The Beauty Paradox: How to Create Aspirational Yet Sustainable Packaging that Doesn’t Cost the Earth


Earlier this year, the plastics debate reached fever pitch when David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series revealed how society’s throwaway attitude to plastics is endangering marine life.

Not long after, Sian Sutherland, best known in beauty as the founder of premium beauty range Mama Mio, launched A Plastic Planet, a campaign group which is aiming change consumer habits. In an interview with The Times in January, she warned: “While you can offset your carbon footprint, you can never offset your plastic footprint.”

Sian’s high profile image and outspoken comments is making the beauty industry have every reason to feel uncomfortable.

Already, the beauty industry has come under scrutiny for its prolific use of plastic microbeads, which will be banned in the sale of rinse-off products such as facial scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes from July.

Now, premium beauty brands are facing a particularly difficult situation as the spotlight is turning towards products that are over-packaged and often impossible to recycle.

Think £100 moisturisers packaged in double-walled containers, nestling in swathes of cardboard that is wrapped in (plastic) cellophane. How much of it is really necessary?

Most make-up items are virtually impossible to recycle. What to do with mascara brushes, metal-cum-plastic lipstick cases, pipettes in foundation bottles? Let’s not get started on how to dispose of nail polishes that have reached the end of their life.

Yet packaging is integral to the aspirational and luxury image that premium beauty brands want to portray. It’s what separates a £3 mass-market item from one priced at £33. Consumers have long been prepared to pay this price differential for the perceived value that premium products can deliver.

However, glossy packaging comes at a price and consumers are starting to question why it’s necessary, particularly if they can’t recycle it through the usual channels.

Can Packaging be Beautiful, Luxurious and Sustainable?


This was the theme of this year’s Packaging Innovations Beauty Forum, which I recently chaired.

One of the speakers, Michelle Feeney, former CEO of St Tropez, MAC cosmetics boss and now founder of break-out fragrance brand Floral Street, has approached the subject of packaging in a completely fresh and new way.

Taking her 30 years of experience working with cult global beauty brands, she is doing something that has never been done in fine fragrance before - creating a collection of contemporary floral fragrances presented in glass bottles stamped with original artwork and neatly packaged in egg-carton type compostable boxes which can be recycled or reused as seed trays for plants and herbs.

Ditching the traditional luxe glossy embossed cartons wrapped in cellophane, Michelle partnered with packaging experts James Cropper to create the sustainable pulp box that is totally recyclable. In her Floral Street shop in Covent Garden, Michell has lined the walls with the boxes in a nod to packaging that can be upcycled.

And describing her revolutionary approach to packaging, Michelle said: “It will shake up the industry. We’ve put something beautiful in a recyclable box that is modern luxury.“Sustainability is often about compromise, but it can be exciting,” she added.

However, Michelle does not underestimate the challenge facing the beauty industry.

“If you look in your bathroom cabinet you’ll see how much packaging is in there. It will be a challenge to brands to deliver products that are kinder to the environment.”

Michelle warns that if the industry does not heed the changes demanded by consumers, then in 5-10 years their products simply won’t get purchased.

It’s a stark warning, but between them, Sian and Michelle have the vision and potential clout to instigate real change within the beauty industry.

What is your view on beauty and the plastics debate? Please do let us know in the comment box below.

Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash