The old adage, which advises us not to judge a book by its cover, doesn’t stand up well when it comes to marketing a beauty product

As much as we’re attracted to what a beauty product promises to do, we are just as drawn to the visual appeal of its packaging. That sleek, stylish, luxurious item comes into our homes as something desired but, once spent, likely leaves in the garbage collection.

Most beauty product packaging, created for an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars worldwide, ends up in the landfills rather than recycling centres. That is partly due to inefficient recycling programs, where plastics are either dumped or shipped to another country’s landfill, or the packaging itself—like frosted glass containers—isn’t recyclable.

Though there have been niche or natural brands that have strived to be ecologically friendly for some time, they are merely a small part of an enormous industry. Whether it’s consumer pressure or the campaign for net zero, mainstream larger brands seem to be taking steps to embrace more earth-friendly packaging, such as Garnier with their shampoo bars, or Kiehl’s Concentrated Facial Bars, both of which come encased only in a recyclable cardboard box.

Perhaps, the brand most famous for its unique approach to packaging, or lack thereof, is Lush Cosmetics. There’s a reason that you can smell the store before you arrive there: many of their products are naked, devoid of packaging. Rowena Bird, one of six co-founders of U.K.-based Lush Cosmetics, admits that the initial packaging policy came about out of necessity.

“If we’re totally honest, right from the beginning, it was because we couldn’t actually afford it,” Bird explained over a Zoom call recently. “We had very little money. We had lost everything in the business beforehand, and the money we did have, we wanted to put into the best raw materials rather than into the packaging.”

Bird says that often packaging costs more than the product inside it, and Lush didn’t want that.

“For us, it was a case of if we could make products solid, and not have to have packaging, that was a win two ways. It was a win for the environment, and it was a win for us because we didn’t have to do packaging,” she recalls.

As customers responded well to the no packaging for solid products, Bird says they realized they could do more and more. From that point, Lush’s packaging decisions were carefully considered when they introduced liquids and cream products to the line. Bird emphasizes that their packaging isn’t just recyclable, it’s recycled.

“A lot of people don’t understand that we’ve had recycled packaging from the early 2000s,” she notes. “It’s really important to us that we use recycled materials that can be recycled again. We have a closed-loop system as well with the Black Pots (for creams and scrubs).”

Ensuring that materials can be recycled is crucial to good environmental stewardship as a brand, but some brands are going further by seeking out innovative, new technology or materials that promise biodegradability or compostability.

For Wildsmith Skin—the in-house skin care line of luxury hotel Heckfield Place in Hampshire, England—striving for a higher earth-friendly standard for its packaging is simply the right fit for the brand. “We call our approach radical botany; nature-meets-science,” says Katherine Pye, Wildsmith’s general manager, of the philosophy behind the natural-ingredient-based brand.Wildsmith SkinGiven that many of the ingredients that go into their products are grown on Heckfield’s land using biodynamic methods, it’s understandable that Pye aims to have the packaging reflect Wildsmith’s underpinning values. Products are packaged in glass bottles, bespoke stoneware containers crafted in Stoke-on-Trent, and refillable aluminium bottles which Pye says are also recyclable. The lids are the only plastic that’s used because there is yet to be a better alternative.  For Pye, it’s the secondary, or protective packaging where they’ve made advances. They’ve either eliminated it, as with recent product launches, or have opted for only cardboard or mycelium for protective packaging.

“The secondary packaging is all recyclable cardboard,” Pye explained, in a FaceTime call from her home in England. “We use soya-based ink so it doesn’t contaminate the recycling process. I inherited a little bit of foil (when she joined the brand) on a little bit of the logo which we’ve removed. In the U.K., if the foil content is less than 30 percent, the cardboard can still go through the recycling process. We try to use no foil but, where we feel we have to, we definitely use below 30 percent.”

However, Pye says one of the bigger advances is completely compostable mycelium packaging. The technology was developed by Ecovative in the U.S., but Wildsmith teamed up with the licensed partner in the U.K., the Magical Mushroom Company.

“We were their first customer in the U.K. As Paul (Gilligan), the owner, keeps telling me. We’re not the biggest but we were the first and ‘I’ll never forget that you took the leap.’”

Pye describes mycelium base as essentially agricultural waste—almost like porridge. A mould is created for whatever container needs protective housing. Once it’s poured into the mould, the mycelium spores are added. The mycelium then grows around the agricultural waste, taking about five to six days to develop and then it goes through a kiln, like firing pottery, to kill off the mycelium.

“The packaging stays as it is until it’s returned to the earth, and in contact then with sunlight and water,” Pye says of ecological benefits. “It takes between three to four months to fully biodegrade. It actually improves the soil because it’s all compostable.”

Though some other beauty brands have also discovered the advantages of mycelium packaging, Wildsmith was possibly the earliest to the game. “I think it’s been a little bit seminal in the evolution of the brand in that we were certainly the first luxury skin care brand to introduce it,” she asserts.

Wildsmith is committed to seeking out innovative technology for greater earth-friendly packaging but allowing that it can take time to discover a product refined enough to serve the purpose—practically and aesthetically.

“What we wanted—and really tried to do—is see if our secondary packaging for skin care could be in mycelium, but we’ve not yet been able to get it to a refined state that would be acceptable. You get lots of lumps and bumps with it,” she says.

There is a lot of innovation using plant materials but often they’re combined with plastic or other materials that doesn’t allow for them to go through existing recycling processes.  Wildsmith is looking at a Finnish company which makes containers for creams or liquid. “They’re doing some work with woodchips and a resin. Unfortunately, it does run into that problem of what to do with it afterward,” Pye says of the products that have great origins but nowhere to be disposed of in an earth-friendly way.

Taylor Frankel, co-founder of cult beauty favourite NUDESTIX and NUDESKIN, says from the brand’s inception, earth-friendly packaging has always been a core value. Their packaging has been either recyclable or biodegradable, including the outer packaging which is made from biodegradable PVC-free plastic.NUDESKIN

“NUDESTIX is committed to sustainability as a key pillar of the brand DNA across packaging, formulations, and all touchpoints of the brand,” Frankel says. “We believe in beauty that is good for you and good for our planet.”

She points to their signature black tins that house the NUDESTIX products which is made from tinplate which she describes as “an infinitely recyclable material.”

Some beauty brands have discovered one of the keys to increasing recycling overall, especially when residential garbage collection doesn’t support it, is to incentivize consumers by offering, not just a location to drop the used packaging, but also a financial benefit or free products. MAC cosmetics has been offering  a free lipstick for the return six empty containers for several years.

Bird says that Lush’s current Black Pot recycling program of exchanging five empty containers in return for a free mask will end soon. One reason, she cites, is people tend to forget them. With the new program, they don’t have to wait until they collect a certain number of containers.

“We’re moving to if you bring any piece of Lush packaging in, we’re going to give you money off your purchases that day. We’re just working out the logistics, but that is coming in in the next few months of this year,” Bird explains.

Another approach to encouraging recycling is through the non-profit Pact Collective where beauty brands like ILIA and retailers like The Bay have banded together with a commitment to boost beauty packaging recycling.

ILIA said, in a brand statement, that for smaller products that cannot be processed via curbside, they’ve partnered with Pact Collective, which specializes in recycling “notoriously hard-to-recycle beauty packaging.” Customers request a shipping label through ILIA’s website to mail the empty containers from ILIA or other brands to Pact to be recycled responsibly. 

Hudson's Bay has made it easy for shoppers by placing recycling bins in the cosmetics department in their stores across Canada. No purchase is necessary, but customers will receive points on their HBC reward card when they return a minimum of five products.

As much as beauty brands need to be forward-thinking in minimizing packaging and using more earth-friendly materials, so do consumers need to be mindful of the recycling processes and support effective recycling efforts.

For Lush customers, Bird says, the solution is simple. Return all the packaging to the store and 100 percent will be recycled.

“Recycling rates are not all that great,” Bird says. “It’s certainly not 100 percent around the globe. The numbers are lower than people would think. You think that if you’ve done the right thing and you’ve put it in the recycling bin, it’s all gone to recycling but... it’s not.”

For the concerned consumer, it’s recycler beware.