The next time you place an online order, the box your product arrives in may be part of a current fad in sustainability.

Over the last two years, beauty brands have made strides to become sustainable through the adoption of refillable, recyclable and reusable packaging, among other efforts. The latest “it” tactic is to incorporate post-consumer recycled paper and plastic into their packaging. In the case of PCR paper, brands like Milk Makeup, Oribe, Wildland Organics, and Iris & Romeo have all adopted the material in some way. However, the complexities of sustainability mean there are no obvious eco-friendly choices, which potentially undercuts the PCR efforts brands market to customers.

Katie Conovitz, CEO and founder of TwelveNYC, an agency for creating private-label brand merchandise, said that over the last two years, there has been an “overwhelming herd mentality” from brands seeking out PCR materials.

“[PCR is attractive] when you’re looking for low-hanging fruit, in terms of customer understanding and education,” Conovitz said.

One such brand is Milk Makeup, which considers 2021 a flagship year for the indie brand’s sustainability plans. They include the adoption of 100% PCR shipping boxes with a paper pouch to hold and protect the products. Dianna Ruth, Milk Makeup co-founder and vp of product development, said Milk Makeup had to alter its box designs to use PCR materials. Recycling and using recycled products is a fragile ecosystem, where something like gold foil lettering on a box can render it un-recyclable, she said. In the case of Milk Makeup, it traditionally had black and white shipping boxes. Now, its PCR boxes are brown with black lettering.

“We have to be transparent with our customers, and saying that sustainability is important to us [means] colors may not be that bright, or soy ink may rub off on [future] products because it’s not lacquered in plastic,” Ruth said.

Hannah Zhao, a Fastmarkets RISI senior economist who covers recovered paper (another term for PCR), added that recycled paper is not necessarily more environmentally friendly than virgin paper. This is because manufacturers often rely on potentially hazardous chemicals and energy sources for processing, compared to virgin paper production, which often uses energy generated from the timber to operate the paper mill.

She also said that PCR paper is often of poorer quality compared to virgin paper, making it a less desirable material to use. Despite the generally poorer quality, brands are still flocking to PCR paper in a bid to appear more sustainable, but Covid-19 has put additional stresses on the few viable sources out there. The usual supply and demand of PCR paper has been altered, as e-commerce shipments have increased but curbside recycling remains hamstrung and traditional sources of recycling are depleted.

“An overall trend is that more recycled fiber is being used in the packaging sector,” said Zhao. “Consumer product companies face pressures around sustainability, so they’re trying to use less virgin fiber content in their packaging. No one has a 100% sure answer on which one is better. But the public thinks: ‘Recycled is better.’”

Ruth said the manufacturer for Milk Makeup’s PCR boxes and bags reloes on alternative sources of power, such as battery-operated forklifts (rather than gas-powered) and LED lights. Corinne Fugier-Garrel, L’Occitane’s packaging concept director, also said the French company had to get creative with its suppliers and ended up using food-packaging manufacturers for the brand’s sustainable packaging solutions, including paper and plastic.

Sara Miltenberger, sustainability expert and founder of Restore Media & Strategy consultancy, said that there are long-term positive implications with adopting PCR materials. She said that if consumers expect it and brands use it en masse, it will become more valuable and there would be more incentives to improve curbside recycling. But Fugier-Garrel said she is not bullish on PCR paper, mainly because of its quality issues and what happens when it’s made more durable.

“To [reinforce PCR paper] you have to increase its thickness, and at the end of the day, the carbon footprint is not necessarily better with recycled paper,” she said. “That’s why [L’Occitane] is not really fond of going entirely into 100% recycled paper.”

Instead, L’Occitane is focusing on paper sourcing from Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests; FSC is an international non-profit that promotes sustainably managed forests. Milk Makeup’s PCR paper materials are also FSC-certified. Other brands that have adopted FSC-certified materials include Biossance, Versed, Pacifica and Non Gender Specific, among many others. The Estée Lauder Companies also has a goal of making 100% of its forest-based fiber cartons FSC-certified by 2025.

“We really bet on this, rather than recycled paper. But everything is like this with sustainability. There is no obvious good decision,” Fugier-Garrel said.