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How to identify sustainable packaging in the beauty industry

What shoppers - and brands - can do to support sustainability when it comes to packaging.
Cosmetic bottles, shampoo bottle, soap bottle
Beauty packaging creates 120 billion units globally each year - much of which is not recyclable.

It's no secret that the beauty industry produces massive amounts of consumer waste. TerraCycle estimated that beauty product packaging is responsible for 120 billion units globally each year and what's worse, only 9 per cent of the world's plastic since 1950 has actually been recycled. Meaning, our consumption of beauty products is a massive contribution to an already catastrophic problem.

So what can be done?

Some beauty and personal care companies have already taken notice and adjusted their packaging standards to take baby steps toward more sustainable practices and according to a recent report, consumers are becoming more discerning with how they spend their money, insisting on better environmental practices from the brands they support.

This demand has also led to an uptick in greenwashing where brands make eco-friendly claims about their sustainability and research that are either misleading, vague, or completely untrue in an attempt to make themselves seem more desirable to conscious consumers.

Meet Novi

A new platform called Novi, co-founded by Kimberly Shenk, is a resource for both brands and consumers to help identify what makes packaging sustainable and make more informed choices.

Novi was developed to connect clean cosmetic brands with manufacturers and suppliers who have verified sustainable practices and support them to get retail-ready with the best ingredients and packaging they can have while remaining low-impact on the environment. 

Local Vancouver clean beauty brand Ilia is one such company that has partnered with Novi and is widely considered to be a leader in the clean beauty space beyond Canada. In order to take packaging and product sustainability to another level, Ilia has also partnered with Pact Collective to recycle the hardest-to-recycle products. People can request a prepaid shipping label to send Ilia up to 10 beauty products a month from any brand to be properly disposed of.

Sephora also hopped on the bandwagon with Novi, even going so far as to create their own packaging standards and restricted substances list.

But when it comes to beauty packaging specifically, environmental sustainability is multi-faceted and determined by material type, place of origin/production, transportation methods, and end-of-life care to name a few. Novi has identified critical criteria for successful sustainable beauty packaging that it uses as a benchmark for the brands it works with but these rules can also act as a guide for consumers perusing a beauty counter for their next product.

Novi's rules for selecting sustainable packaging

The vessel design and decoration

Not only does a beautiful bottle stand out on a shelf of other products but luxe packaging will always draw someone in more than something utilitarian. We want our beauty products to look nice on our counters as well as on our faces but decoration can make or break the sustainability of a product. Brands can make all the right decisions in packaging material, size, and compatibility, but the adornment can render it completely unrecyclable. So maximizing sustainability and recyclability starts during the design process.

Primary packaging with circular materials

Most beauty products have both primary and secondary packaging. Primary packaging is the vessel designed to hold a product, preserving the formulation from contamination or oxidization. This can come in the form of jars, bottles, tubes, lids, caps, and pumps. According to Novi, "it is often the main focus for brands and retailers because primary components present the most challenges in terms of sustainability. While still keeping aesthetics and functionality in mind, brands are opting for materials that are better for the planet, like compostable paper and post-consumer recycled plastic."

Strategic secondary packaging

Secondary packaging, which is sometimes referred to as shelf-ready packaging, comes in the form of the external boxes and cartons that are used to protect the primary packaging in transit or while it sits on a store shelf. It also usually includes cardboard inserts or tissue paper but for the most part, secondary packaging is immediately disposed of when a product is brought home and opened. Novi has identified this as an area of "opportunity for brands to scale their commitment to sustainability across the supply chain." Recycled cartons and boxes are an option but some companies are going so far as to reduce and eventually eliminate secondary packaging altogether.

Transparency standards

Just like Sephora has publicly announced a list of banned ingredients, other brands have followed suit and taken the practice a step further with a completely transparent supply chain, ingredient list, and ethical business practice mandates. As a consumer, the best way to avoid greenwashing is to also look for brands that have incorporated third-party certifications. For instance, the Forest Stewardship Council offers certification for wood and paper products. Local Vancouver brand Sappho New Paradigm wood-handled brushes are certified. Companies must pay for these certifications and the third-party policies provide further credibility for any environmental claims made.

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