Beauty: Time For A Ma-'eco'-ver

Over the past few years it has been interesting to see the cosmetic industry start to go ‘eco-friendly’. The industry is worth close to 600 billion USD globally, so we were curious to learn more about its impact on the planet and what companies are doing to reduce it. So for Switch episode 19, Beauty: Time for a Ma-‘eco’-ver, (yes, we are proud of that title!), we dived into this topic and learnt a bit more. We wanted to keep the content of this episode pretty open so in the future we can deep-dive into specific topics like toiletries, make-up, face cleansers, etc. 

According to ‘Zero Waste’, 120 billion pieces of packaging are produced each year by the cosmetics industry… This waste primarily ends up in landfills and oceans, with less than 50% getting recycled. However, this is not necessarily because the materials can’t be recycled, but that aren’t recycling bins in the bathroom or people don’t think about it. Us included! In fact, only 1 in 5 people recycle their toiletries.

Besides the obvious packaging, we both were seeing lots of words in the sustainable beauty industry such as ‘vegan’, ‘organic’, ‘forest-safe’ that really made us realise the impact goes beyond packaging. So on this episode we wanted to dive into three things:

  • The issue and impact on the environment 

  • What the industry is doing about it 

  • What we can do about it

This topic typically impacts everyone, and even though the product may be as small as a lipstick, or a facial scrub, the impact is relatively big. Also we think that in terms of behavioural change, beauty could actually be a really simple way to cut your impact - way simpler than changing your commute, or what you eat!

First, we wanted to dissect what the issues are associated with cosmetics. The top five (not in any particular order) are:

  • Packaging - and a lack of it being recycled 

  • Palm oil - which is in 70% of cosmetics (you can learn more about the impact of palm oil in our palm oil episode)

  • Animal testing

  • Water usage - there is an extremely high use of water in the production of cosmetics and clean water sources are declining rapidly 

  • Carbon emissions - it takes a lot of energy to create cosmetic products - due to transport, manufacturing and other sources.

Some brands are doing good things to address the impacts that their products have. For example, Maybelline Great Lash mascara is made with 100 percent renewable electricity. Similarly, Estee Laudre has gone palm-oil free, and Unilever (which created Dove, St. Ives etc…) is sourcing responsible palm oil for its products. Meanwhile, L’Oreal has made deforestation commitments and P&G has committed to having 100% compostable packaging by 2030.

There are also more ‘sustainability-focused’ brands which are doing cool things, for examples, at the World Economic Forum in January, a consortium of brands, including REN Clean Skincare and the Body Shop, announced participation in Loop, a shopping program that will offer products in durable packaging that can be returned, sanitized, and reused (like old-school milk bottles). We also have some personal faves like Nuud and Coconut Matters.

It’s awesome that some big names in the industry are doing positive things and setting an example, however, we did wonder whether they should be committing to more ambitious targets… There are some great smaller-scale brands which have sustainable values at their core which we are more interested to explore in future purchases. There’s also a big role for governments to play in minimising the impact of the industry via legislation, for example, California will prohibit the sale of cosmetics that have been tested on animals starting next year, and New York and Hawaii have introduced similar legislation. We think more action by governments would move things along in the industry.


Finally, we talked about some of the barriers we experienced to switching and some ‘easy wins’ to get around them:

  • Convenience - e.g. packaging not recycled because no bathroom recycling bin

  • High cost - (which is often a misconception!)

  • Brand affiliation - it can be hard to jump ship from your favourite brands

  • Lack of awareness - about the impact of beauty products and the issues that relate to them

  • Fear of change 

Easy wins:

  • Recycle or trade - recycling just ten plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 25 hours; many shops like MAC take your containers and give you something when you return them

  • Go naked - try packaging-free things, even simple switches like a soap container to bar soap/shampoo

  • Mini to large - choose refills rather than a new bottle/container every time 

  • Sustainably sourced - look for those signs you are used to seeing on food, like ‘Fair Trade’, ‘Rainforest Alliance’ ‘palm oil-free’ 

  • Leaping bunny - indicates that the product animal cruelty-free 

For more tips, check out the full episode. We hope you enjoy it. Let us know your easy wins, challenges or any other thoughts in the comments below! Thanks for reading :)