How plastic-free beauty could ‘futureproof’ your bottom line

By Kirsty Doolan

- Last updated on GMT

The report stated that no one needs forever packaging for a 'temporary' beauty or personal care product (Image: Getty)
The report stated that no one needs forever packaging for a 'temporary' beauty or personal care product (Image: Getty)

Related tags Cosmetics Npd Packaging

With so many new environmental legislations in place in Europe and beyond, a new report boldly states that cosmetics companies need to transition away from using plastic in both formulations and packaging, or they will face long-term financial losses. Here are some of the key learnings and potential solutions…

The new research, which was undertaken by NGO Plastic Free and the trend forecasting and consumer insights company Fashion Snoops, is calling time on the “take, make, and throw away” culture of using plastic for FMCG products, and projects an overall annual risk of $100bn by 2040 if companies don’t make the transition away from plastic.

The report argues that going plastic-free can instead offer FMCG businesses “an opportunity for economic growth” and makes recommendations of design strategies that could “enable brands to achieve the protection, convenience and affordability associated with plastic, but by using natural alternatives and integrating reuse and right to repair models.”

Co-founder and CEO of A Plastic Planet and PlasticFree Sian Sutherland, calls the new research and its recommendations “a siren call” and “a rallying cry to the entire creative industry empowering them to rethink systems and materials.”

Indeed, R&D departments at FMCG businesses in Europe are facing a storm of new regulations that often require changes to formulations and or packaging​.

What are the regulations for the cosmetic industry in the EU?

Just some of the new regulations that cosmetics companies that sell products in the EU currently face include:

  • The 2023 Annex VXII updates to the EU’s REACH regulations on hazardous chemicals, which banned the intentional addition of microplastics to products, which covers all synthetic particles below 5mm.
  • EU Packaging and Packaging Waste regulation: a provisional agreement on a set of new regulations to reduce plastic packaging Waste, which include mandating deposit return schemes and eradicating single-use plastic sachets.
  • EU Green Claim Directive, which prevents companies from using terms like ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘climate neutral’, and ‘eco’ without quantifiable evidence. It will also implement a complete ban on using carbon-offsetting schemes to substantiate such claims from 2026.
  • And the EU Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation is set to replace the existing Ecodesign Directive, and this will outline a range of requirements for any product manufactured or sold in the region. These include product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability, the use of recycled content, and Digital Product Passports.

And it’s not just happening in Europe. In New Zealand, for example, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is banning the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in cosmetics from 2027.

PFAS are used in products such as nail varnish and lipstick and the EPA said it was a precautionary measure to ensure all cosmetic products are safe for use.

Therefore, the report says that cosmetic companies now need to comply with regulations and tap into the net-zero market, or risk profitability and competitiveness.

“We all know that plastic is a problem, for our planet, our health, and even our economy. We are at a tipping point. A post-plastic era is not about sacrifice, but an opportunity for economic growth,” said partner & head of content at PlasticFree and lead author of the whitepaper, Emma Bailey.

“In the cosmetic industry, the crossover of wellness and environmental consciousness cannot be ignored. The association of plastic with health risks is becoming more widely recognised than ever. With the global wellness market thriving and prioritising consumer health, the exclusion of plastic both in products and packaging, is imminent,” continued Bailey.

“Take the BYOW (bring your own water) movement, encouraging brands to create waterless formulations, just as we have had tea and coffee for decades, that can be contained in packaging a fraction of the size. This isn’t just a win for consumer convenience, but also eradicates the need for excessive packaging, opening up options for innovative refill systems and minimalist packaging solutions.”

Bailey notes that pioneering businesses Xampla and Elemis have experimented with alternative materials – transforming plant waste from their product ingredients into biodegradable sachets for skincare sample sachets.

“Yet, this shift is more than a simple switch,” she said. “It demands a comprehensive, long-term strategy – from product design to messaging – to future-proof businesses and spearhead a material revolution.”

What products can replace plastic?

The report noted that Mother Nature produces 100 gigatons of cellulose every year and that due to its sheer abundance, this plant matter is the ideal material option to scale to replace plastic.

It also gives some other examples of beauty and personal care companies using natural material to create products:

  • The Kelp;n is a tampon made entirely from seaweed. The innovation is owned by Vyld, a German purpose-for-profit company, which has just completed a seven-figure funding round.
  • UK packaging supplier FlexiHex has re-engineered cardboard to create an expandable honeycomb structure that protects products in transit. The nature-inspired solution can be dropped from four metres high without impact.
  • Paperfoam Plus aims to replace some of the most resilient EPS packaging. Made from industrial potato starch, cellulose, water, and a “unique: premix, the packaging material comes in thicknesses up to 5mm and has been drop-tested up to 5kg. It is certified home compostable and biodegrades into organic matter.
  • Skincare brand Onélogy offers skin care serums in small, freeze-dried tablets to be activated at home with a drop of water. They come sealed in aluminium blister packs and remain fresh for up to 10 years if unopened (as opposed to the industry 12-month average).

Can we ever be plastic free?

The report asserts that the majority of products can be redesigned without the “toxification of fossil fuels”. It also states that consumers are increasingly seeking these solutions, and that the climate adaptation market is forecast to reach $2 trillion by 2026.

Its recommendations included that beauty and personal care companies:

  • Work with material scientists to “borrow this knowledge from the natural world and apply it to the future of product design.”
  • “Defend and extend products” with concentrated, solid, or powdered formulations that can be mixed with water at the point of use.” As opposed to using plastic packaging for high-water-content products that can harbour bacterial growth, which reduces shelf life.
  • “Explore innovative box structures and natural materials that can provide equal or superior protection during transit, minimising the need for plastic packaging while ensuring product safety.”

Creating ‘zero waste’ makeup and skin care

The report highlighted Elemis’ partnership with Xampla Morro​ to develop single-use sample sachets from a biofilm made from the brand’s own ingredient waste.

The beauty industry has been an early-adopter of the waterless design movement, with products such as ReMI’s moisturiser stones packaged in ceramic, Ecoalf’s powdered wellness collection packaged in aluminium, and Attitude’s solid sunscreen packaged in paper, can all easily be taken in airport hand luggage.

Refills are an ever-growing movement to note and the report highlighted UK-based Reposit, which offers a prefilled packaging system, the scheme relies on the cooperation and collaboration of major brands, packaging suppliers and retailers.

The system requires customers to drop-off their empty bottles at hubs around the UK, where they are cleaned, returned to the brands to be refilled and placed back on the shelf. The system has already launched, and expanded, in M&S.

Meanwhile German company Traceless offers a single-use plastic alternative made from natural polymers sourced from agricultural waste. It can be converted by the plastic, converting and packaging industry on standard machinery.

It also highlighted the UK personal care brand Wild​, which has made nationwide accessibility to refills a key part of its strategy, recently launching into 750 Tesco stores, making its total UK retail footprint 3,500 stores.

Prioritise 'reuse and refill'

The report stated that no one needs forever packaging for a temporary product. “Adopt an anti-packaging mindset that prioritises refill and reuse while minimising excess and unnecessary packaging wherever possible,” it said.

The research also acknowledged that planned obsolescence results in long-term problems. “Reject short-term thinking and design for permanence, investing in repair programmes and buy-back incentives that make it easy for consumers to hold onto products,” shared the report. “Benefit from new revenue streams as a result.”

Of course, most consumers will have to adapt to the future of shopping. For this, the report advised: “Pair the launch of new systems with extensive, accessible communication. Simple, user-friendly language, universal tracking systems, and partnerships with retailers are key for instilling confidence.”

As a case study, it highlighted the British beauty brand Haeckels, which has a mission of zero-waste production and in 2020 created an entire “grown-to-order” production method with the launch of its Bio Restore Membrane eye mask.

The mask is grown from agar and was put into production once a customer ordered it, taking three weeks to grow, with a tracking system afforded to customers to better understand the process, and therefore value, of its production. The initial success of the product allowed the brand to invest in scaled production, and Haeckels has adopted this ‘test and trial’ launch method for future products.

“From product design to messaging, catering to increasingly complex preferences will help your brand connect with tomorrow’s global consumer. Understand what value means to them rather than pushing a singular agenda,” advised the report.

“Without high functioning natural processes, your business won’t survive,” it stated, and advised that businesses embed regeneration into every facet of the supply chain: “harnessing its truly circular, diverse, and symbiotic processes to future-proof your systems for years to come.”

“It's time to scale smarter,” it concluded. “Consider the financial downsides of waste and excess inventory while scaling your business. Reduce overproduction and raw material sourcing to realise additional benefits. When waste does occur, analyse if new revenue streams could be created.”

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