Confessions of a cosmetic packaging pro: 'Refills are not as sustainable as we've been led to believe' – Glossy

April is Earth Month, which means many brands and retailers will spend the next few weeks prioritizing the effective messaging of their environmentally-focused initiatives to consumers. But how can brands cut through the noise without accidentally exaggerating their impact? And which materials are actually better for the planet?
Navigating the world of sustainability can feel burdensome as it becomes harder to understand and to effectively educate consumers about the actual impact products have on our planet. Considering the increasingly-skeptical consumer, and the legal trouble brands can find themselves in if claims cannot be substantiated, it’s tough to know what steps make sense this month. 
Today’s confessions subject has spent the last seven years behind the scenes in cosmetic packaging management, oftentimes helping brands to determine the right steps to reduce the environmental impact of their jars and bottles while ensuring their formulas are protected, ring in under budget, and arrive to the consumer without breaks or dents. 
Her experience is in packaging sourcing and design, plus she worked in sales for a contract manufacturer and packaging supplier. She also moonlights as a college professor teaching courses on cosmetic packaging to the next generation of beauty industry professionals. 
While some specific details of her career have been removed to protect her privacy, she speaks candidly about how to form a more sustainable packaging strategy, what packaging claims brands should avoid this month and what the future of eco packaging looks like, ahead.
As we enter into Earth Month, what do you wish more brands understood about sustainable personal care packaging?
“We’re seeing a huge rise in greenwashing, and a lot of that is because brands don’t know how to communicate complex sustainability nuances effectively and, more importantly, accurately to the everyday consumer. A lot of brands are trying to earn bonus points with consumers for making sustainability efforts, but every single product and package has an environmental burden. That’s a harsh fact that we have to be comfortable addressing in order to have these more nuanced conversations.”
What greenwashing packaging terms and messaging should brands avoid in their marketing this Earth Month?
“Some of the biggest offenders to me would be ‘planet positive,’ ‘plastic neutral’ and ‘good for the planet.’ Even just the term ‘sustainable,’ without any substantiation to back it up, is very misleading. Because at the end of the day, the most sustainable thing to do is not launch a product.

I’ve seen some brands take an extreme stance on this and almost validate consumers’ choices [such as], ‘If you purchase our product with our sustainable packaging, you’re making a positive impact on the planet.’ There’s something very inherently flawed about that messaging.”
Are there specific pieces of misinformation plaguing the sustainable packaging category right now?
“One of my biggest pet peeves is the current plastic bashing [rhetoric] that is very, very popular in the beauty space right now. It’s understandable because a lot of the industry and the media have positioned plastic as inherently bad and a lot of consumers have adopted this belief, as well. But when we look at some of the alternative materials like glass and aluminum that brands are switching to in an effort to get away from plastic, they also have a pretty significant environmental impact, particularly in carbon emissions.” 
How so?
“Glass and aluminum are both very energy intensive during raw material extraction and manufacturing to the point that they generally emit significantly more carbon emissions than standard PET plastic. And that’s something that is not being talked about whatsoever. Instead, brands and consumers are solely focusing on the recyclability of these packaging materials instead of the impact they’re having throughout the entire product life cycle.” 
I really identify with this. I thought glass was inherently better before I realized that glass isn’t always recyclable, depending on which city you live in.
“Our recycling infrastructure in the United States is a bit of a mess and it makes it very difficult to ensure that, as a brand, if you’re launching packaging that is in theory ‘recyclable,’ it is actually recycled. Recyclability tends to be one of the least effective sustainability strategies, in my opinion.”
What’s the most effective sustainability strategy a brand can take on in 2024?
“I encourage brands to start with reducing the overall packaging of their products. A lot of products use far more materials than are required to protect the integrity of the product.”
Why do you think brands are overdoing the packaging even in our new eco era?
“Aesthetics are certainly one of the reasons, but one other reason that I don’t think a lot of consumers are aware of is ‘size impression.’ Brands are aware that most consumers are not reading the full fill size on their products. Instead, when [a shopper is] trying to determine the value of a brand’s product compared to a competing product, they tend to assess it visually. If brand A has slightly oversized packaging, most consumers are going to see that as a better value than brand B, even if it’s the same amount. Unfortunately, the oversized packaging is going to give the impression that you’re getting more bang for your buck.”
I have also heard that some brands add weights to their packaging to increase its value?
“Yeah, some brands are still utilizing weights. They’re very expensive and, from a sustainability perspective, they’re just an addition of unnecessary packaging. The biggest reason that brands choose to do this is subliminal marketing. When a consumer picks up a package, and it has a heavy weight to it, we associate that with quality. So even if a package is made entirely of plastic, sometimes brands will put a weight in it to make it seem more elevated and more prestige than it necessarily is.”
This makes so much sense. I try to be eco-friendly, but it’s hard to release that sentiment where you pick something up and think, ‘Eh, this feels cheap!’
“It’s so true. Even me, working in cosmetic packaging for as long as I have, I fall into that, as well. I’ll pick up a package and if it feels heavy, it feels luxurious — like something that I want to put on my bedside table as a statement.”
One thing that I’ve always been curious about is the unseen waste associated with a product. How much material waste is hidden from a consumer?
“That’s called tertiary packaging, which is basically the packaging to protect the packaging during transportation — and it’s something that is largely unseen. I was recently working on a brand that launched hair care in a carton. It literally looks like a milk carton. It’s a really interesting package, probably one of my favorite launches this year so far. In addition to the reduction in plastic and material use, these cartons can be shipped entirely flat, and they have very minimal tertiary packaging compared to a glass or aluminum bottle, which can be very breakage- or dent-prone. There’s a really interesting sustainability story to tell, just around the amount of tertiary packaging required to protect the packaging while it’s being transported to the contract manufacturer or from the fulfillment warehouse to the consumer’s doorstep.”
Why isn’t anyone talking about tertiary packaging waste?
“I think a lot of brands don’t necessarily focus their efforts there because consumers don’t really see those efforts.”
How can a brand reduce its tertiary packaging waste without redesigning their packaging?
“[Many brands make an effort] to reuse it. So once [their packaging] is delivered to their contract manufacturer, for example, a lot of contract manufacturers will reuse it for other orders instead of just sending it to the landfill. 
However, if brands do make an effort to reduce the amount of tertiary packaging they’re using, they may see immediate sustainability benefits, but they could [also] potentially increase the amount of breakage of their packaging during transportation, which is also a source of waste, so it’s tricky.”
In your opinion, which is the more environmentally-friendly option for brands right now: PCR [post-consumer resin] plastic material that was recycled already, or virgin plastic that is more widely accepted in a curbside recycle bin?
“Implementing PCR content is the more proactive of the two sustainability strategies. [A brand] relying on packages to be recycled at their end of life is kind of the lazy sustainability strategy. It puts all of the burden on consumers and our recycling infrastructure, which has quite severe limitations. PCR content is actually becoming a requirement in quite a few states in the United States, so if brands want to sell in the state of California, they have to start implementing PCR content at a minimum of 30% [in the coming years]. Even though PCR content cannot be infinitely recyclable, I still am in favor of implementing PCR content when we can.”
Let’s talk about the refill trend happening in beauty. Are refills actually better for the environment? 
“Generally speaking, refills are not as sustainable as we’ve been led to believe. There’s basically three categories of refills. One is bottle-in-a-bottle refills, where the packaging has an insert in the form of a refillable cartridge or pot that goes into a keepsake component. Those tend to be the least effective of the refills, in regard to sustainability. A lot of times they can actually increase the amount of waste and emissions because you’re effectively producing two separate packages. Consumers have to purchase the refill four to five times before they start to see any sort of reduction in carbon emissions or waste. I’m very leery of that refill strategy.”
Which refill strategy do you prefer?
“My preferred refill strategy right now would be refill pouches. They don’t work for every product, but with refill pouches, there’s an automatic reduction in material use. Depending on the refill pouch, sometimes you can see up to a 90% reduction in plastic compared to a standard single-use component.
Looking into the future, a lot of beauty brands have explored the idea of doing refill stations. I don’t think our infrastructure is ready for that. There are some very big hygiene concerns, understandably, and complexities that just haven’t been worked out yet. But looking to the future, hopefully they will become more feasible to implement.”
I have heard brands quietly talk about how they’re having major forecasting issues around refills, often getting stuck with refill components that they can’t sell and that are impractical for a consumer to use alone without the keepsake component. Have you worked with brands struggling here?
“I’ve heard the struggles from their perspective on this, as well. I’ve helped launch refillable packaging for a number of brands, and based on the conversations that I’ve had with them behind the scenes, refills still have a very low adoption rate amongst consumers.”
Why do you think this is?
“There isn’t a significant enough price incentive for consumers, and they’d rather just have a brand new full component [than save a few dollars]. Consumers just aren’t as motivated to purchase refills and use them.” 
How do you help brands determine their refill strategy? It must feel like a Catch-22, because a brand should endeavor to come out with a full sustainability roadmap for every product, but at the same time, a brand can’t predict which product will become a hero product that needs a refill.
“I’ve had brands want to launch refills for products that have never been on the market before, and they have no forecasting data, and I try to discourage them from that because they don’t know if this is going to be a highly repurchased product.
On the flip side, there are brands that have products that they know 50% of their customers repurchase every 2 to 3 months, so there’s the potential for the refill system to be successful with their current customers’ repurchasing habits. It is a tricky conversation because a lot of brands want to make a splash with their sustainability implementation efforts, and right now, refills tend to make a splash.”
How can a brand make a justified claim about its sustainability efforts this month?
“If brands are going to be making claims around their product packaging, they really need to have substantiation. Very few brands are conducting life-cycle analysis to support their claims and the ones that do very rarely publicly publish them so that consumers have access to them. There are a lot of greenwashing claims on the market right now — it’s kind of the wild west.”
Editor’s Note: For our Confessions series, we provide anonymity to fashion and beauty industry insiders to allow them to openly share their perspectives and give readers genuine insight. The author of a Confessions story is aware of the identity of the speaker and has validated their title and position.
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