How packaging recyclability can shift sustainability expectations for startup beauty brands

By Tom Szaky in Sustainable Packaging on March 02, 2018

As with most industries today, one of the personal care and beauty category’s fastest growing influences on consumer purchasing behavior are claims for sustainability. Sustainable sourcing of raw materials in cosmetics and “clean beauty” formulas are gaining popularity, and many cosmetics manufacturers and retailers have launched “take-back” recycling initiatives for packaging as the majority of cosmetics and skin care packaging, though all technically recyclable, is considered “difficult-to-recycle.”

Cosmetics are often packaged in containers that are hard to clean, and the packaging is often comprised of mixed materials (such as a pump-action bottle made with different plastic resins and a metal spring) or small pieces that fall through the cracks at recycling facilities due to their size. Packaging reclamation systems that “take-back” containers are options for personal care and beauty brands integrating green activities into their business model. However, with high collection and processing costs, linear disposal methods like landfilling and incineration are typically considered the most economically viable options.

Even so, consumer demand for more responsibility is resonating across the beauty industry, and brands that can’t keep up will find themselves at risk. For startups and small businesses, creating the kind of value that stands out for consumers and makes sense financially can take a bit of creative legwork and support from city agencies that are in a position to foster sustainable growth by providing resources and incentives. With the right programs, startups, which often have deeply connected customer relationships, can play a special role in shifting expectations that could create a groundswell for change.

For example, one personal care and beauty startup in New York City is just starting up its small business and reports that while NYC has many solid city resources to help start a business, not too many are readily available specifically for start-ups and sustainability. Its founder wonders if agencies that promote starting a business should also include local sustainability resources and information, as well as financial incentives, to help to guide young businesses to launch with scalable sustainability from the start.

Unlike many of its competitors, which use disposable plastic packaging, this company uses amber glass containers and bottles, which are widely municipally recycled in NYC and other parts of the country.  The costs of shipping and sterilizing the packaging in a more circular, “take-back/reuse” approach is, at this time, out of reach for their new business, though choosing durable glass over single-use plastics gives them sustainability points on their competition.

Another clean cosmetics startup, withSimplicity in Harrisonburg, Va., also uses durable brown glass, but being in business for some time has been able to scale up its sustainability efforts to offer take-back incentives to its customers, who receive discounts for every container they return in a system that keeps them coming back. Additionally, for any plastics and films that cannot be recycled municipally, the retailer uses TerraCycle’s Beauty Products and Packaging Zero Waste Boxes to ensure that all of its packaging is 100% recyclable through a cost-effective, turn-key solution that requires little setup.

For inspiration, startups can look to Lush Cosmetics, a company that makes little to no packaging work for them. In addition to reusable metal tins, colorful cloth knot-wraps and 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles and pots (some of it ocean plastic), 35% of its products (including solid shampoos, conditioners, massage bars, soaps and bath bombs) are sold “naked.” From a start-up formed in a U.K. beauty salon, Lush was able to scale up and globalize while maintaining the circular packaging and production practices that gained it a cult following in the first place.

By focusing on the recyclability and circularity of packaging, personal care startups can command a premium in the clean beauty market through cultivation of brand identity. While the activities of big consumer packaged goods corporations can be slower to change due to the need for sweeping infrastructure changes and an emphasis on the bottom-line, startups and small businesses have more flexibility to do the right thing, which isn’t lost on today’s highly discerning consumer.

The challenges for growing business owners are largely accessible resources, affordability and relevant insights and information for startups, which city agencies are in a position to provide.  If more startups were built (or better yet, incentivized) to scale with sustainability in mind, it would benefit their communities in many ways. In a competitive market, setting the bar on sustainability provides the green sheen that’s today so on trend, differentiating brands to drive growth for cities and local economies.


Author Tom Szaky, founder/CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and Happi Magazine, is about to release a book called “The Future of Packaging: Linear to Circular” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Release Date: October 2018) and is the star of the television show “Human Resources.”



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Interesting issues like this call for a unique approach and it's so cool to see it highlighted here. Also, just heard of Terracycle through reading this article. Love the concept and looking forward to more content soon. Thanks for the article, Tom. Heeva Asefvaziri