Cary Lin is the co-founder and CEO of skincare brand Common Heir.
When Michelle Lee, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, announced the beauty magazine new commitment to sustainable development last month, I wanted to print it out like a big piece of paper and stand on a soapbox saying, “Allure isn’t synonymous with greenwashing bullshit anymore!” It’s incredible. Revolutionary. Powerful.”
Nonetheless, I wanted to get into the substance of Allure’s statements and start a conversation in a way that advances sustainable product innovation, not innovations in marketing jargon.
It is 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 all set our own goals, with particular emphasis on what we can reasonably measure, whether it’s recycling ingredients, rethinking sourcing, or bringing refillable packaging implemented, as an improvement over what existed before. And that makes perfect sense. The transition of packaging, formulation and ingredients – all in the midst of a historic global pandemic – is costly and chaotic.
We also know the consumer cares – up to a point, before convenience becomes too compelling to compromise. We also know that the consumer wants reassurance, not preached to, say, buy a reusable water bottle, but then stop by Starbucks on the way home after a long day at work. How do we react to this disconnect between what we aspire to and our actual behavior?
End of life and the three -ables: recyclable, biodegradable, compostable
Innovation must take into account real human behavior, this could not be evidenced more clearly in the three-table fable.
Recycling should be seen as a last resort to find out where things are going, and for good reason. On average, 9% plastics were recycled. So when Allure says they’re going to stop declaring plastic packaging as “recyclable” as a legitimate sustainability credibility, that’s a big deal. I was surprised to learn that our plastic made from sugar cane was just as susceptible to end up in landfills like any other plastic. Recyclability has been the crutch of the beauty industry because it already describes the plastic packaging that many of us have to use without doing anything different. We all know that certain types of plastic packaging could theoretically do this. But in practice, for various technical reasons – black plastic, multiple materials, PCR degradation – on a large scale, this is not the case. So let’s call a spade a spade.
Let’s talk about biodegradability. I think most consumers imagine a banana peel to melt and disappear on its own. Unfortunately, we all know that is not what is happening. Biodegradability must be circumscribed by a time frame and a set of conditions. We all know biodegradability is not specific enough to tell us that something is not going to harm the environment, which it really implies. It takes time and specific circumstances for bacteria to break down something. The landfills are too overloaded for anything to decompose. And technically, many plastics are biodegradable. Surprise: glass is not, but it is infinitely recyclable and is treated 31% of the time. When a manufacturer actually tests the biodegradability of a material, they should provide an estimate of how long it will take. Many plastics take hundreds of years. And the trap? As they decompose, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters in length.
What about the compostable? When my co-founder and I started looking for home compostability certifications, we couldn’t afford gold standard certification, “OK Compost Home. It cost tens of thousands of dollars. We also couldn’t find more than a handful of people we knew who actually composted or had access to regular composting. Instead, we decided to optimize dissolvency, which would not require behavior in which a minority of US households actually engage.
While we all want to aim for home compostability, we also know that a lot of brands say âcompostableâ when they mean their packaging is industrial compostable. Being industrial compostable can only be handled by industrial composting facilities and not via a consumer’s compost heap. However, industrial composting facilities are for-profit businesses. They want things that will compost quickly, and most of that doesn’t include industrially compostable plastics. Again, for most beauty products, the end result is always a dump. We know this and should make every effort to clarify whether something is âhomeâ or âindustrialâ compostable, and own it if it is the latter.
Zero waste is not possible
Unpopular opinion alert: zero waste is an impossible standard. I have personally tried putting my garbage in a mason jar for a day. By lunchtime, I had already failed. I was advised not to take it “literally”, but “by suction”. We understand that zero waste means designing products that won’t go to landfill, but in practice it will. It really means: “We have 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 term âminimal wasteâ because it sounds like a more honest standard that we can all aspire to.
Retailers must join
Beautifully, 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 may appear quite large in its shelf space, 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 big step forward. But keep in mind that until retailers change their standards, brands have to listen to what they want. We need to innovate and develop plastic-free swaps, and we should also collectively ask ourselves why we need double-walled jars to appear on a retailer’s shelves.
I understand that this is easier said than done and can lead to some tough choices. When I was at More Labs, we spent a lot of energy at leading our packaging shift from glass to plastic, based on demand from a key retailer. We spent months looking for a non-petroleum-based, sugarcane-based plastic, thinking it would be the less bad option, only to realize that bio-based plastics tend to end up in the same place as everyone else oil products. plastic based: a landfill. We had a lot of heartburn from our customers because of this decision, but the opportunity changed the course of the business. Retailers need to drive consumer demand and recognize their role in the ecosystem.
Let’s meet consumers where they are with their behavior today, not where they theoretically could. When creating new products, consider what is actually happening, not what we hope will happen if we recycle a plastic bottle or put an industrial compostable plastic lid in the trash.
It’s no exaggeration to say that consumers are watching us and asking us to improve. Some of our consumers may know more than we do. The consumer should not bear the burden of eco-anxiety, but should continue to exercise the power to demand better products.
Sustainability is difficult. It is often an expensive trip, and I’m sure I preach to the choir. I realize that some of the choices are prohibitive for those who are committed to keeping their prices affordable. It is clear that, for the first time, the consumer is now ahead of the industry’s ability to meet and meet their demand for less plastic waste and better supply. But the answer is not to hide behind innovation in marketing jargon. The most important responsibility that we should all care about is accountability.
I am convinced that we can do it because we have been here before, very recently. This is the way the beauty industry has responded to calls for herbal alternatives, better supply, and increased access to new ingredients over the past decade. This is the result of the innovation of pioneer brands, in response to consumer demand, ushering in a clean beauty revolution that is distinguished by offering many choices that do not require compromise.
For the sake of the industry, let’s design for the future by meeting consumers where they are today, not as we all would like them to behave if all around their homes and municipal waste management programs were working properly. Let’s recognize the theoretical, but make choices in reality. If you find a great packaging supplier that is really ahead of the curve, share it with others. Let’s all speed up the adoption curve for new materials. Sustainability must unite us, not differentiate us.
Let’s all be part of the coming of the future we would like to live in – together.