A $430 billion industry that fills a third of landfills in the US. Are the conglomerates that own our beauty brands doing anything to reduce their environmental impact?

While we often hear about the dangers of fast fashion on the health of our climate, we rarely hear about the cosmetics industry. Both are fuelled by online marketing, and they follow trends similar to those of the fashion industry. 

As we have increasing options for sustainable clothing, why is the cosmetics industry much quieter when moving towards sustainability?

Most high street and luxury beauty brands are all owned by the same conglomerates, including Loreal, Johnson & Johnson and the Estée Lauder group. 

These brands have R&D departments that are funded to come up with solutions to address the climate crisis. However, we have yet to see any major changes. 

The industry was worth around $430 billion worldwide in 2022, according to McKinsey, and this is growing year on year.

The key issue is the sheer amount of plastic used, as well as water, deforestation and energy. Many products, such as make-up wipes, aren’t recyclable, but even recyclable items often end up in landfills.

The beauty industry produces at least 120 billion pieces of packaging each year, a third of all US landfills. 

While marketing can imply that brands are moving closer towards sustainability, is this just a trend they are following instead of making changes?

Greenwashing is a term used to describe companies using marketing tricks to convey that they care about the environment. Instead of making large changes to the way they operate, they come up with a message that implies they are doing something.

Are the conglomerate-owned beauty brands just greenwashing, or are there some positive changes being made?

Refillable products are sold as a solution

Refillable containers that reduce costs for consumer on future purchases are becoming more and more common in the industry. 

It saves the plastic of the outer packaging from being made again, which is good, right? 

Research from the LCA centre supports refillable products as they save 70% of CO2, 65% energy and 45% water. 

Many premium cosmetics have adopted this strategy; they mainly focus on the aesthetics of their packaging. A large amount of a brand’s identity is a recognisable container. 

Brands such as Charlotte Tilbury, whose iconic magic cream moisturiser retails for £79 for 50ml, only charge £69 for a refill of 50ml. This pricing encourages consumers to repeat purchases and choose the more sustainable option. 

While this only reduces the amount of plastic, rather than finding an alternative, it’s a step in the right direction, and a positive uptake would see more brands follow suit.

Massive range of new products 

Due to trend cycles rapidly speeding up, cosmetic companies are bringing out new products much faster to meet the demand. 

Beauty gurus on social media buy all the latest products and encourage their fans to try them. Hand in hand with the overconsumption aspect is the shelf life of these products. 

The more you buy, the less you use each product, but that doesn’t stop them from expiring. With the rise of celebrity beauty brands and smaller start-ups using social media marketing to appeal to their audience, it’s easier than ever to launch a brand. 

The market is very concentrated, with brands bringing out more and more to differentiate themselves. 

The idea of new product launches every couple of months, even if they are marketed as environmentally friendly, raises an eyebrow. 

New product launches and sustainability tend to contradict each other, which is an element of greenwashing; however, many “at one with nature” ideas are being used to promote sustainability in the campaign.

Read more:

No alternative to palm oil

Many brands still use palm oil in all their products; while it may be low on the ingredients list, no brand will advertise using it. 

Mainly because we understand the impact of the use of oil on deforestation and the destruction of habitat for endangered species. 

Cosmetics use palm oil because it’s efficient, odourless and stable at high temperatures. Despite these conglomerates’ budgets, we still don’t have an affordable alternative to palm oil; it’s estimated that 70% of cosmetics contain some form of oil. 

Alternatives are out there — including coconut oil, shea butter and olive oil — but as things stand, big brands aren’t willing to pay the extra costs. 

A palm tree.
Palm oil plantations are responsible for mass biodiversity loss and huge carbon emissions. Image credit: Unsplash

What’s holding them back?

Beauty companies don’t like using recycled plastics because of unknown chemical reactions. They try where they can. 

L’Oréal said, “26% in 2023 of the plastic used in our packaging comes either from recycled or biobased sources.” 

However, the next best alternative, PCR, has more downsides with quality control and aesthetic differences. 

They cannot guarantee that the packaging for the mass market will be consistent. Plastic and plastic waste are the industry’s biggest downfall.

Who is doing well?

  • Boots has a recycling scheme that allows people to bring in old cosmetic items to be recycled in exchange for their in-store rewards program. Boots’ advantage points encourage people to recycle their empty containers.
  • Smaller brands that are using dark glass bottles rather than plastic. However, they don’t have the marketing budget of the big groups and are less accessible as they aren’t stocked with Boots or Superdrug.
  • Lush is committed to minimising waste and has plastic-free products such as shampoo bars, which are also palm oil-free.
  • Microbeads no longer exist in products; they used to be in several products we used daily. After it became evident what effect they had on marine life, the UK government banned them, and this ban came into effect in 2018.
  • L’Oréal has stated that “all of its plastic packaging will be rechargeable, refillable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025”. 

Ultimately, some brands are moving in the right direction, but it’s not their priority. 

Reducing virgin plastic is quite a minor move and shouldn’t seem like that much of an ambition in 2024. 

The heavy use of palm oil shows that the climate isn’t as much of a concern for many large brands as it is cheap and effective. 

With the industry only increasing in value, a consumer decides to try and behave sustainably; we could all consciously recycle our cosmetics or choose more appropriate packaging, like refillable options.

It’s important to note that the most sustainable beauty products are the ones you already own.