The Circular Economy in Cosmetics Production: Packaging, Formula, and Brand Narrative

Elizabeth Heath

Nov 10, 2021 · 4 min read

As the world reckons with the realities of climate change, it’s increasingly clear that businesses of all shapes and sizes must be part of a global solution. The cosmetics and personal care industry is no exception, as brands look for ways to lower their environmental footprint, reduce waste, and make a positive impact on local communities. The circular economy ‘concept’ is emerging as a winning model for Beauty Brands.

What is the Circular Economy?

Though the idea has been around since the 1960s, the term ‘circular economy’ started gaining steam in the 21st century. In simplest terms, the circular economy contrasts with the traditional, linear economy, where products and packaging are produced through extracted, non-regenerative resources, and eventually wind up in landfills or somewhere in the pollution stream.

Instead, the circular economy is a regenerative one, where products are created in a sustainable way and to the extent possible, recycled and reused. So instead of resulting in landfill waste and pollution, products created in the circular economy create low- to no waste, are climate-neutral or climate-positive, and are produced with minimal environmental impact.

How Can Cosmetics Be Produced in the Circular Economy?

Beauty Brands and cosmetics companies can be part of the circular economy solution, and many already produce their products with this approach. In fact, for new brands that are just starting out, adopting the circular economy model is likely easier than it is for large, established brands that already have their supply chains in place.

We’ve identified three key areas where Beauty Brands can participate in the circular economy – packaging, formula, and brand identity.

Cosmetics Packaging and the Circular Economy

According to industry experts Inside Packaging, the beauty industry creates a stunning 120 billion units of packaging every year, most of which is not recycled. But more and more brands are proving that low- or no-waste packaging is a viable solution. And the options aren’t limited to using recycled plastics or cardboard for packaging. Brands are eliminating plastic containers – and in some cases (like Lush Cosmetics), containers altogether – and offering their products in refillable containers.

EU/UK boutique brand Wildsmith Skin has gone so far as to package its products in biodegradable mycelium, which is made from mushrooms! The company also provides pre-stamped mailers so that customers can send their empty glass, plastic, or metal containers back for reuse or recycling.

And it’s not just small brands that are jumping on the circular economy bandwagon. The Loop by Ulta partnership allows customers to order their favorite beauty products in reusable packaging. When the containers are empty, clients schedule at-home pick up of the empties and deliveries of new product.

Cosmetics Formulas and the Circular Economy

For brands to really demonstrate their commitment to the circular economy, they have to go beyond sustainable packaging and get down to what’s in the bottle. Are the natural ingredients in their formulas extracted in a responsible way? Are they a renewable resource, or is their extraction putting too much pressure on ecosystems?

Think about microbeads in scrubs, palm oil in creams, and VOCs in aerosols and sprays – no matter how “greenly” they’re packaged, they’re still taking a huge toll on the environment. Alternative ingredients that are more in line with the circular economy are those that are:

  • Harvested and/or farmed sustainably and in fair working conditions
  • Not tested on animals – this goes not just for the formula, but for each individual ingredient
  • Are certified as organic

One example we especially love is UK-based UpCircle, whose products, aside from being housed in 99% plastic-free, regenerated packaging, are made from discarded coffee grounds, fruit pits, and tea spices.

Check this terrific article from Vogue for more great examples of beauty products created in the circular economy.

The Circular Economy as Brand Identity

In addition to being the conscientious approach in a world that’s heaving under the climate crisis, the circular economy makes good business sense. Beauty consumers are demanding responsibility and accountability from the brands they buy, and circularity walks hand-in-hand with the clean beauty movement, anyway.

Going into 2022, it’s clear that rising brands can’t rely on conventional models of formulating, packaging, and creating their brand identity. Nor can established brands stick to their old, unsustainable ways – they too must move to greener ways of doing business if they want to stay relevant and respected in the modern marketplace. Adopting the circular economic model allows brands to answer customer expectations and plays a huge role in defining brand identity – and it’s also just the right thing to do.

Written by

Elizabeth Heath

Liz is a writer and editor based in central Italy.

Connect with Elizabeth Heath on LinkedIn.

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