Beauty and the packaging beast

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With annual e-commerce transactions now at 40 billion and rising, beauty brands can do their bit to combat #packagingfail. They can also save money at the same time, making it a win-win for the planet and for the bottom line.

With sustainability a huge priority for consumers and businesses, beauty brands find themselves in a challenging position. Customers are watching closely for any sustainability-unfriendly slip-ups, and calling them out loudly with #packagingfail comments on social media. At the same time, the most environmentally friendly packaging solutions often cost more to produce.

So how can brands do the right thing by consumers and the planet, without passing the costs on to the business bottom line? We speak to WGSN Beauty’s Beauty Editor Emma Grace Bailey, and take inspiration from innovative packaging company Flexi-Hex.

One key area where savings can be made is e-commerce, a sector that consumers may not associate with sustainability-damaging practices, but which is in fact, a major culprit.

“With e-commerce being so one-click easy, more and more of us are doing it, making over 40 billion transactions each year. That’s a lot of delivery packaging,” explains Bailey.

“Added to that are the emissions of the delivery vans, the international flights and shipping – and our own impatience. We want our orders yesterday, so retailers are unable to consolidate deliveries into more eco-friendly shipments. And there’s more. Online shopping also means online returns, so the packaging and transport issues kick in all over again.”

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Bailey cites two major problems brands face when making packaging decisions.

E-commerce packaging holds particular challenges for beauty brands since the fragile products require substantial amounts of padding and protection: a make-up palette that arrives cracked is not just a waste of the delivery packaging but of the product itself. And then there’s the nature of active ingredients, which often need to be kept in specific packaging types to remain stable and effective. Retinol and vitamin C can’t be packaged in cardboard.”

There’s also the issue of a brand’s bottom line.

At the moment it will definitely increase the cost of your packaging,” says Bailey, although she remains optimistic. “I’m assuming over the years the costs will come down. The more we use it, the better it will be overall for everyone.”

What about in the here and now?

One instant win with sustainably minded consumers is for brands to be transparent about the packaging used,” says Bailey. “ If you can’t eradicate plastic or layers of protective cushioning, tell your customers why. Tell them what is necessary to keep their product safe, and why the packaging has to function the way it does.

This sort of authentic conversation is powerful, as Ren showed last year with its Ocean Plastic Bottle. Telling customers that ‘grey is the new green’, Ren explained that the ocean-waste plastic used gave a grey tinge to the bottles. Rather than removing the greyness with more chemicals, Ren said that ‘clearer plastic doesn’t always mean cleaner’. It was messaging that went down well with consumers – and garnered the brand considerable PR coverage.”

Bailey also advises brands to design packaging that is fit for e-commerce purpose.

Design for e-commerce from the start, rather than creating a really beautiful, but really fragile, product that then has to be wrapped in bubble wrap or other plastics,” she says. “This not only cuts back on the materials you have to use to package your product, but reduces waste from broken products and rates of returns.”

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This is a strategy used by Flexi-Hex, a packaging brand based in Cornwall, UK. The company has created a 100% recyclable, honeycomb-structured cardboard sleeve, which is not only super-strong but sustainable, too. The paper is recycled and the water-based glue makes it “fully recyclable kerbside and biodegradable”, according co-founder and creative director Sam Boex. “We also limit the amount of printing on the product, so the inks don’t hinder the recycling process,” he says. “The volume of the product is also a key factor. Flexi-Hex is very compact, meaning you can ship less pallets, using less transport and reducing your carbon emissions overall.

“One surfboard brand we work with was using up to 11 miles of bubble wrap a year to ship their product. With Flexi-Hex, they’ve reduced this to just two pallets of packaging materials and eliminated the equivalent of 23,750 plastic bottles’ worth of single-use plastic per year.”

And for anyone wondering about the protective qualities of cardboard over bubble wrap, Flexi-Hex has that covered. When doing a box-drop test with a bottle of wine, the industry standard for not breaking is 1.2 metres: Flexi-Hex successfully tested to drops of up to four metres.

“We work with Tinkture Gin, a Cornish artisan spirits company,” says Boex. “Before switching to Flexi-Hex, between 7% and 10% of Tinkture bottles would break during delivery. Since converting, they haven’t had any breakages.” Good news for the planet – and gin lovers everywhere.

Emma remains optimistic about future packaging innovations.

“The beauty industry is being really forward-thinking and proactive,” she says. “Just look at the way it jumped on the whole no-plastic thing. So many brands have made so many big changes in such a small amount of time, compared to how long they’ve been operating. As an industry, it’s reacting very fast.”


More ideas and insight in WGSN Beauty’s Winning Strategies: Sustainable E-Commerce Packaging & Delivery. Get a sample of the report.


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