Cary Lin is the co-founder and CEO of skin-care brand Common Heir.
When Michelle Lee, editor-in-chief of Allure Magazine, announced the beauty magazine’s new Sustainability Pledge last month, I wanted to print it out like a broadsheet and stand on a soapbox belting out, “Allure no longer standing for greenwashing bullshit! This is incredible. Revolutionary. Powerful.”
Still, I wanted to address the substance of Allure’s declarations and start a conversation in a way that advances sustainable product innovation, not innovations in marketing jargon.
It’s either very easy or very difficult to be a sustainable beauty brand, precisely because there is no strict definition of what sustainability means in the beauty industry. For reasons both good and bad, we’re all setting our own goalposts, putting particular emphasis on what we can reasonably measure, whether it’s upcycling ingredients, rethinking sourcing or implementing refillable packaging, as an improvement against what was there before. And this makes total sense. Transitioning packaging, formulation and ingredients — all in the middle of a historic global pandemic — is costly and chaotic.
We also know the consumer cares — to a point, before convenience becomes too compelling to trade off. We also know that the consumer wants to be reassured, not preached at for, say, buying a reusable water bottle but then stopping by Starbucks on the way home from a long day at work. How do we respond to this disconnect between what we aspire to and our actual behavior?
End of life and the three -ables: Recyclable, Biodegradable, Compostable
Innovation should take into account actual human behavior, this couldn’t be highlighted more clearly in the fable of the three -ables.
Recycling should be seen as a last resort for where things end up, and for good reason. On average, 9% of plastics have been recycled. So when Allure says they’re going to stop reporting plastic packaging as “recyclable” as a legit sustainability cred, this is a big deal. I was floored to find out that sugarcane-based plastic was just as likely to end up in landfills as any other plastic. Recyclability has been the crutch of the beauty industry, because it already describes the plastic packaging many of us have to use without doing anything differently. We all know some types of plastic packaging theoretically could. But in practice, for a variety of technical reasons — black plastic, multiple materials, PCR degradation — at scale it doesn’t. So let’s call a spade a spade.
Let’s talk about biodegradability. I think most consumers imagine a banana peel spontaneously melting and disappearing. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not what happens. Biodegradability should be circumscribed by a timeframe and a set of conditions. We all know biodegradability isn’t specific enough to tell us that something isn’t going to harm the environment, which is really what it’s implying. It requires time and specific circumstances for bacteria to break something down. Landfills are too overstuffed for anything to actually decay. And technically, a lot of plastics are biodegradable. Surprise: Glass isn’t, but it is infinitely recyclable and gets processed 31% of the time. When a manufacturer actually tests a material for biodegradability, it should provide an estimate for how long it’ll take. Many plastics take hundreds of years. And the catch? In the process of decomposing, they break down into littler and littler pieces called microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters in length.
What about compostable? When my co-founder and I started looking for home compostability certifications, we couldn’t afford the gold standard certification, “OK Compost Home.” It cost tens of thousands of dollars. We also couldn’t find more than a handful of folks we knew who actually composted or had access to regular composting. We decided to optimize for dissolvability instead, which wouldn’t require a behavior that a minority of U.S. households actually engage in.
While we all want to aim for home compostability, we also all know a lot of brands say “compostable” when they mean that their packaging is industrial compostable. Being industrial compostable can only be handled by industrial composting facilities and not via a consumer’s compost pile. However, industrial compost facilities are profit-driven businesses. They want things that will compost quickly, and this doesn’t happen to include industrially compostable plastics for the most part. So again, for most beauty products, the end result is still a landfill. We know this and should strive to clarify whether something is “home” compostable or “industrial” compostable, and own it if it’s the latter.
Zero waste is not possible
Unpopular opinion alert: Zero waste is an impossible standard. I’ve personally tried to fit my trash into a mason jar for a day. By lunchtime, I’d already failed. I’ve been counseled to not take it “literally,” but “aspirationally.” Our understanding is that zero waste means designing products that will not go to landfills, but in practice, it will happen. It really means: “We’ve designed our products to be theoretically zero waste if you do everything perfectly.”
There is always waste somewhere, even if it is inadvertent. I prefer the phrase “minimal waste,” because it feels like a more honest standard that we can all strive for.
Retailers need to buy-in
In beauty, we spend a lot of time getting your attention when you walk into the store. We all know that a product containing 1 fluid ounce of product can appear quite big in its footprint on the shelf, depending on the design of the bottle. Things are double-walled to get your attention. These days, there is a call to get rid of secondary packaging, which is a great step forward. But keep in mind that, until retailers change their standards, brands have to listen to what they want. We should innovate and develop plastic-free swaps, and we should also collectively, sharply question why we need double-walled jars to pop on a retailer’s shelf.
I empathize that this is easier said than done, and this can lead to tough choices. When I was at More Labs, we spent an enormous amount of energy at leading the switch of our packaging from glass to plastic, based on a key retailer’s request. We spent months searching for a non-petroleum-derived, sugarcane-based plastic, thinking that that would be the “least-bad” option, only to realize that bio-based plastics tend to end up in the same place as every other petroleum-based plastic: a landfill. We got a fair amount of customer heartburn about this move, but the opportunity changed the course of the company. Retailers need to spur consumer demand and acknowledge their role in the ecosystem.
Let’s meet consumers where they are with their behavior today, not where they theoretically could be doing. When we create new products, let’s take into account what actually happens, not what we hope will happen if we recycle a plastic bottle or put an industrial compostable plastic lid in the trash.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that consumers are watching and calling for us to improve. Some of our consumers might know more than we do. The consumer should not bear the burden of eco-anxiety, but they should continue to wield the power to demand better products.
Sustainability is hard. It is often a costly journey, and I am sure that I am preaching to the choir. I’m aware that some of the choices are prohibitive for those who are committed to keeping their price points accessible. It’s crystal clear that, for the first time, the consumer now is ahead of the industry’s ability to respond and meet their demand for less plastic waste and better sourcing. But the answer is not to hide behind innovation in marketing jargon. The most important -able we should all care about is accountable.
I feel confident that we can do this because we’ve been here before, quite recently. It’s the same way that the beauty industry responded to calls to make plant-based alternatives, better sourcing and increased access to new ingredients just this past decade. This came as a result of pioneering brands innovating, in response to consumer demand, ushering in a clean beauty revolution that’s notable for offering many choices that don’t force compromise.
For the sake of the industry, let’s design for the future by meeting consumers where they are today, not as we would all wish they’d behave if everything around their homes and municipal waste programs were working properly. Let’s acknowledge the theoretical, but make choices in reality. If you find a great packaging vendor that is really ahead of the curve, share it with others. Let’s all accelerate the adoption curve of new materials. Sustainability should unite us, not set us apart.
Let’s all be a part of ushering forth the future we’d like to live in — together.