by Jamie McCroskery December 2021

A “sustainable product” is a paradox. It means everything and nothing, has a constantly shifting definition, and is really important to people yet not understood. Plus, most “sustainable” products still have a negative environmental impact. As more people talk about sustainability in beauty, it’s become increasingly insane to navigate — even for sustainability teams who focus on it full time.

For example, if you’re trying to make a sustainable beauty product, do you go with “refillable packaging”, “waterless”, “recyclable packaging”, or one of the zillion other things being talked about? It can be hard for anyone to keep up. I went to a packaging conference last week and saw “wood-based plastic” (what on earth?)… another example of an “innovation’ competing for what it means to be a sustainable product. Worse yet, picking one of these in isolation may not actually lead to a real sustainability improvement (this is why the answer to “is glass better than plastic?” is “it depends”).

After working with 50+ brands on this, I’ve learned that there’s a better way. Rather than focusing on which product attributes (like the examples above) are “sustainable”, first, we need to know the answer to this question: what are the biggest environmental problems caused by the industry?

For beauty and personal care, carbon emissions and physical waste are the two biggest environmental problems. Product attributes can change, but they all lead to two sustainability goals that are constant: reduced carbon emissions and improved product circularity. Even better, decreasing carbon emissions and improving circularity help with other areas of environmental impact like deforestation, biodiversity loss, resource use, etc.

The two goals brands should focus on for sustainability are reducing carbon emissions and improving product circularity.

Why beauty brands should start with a focus on carbon & product circularity

First, some definitions. Carbon emissions are the greenhouse gases that warm the planet, causing the mother of all environmental problems: climate change. Circularity refers to products that use reused or recycled components that themselves can be reused, recycled, or refilled. Circularity reduces the need to use new resources to make, deliver, and use a product.

So, why are carbon emissions and circularity relevant to beauty products? It’s helpful to zoom out and think about what a beauty product is. It’s usually a goop (for serious lack of a better term) derived from a lab, mine, or farm. Then it’s put into plastic (derived from petroleum or plants), wrapped in paper packaging (from trees), transported a bunch of times (on airplane, truck, or boat), is used, and then ultimately thrown out or recycled.

Now let’s zoom in. Typically, beauty products are derived from palm oil and poured into (a lot of) virgin plastic with components that can’t be recycled. Then they’re wrapped in paper boxes and shipped 25,000 miles (often by air) between vendors, fillers, distribution centers, and finally customers. Quite the journey!

All of this together means the fast-moving consumer goods industry (e.g. beauty, personal care, etc) is one of the top 10 carbon-emitting and waste-producing supply chains. Focusing on carbon and circularity can help your beauty brand improve that number (both so you can sleep easy at night knowing you’re attempting to do the right thing, and so you can actually tell your customers what you’re doing about sustainability — a post for another day).

OK so how do you actually become “good” on carbon and circularity

Sadly there isn’t a silver bullet. And even if there were, there are innovations happening all over the supply chain (think efficiency technologies, regenerative materials, etc) that redefine what “good” actually means. Plus the basic science of environmental impact improves humanity’s understanding every year.

The name of the game is incremental improvements. These are just some of the ways the brands we work with have started directing energy into high impact steps that move the needle:

Reducing Carbon

Improving Circularity

This is the hot topic of the day vendors are excited to talk to you about. Here’s what you can think about when evaluating these pitches:

I hope that helps. It did for me. Yes, sustainability gets overwhelming — especially when you’re trying to run a business. But at least knowing how to think about things makes it so you don’t need to reinvent the cognitive wheel every time sustainability comes up. For beauty and personal care brands, focusing on decreasing carbon emissions and improving circularity can boil down a super complex universe into just two goals to think about. Plus, they both have a set of easy wins that can get you started making progress.