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘circular’ beauty products. Customers not only want to know what the actual product is made of, but also what it’s packaged in.

While companies look for solutions to improve the sustainability of their packaging, many are shifting away from plastic and choosing paper packaging instead. There’s an assumption that switching to paper is an inherently sustainable choice, with claims that it’s ‘renewable’ frequenting corporate websites. However, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Over three billion trees are cut down each year to make paper packaging. Many of these come from the world’s remaining Ancient and Endangered Forests, the most high-carbon, high-biodiversity forest ecosystems, which have taken thousands of years to develop. Once lost, they are irreplaceable. While trees grow back, these ecosystems are certainly not ‘renewable’.

Forests are one of the most important natural buffers we have against the climate crisis. On top of acting as carbon storehouses, they are home to 80 percent of the world’s known terrestrial plant and animal species and are critical to maintaining biodiversity[2]. They are so key to our planet’s health that in November 2021 at COP26, more than 100 world leaders signed a pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.

Therefore, while paper packaging made from natural forests may often be easy to recycle, taking into consideration the ‘beginning of life’ impacts of packaging is just as important. The good news is that there are solutions.  

There are a number of opportunities for minimizing the impact of packaging, specifically paper packaging, used in the beauty industry. Reducing overall material use through things like smart design and reusable packaging offers a way to not only seriously limit environmental impact but also achieve long-term cost savings.

For instance, acknowledging that 95% of beauty packaging is thrown out after just one use, Beauty Kitchen (a Pack4Good partner) designed a ‘Return, Refill, Repeat’ model whereby their primary packaging can be returned for free to be sterilized and used again[1].

Other Pack4Good brand partners doing great things in this space include Lush, with its packaging-free or ‘naked’ beauty products and pot return scheme, as well as Rhianna’s Fenty Beauty, part of the LVMH family, with its refillable products.

Maximizing the use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) paper and cardboard, as well as agricultural residue fibres like wheat straw, hemp, and flax provides an additional way to reduce the pressure on forest ecosystems.

LOLI Beauty, a zero-waste beauty brand that is part of the Pack4Good initiative, is using a fully compostable outer packaging made of mushrooms and up-cycled hemp for some of its products[2]. LOLI also uses 100% recycled FSC paperboard for its shipping boxes.

Solutions exist. We here at Canopy are excited to highlight some of them through this beauty blog. We’re looking forward to supporting even more beauty brands as they improve their paper packaging choices and help to protect global forests in the process. Contact us for more information.

Written by Eleanor Dinnadge