by Suzanne Wentley
This article includes affiliate links.
The term “clean beauty” can mean a lot of things: organic ingredients, fair labor practices, fewer chemicals, and concentrated formulas are just some definitions. But rarely do we think about what’s happening on the other side of the bottle.
Without sustainable packaging, it’s hard to argue a product is truly ecologically friendly and your best option when choosing a beauty brand that’s good for you and the planet. Understanding what to look for with responsible packaging is even more important as the holidays are upon us. It doesn’t take long for the mountain of boxes and plastic wrap to appear.
Of course, tracking down these products isn’t so easy. Far too frequently, I’ll find a cleanser, lotion, serum, or makeup palette I love, only to discover it comes wrapped in wads of plastic and shipped with so much extra padding and cardboard that I can barely find what I ordered.
Still, many people don’t even think about responsible packaging when they are investing in clean beauty products. Even more don’t even know what sustainable packaging means! Not long ago, I didn’t either.
This holiday season, I challenge you to commit to being more responsible in terms of packaging. You don’t have to be “zero waste,” but I bet you can have less waste than you may have now!
What Does Sustainable Packaging Mean?
When I first thought about sustainable packaging, I imagined those packing peanuts made from corn starch. If you’re like me, you find distinct pleasure in watching them dissolve away in water. It’s like George Jetson’s car that folds up into a suitcase – exactly what I’m looking for in the future!
But in reality, most packaging doesn’t just dissolve into thin air like that. In general, sustainable packaging is more a matter of choosing the lesser evil. In the packaging industry, this is determined through a process known as a “life cycle analysis.”
A life cycle analysis considers the environmental impacts of a material at every stage of the process: from extraction or creation to distribution, consumer use, and eventual disposal. Looking at materials from all angles makes everything complex and explains why people still debate whether solar panels are good or bad for the environment (I lean toward good!).
Some things to ask as you make your own life cycle analysis of packaging materials:
Is this packaging necessary in the first place? Is there a similar product without an extra box, for example?
How far is the product shipped to get to me? Can I purchase this closer to home and save on packaging?
Is this package made of reused materials? Is it made from renewable resources? Can I recycle or repurpose it?
Can I buy this in bulk, making excess packaging unnecessary?
Just knowing what to look for and the questions to ask will make it more likely you’ll make a better, more sustainable choice.
Understand the Psychology Behind Packaging
Behind all packaging is a marketing mind game, and I encourage you not to fall for it. For example, a bag of chips is sold by weight and not volume. Manufacturers may only fill the bag halfway, but you’re tricked into thinking you’ve purchased a huge portion.
It’s the same with clean beauty products, which are certainly more expensive than a bag of chips.
Some brands fill a small plastic bottle with a product, then wrap it in plastic, then surround it in a hard plastic sleeve, then place it inside a plastic-lined box, and then wrap the entire thing in plastic with a couple stickers on the outside. You may feel like you’re getting an extra-amazing product that requires such special handling, but let’s be honest. You’re paying for all that waste, not for a fancier product.
Packaging – even for small purchases like clean beauty products – really adds up.
Also, beware of products wrapped in compostable materials. While that’s certainly better than plastic wrap that can go nowhere beyond a landfill, it’s not much different if you’re not actually adding the packaging to your backyard compost pile. The process of composting requires UV rays, and nothing under the top layer of a landfill sees the light of day.
Check your city’s recycling policies. Your beauty brand may package in, say, #2 plastic bottles. Some municipalities will recycle that plastic, but others won’t.
That’s because plastic polymers will degrade every time they are melted down for a new use. Eventually, the plastic is useless and must be sent to the landfill. Glass, on the other hand, can be recycled indefinitely – if your municipality finds a secondary market to sell it to. The only way to know what actually gets recycled is to ask.
Tips for Choosing Eco-Friendly Packaging
Since there are many blogs that share “top zero-waste beauty brands,” I’ll let you do the Googling for a list of brands. Instead, I want to focus on bigger-picture tips for understanding how you can make a difference by reducing the amount of packaging you’re responsible for. You may be surprised at how easy it is to sidestep waste while staying loyal to the brands you love.
1. Group Into a Few Shipments
One time, I ordered a bunch of things for my new apartment on Amazon. They shipped a spatula in its own, embarrassingly large box. I opened it to find my lone utensil swimming in a sea of packaging, and I promised I would never let that happen again.
Thankfully, Amazon offers a shipping option that lets you group your items into as few packages as possible. Look for the “group on Amazon Monday delivery.” While it may take a few days more to receive your order, you’ll find a dramatic reduction in packaging. It’s worth the wait.
2. Look for Packaging Details in the Marketing
Brands that care about sustainability will talk about it in their marketing. If they’ve gone above and beyond to reduce packaging or use sustainable materials, they’ll want you to know.
BYBI, a British beauty brand, is a great example. Their clean beauty products are shipped not in single-use plastics but in bottles made from sugarcane polyethylene, a recyclable bioplastic. They use paper made from grasses for their exterior boxes.
3. Pick Plastic-Free Options
As a constant traveler, I love having a handy kit with body soap, facial soap, shampoo bar, and conditioner bar. I never have to worry about a bottle exploding in my checked luggage, and the solid bars make it easy to grab my essentials for a quick shower.
But it took time to find bars I love, and I’ll admit I’m still looking for a hair conditioner bar that makes my hair feel as soft as ones sold in plastic bottles.
Like me, you may have to overcome prejudice against bar soaps. But they work just as well – sometimes better – and last longer. Plus, you’ll avoid the plastic bottles, plastic wraps, and extra packaging associated with the “fancier” products. My go-to is Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Soap. I think it’s even better than the cleanser.
4. Make an After-Use Plan
Some packaging is unavoidable, but it’s up to you to decide what to do when you’re finished. Maybe you can brainstorm ways to reuse packaging, rather than just throwing it away. For example, I make my own toothpaste by mixing coconut oil and a little baking soda with a few drops of essential oils. I simply rinse and fill an old serum jar when it’s time for more.
Recycling is your next option. Nordstrom has a program that recycles beauty product packaging that otherwise can’t be recycled. Save your packaging and ship it all at once if you don’t have a store nearby.
Make Responsible Packaging Decisions
Whether it’s clean beauty products or anything you plan to buy this holiday season, be responsible for your waste. We hear a lot about the concept of “zero waste,” and that’s ideal but not always reality.
Instead of aiming for no waste, simply start by being aware of what you buy and how it’s packaged. If everyone were responsible for what becomes of their packaging, the Earth would likely be a very different place today.
Conscious Living is a Lifestyle. Download our guide with 25 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint