When Glossier Play burst onto the scene earlier this year, it wasn't the velvety formulas, Instagram-worthy shades and impressive pigment payoff which caught the attention of makeup lovers on Instagram. It was the packaging and materials used. Products were enveloped in material reminiscent of shiny plastic sweet wrappers and stuffed into cardboard boxes, and if you bought their cool new eyeshadow, Glitter Gelée, you were getting non-biodegradable glitter, essentially microplastic, which experts now argue has a profoundly negative environmental impact.
Thankfully, Glossier Play has been letting their fanbase know that they will be phasing out the foils over the next six months, and regarding Glitter Gelée, are actively exploring reformulating the product with bio-glitter, but the comments are still coming in thick and fast on Instagram. "At a time when sustainability is at the forefront of customers' minds it's pretty sad that this isn't biodegradable," wrote one follower, while another said, "Do you know what’s aesthetic? A clean planet. All this packaging is sooo unnecessary." Glossier isn't the only brand to face the wrath of the beauty eco-warriors. Pat McGrath Labs has also been called out for their unscrupulous use of packaging, such as plastic bags and sequins, with anonymous beauty collective Estée Laundry leading the fight.
So with more and more of us putting environmental impact at the forefront of our purchases, why are beauty brands continuing to ignore consumer demand? "It does seem that despite the fact that people are swaying towards eco-friendly products, most of the big corporations simply do not seem to care," explained Vicky Lyons, founder of Lyonsleaf, a natural, 100% recyclable beauty brand which has just gone completely plastic-free. "Any business has to make money, so there is a motivation to produce a product that sells – and shiny plastic does sell. As well as this, big brands have an infrastructure set up for certain types of packaging and it’s not that simple to change overnight. Small brands are more nifty and can adapt more easily, but it's also up to us to make positive changes and to invest our money into ethical companies who really care."
This is something Rowena Bird, cofounder of LUSH, which has just opened its first ever 'naked shop' (that's zero packaging whatsoever), seconds. She suggests that while it's hard not to become disillusioned when it looks like hardly any difference is being made in the beauty industry, it's important to continue to speak up. "Write to companies demanding they make a difference and be mindful of what you’re buying. You don’t have to give up your way of life entirely, but small adjustments can make a huge difference. This includes reusing as well as recycling, because single-use items are the worst offenders."
An R29 experiment concluded that it's difficult to make your entire beauty routine plastic-free at the moment but that beauty brands, such as Kjaer Weis, Le Labo, Rituals and more are getting on board with refillable initiatives, preserving packaging and saving you money in the long run. In fact, Beauty Kitchen recently launched their 'return, refill, repeat' programme, beauty's first large-scale, zero-waste initiative. Brand founder, Jo Chidley told R29 that since going live with the scheme, other beauty brands have contacted her to enquire about collecting, washing and returning their packaging for them. According to Jo, this will be phase two of their programme and will hopefully encourage bigger brands to factor in sustainability.
Upcycling – enlisting jars, bottles and tubs for other uses around the home, like potting plants, flower vases, or storage for kitchen ingredients and jewellery – is also something brands are into. Isla Apothecary, By Sarah London and Haeckels (whose packaging is mainly recyclable glass) are just a few companies championing the movement. Even better, Haeckels has begun experiments with growing their own packaging from environmentally friendly materials which achieve the same effect of plastic but are actually made out of biodegradable elements like mushrooms and sea algae.
Then there's Instagram-worthy BYBI, whose packaging looks like plastic but is actually sugarcane (entirely biodegradable), Soaper Duper, whose packaging is made of 100% post-consumer recycled plastic (the reason why the bottles are green is because the majority comes from semi-skimmed milk carton lids), and fragrance brand Floral Street, which ditches cellophane wraps and printed labels for 100% recyclable, compostable and biodegradable boxes.
In fact, there are hundreds of burgeoning beauty brands who are doing eco-friendly beauty right, but just aren't as big yet. Take We Are Paradoxx, for example. The recently launched haircare company ditches plastic and glass for aluminium, which, despite being a little more expensive, can be recycled on an infinite loop. "Plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times and is down-cycled each time," explains founder, Yolanda Cooper. "Eventually it will be used to create fabric and end up in landfill. This is not solving the problem, just delaying it for future generations." Yolanda reveals that she also looked into glass and although it is considerably better than plastic, it weighs more, which increases the carbon emissions, requires additional packaging to protect it from breaking in transit and can be dangerous in the shower. "Aluminium is not only infinitely recyclable, but has a lower transportation carbon emission than glass or plastic," adds Yolanda, "with 55% of aluminium cans currently being recycled correctly compared to 34% of glass containers."
Recycling properly is a great start, especially if you aren't willing to give up your affordable shampoo multipack just yet, but it's clear our approach to how we deal with beauty waste needs to change. "Get a recycling bin for your bathroom," adds Yolanda. "We know that 90% of us recycle regularly in the kitchen but only 52% of us recycle in the bathroom, so beauty and personal care products are contributing heavily to the plastics issue." And it's important to realise just how much control you have as a consumer. "One of the best ways to help the environment is to stop investing in brands with no eco-friendly credentials altogether," says Vicky, something Jo seconds. "The sheer power of your money, and where you choose to spend or not spend it, will make any brand sit up and listen."
While Glossier has yet to find an alternative for their plastic glitter, they have just discontinued sending sticker sheets with every shipment and also updated their shipping boxes to be made out of 100% recycled materials, as sustainability becomes a larger priority for both them and their customers. It does seem as though there is a long way to go for other big name brands, but with a spotlight on using social media to call out unnecessary packaging, investing in refillable schemes, environmentally friendly brands and taking small steps to better recycling, the future looks hopeful.