The Ugly Cost of the Beauty Industry

Your insta-worthy beauty “shelfie” is causing an ugly environmental mess.

“My favourite look I was a part of [this season] would be the look Sam Bryant created for Preen,” says Quelle Bester, 31, as she meticulously lays out her makeup kit. “The models were made into these living religious statues, so we gave their skin this hyper glow and then layered on gold leaf over their ears and faces, as if they had broken free of their plaster casts and come to life,” she continues. Preen was sponsored by MAC Cosmetics. The key products Bester used was Strobe Cream, which gave the glow she described, and the new Strobe Glaze and brow gels. She points out that with the exception of the gold leaf, which comes carefully sandwiched between paper, everything was packaged in plastic.

Bester’s primary makeup kit, with all the makeup inside, is laid open in front of an illuminated tri-panel vanity mirror. The bag is packed edge to edge with neatly organised makeup. Sixteen bottles of different shades of foundation are packed neatly to the left. Adjacent to them are sixteen compacts of pressed powder and eyeshadows that are nestled next to almost a dozen quarter-sized pots with varying shades of blush and glitters. That’s just the front of the bag. Towards the back, there are pump bottles, shades ranging from porcelain to espresso, small containers of disposable Q-tips and cotton rounds. Above, hanging from the lid of the carry case, pockets saddling four to five fistfuls of various tubes of concealers and liquid eyeshadows.

To the right of Bester’s primary makeup kit are three different bottles of makeup remover, two large pots of makeup brushes, two more pots filled with varying of red and nude lip glosses, four palettes of colour-correcting concealer and contour. A large pack of makeup-removing wipes accompanies them. There are two more smaller makeup bags filled with brushes and sponges. Seven tubes of lip gloss in this season’s “it” colours are laid out neatly in front of the case; three more tubes of mascara take their place right beside them.

This is the smallest kit she’s ever packed for fashion week.

Ninety-five percent of everything in and around Bester’s makeup bag is housed in plastic packaging that will take over 450 years to decompose. Something that hits you even harder is that Bester is one of 20 makeup artists working the show. There are 19 other people with almost the same set-up and products. “Each brand has between 30 to 100 models per show, with each team having between 10 to 30 makeup and hair artists and then all the production in between,” Bester says. “There’s a lot of plastic waste — not just from the artists but from catering as well.” The catering table is fully stocked with unopened plastic cutlery wrapped in its plastic packaging. Bester says plastic cutlery in particular annoys the heck out of her, though she points out that she doesn’t notice as many plastic straws at shows as she used to. They’ve now been replaced with paper ones or straws made out of pasta. “[pasta straws] are mental, trust me. I popped one into a fizzy drink, and it turned into a kind of volcano incident!”

The beauty industry’s glossy promise of looking amazing is masking an environmental loss. When the petroleum industry hit the market with cheaply produced plastics in the 1950s, cosmetics’ previously glass bottles and tins that could be refilled immediately began being replaced; companies saw significant savings and profits in using this new popular material. Plastic was a cheaper and more convenient option for women buying cosmetics and personal products. Today it’s virtually impossible to walk down the personal care aisle at your local drug store without being flanked by row upon row of items packaged in plastic. The packaging industry alone for beauty and personal care products tops $25 billion in sales annually across the world. “As the plastic pollution crisis grows, the plastics industry continues to tout recycling as the panacea,” says Melissa Valliant, a Senior Communications Manager for Oceana’s U.S. plastics campaign. “Recycling is like trying to mop water from an overflowing bathtub while the faucet is still running. We need to turn off the faucet and reduce the production of single-use plastic,” Valliant says, pointing out that only a meager 9% of all the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. The majority of these containers end up in landfills, where they take decades, if not centuries, to break down into microplastics, which then end up in our waterways and food supply.

Valliant is also keen to point out that plastic is contributing to climate change. On the surface they are tenuously linked, but plastic production is fuelling carbon emissions. “It is impossible to fight one problem without considering the other,” says Valliant. Through every stage of its life cycle, from production and transportation to managing waste, plastic production emits fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. The Center for International Environmental Law predicts that as chemical production rates increase, so will plastic’s effects on our climate — by 2030, plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions are expected to reach 1.34 gigatons per year, which is roughly the amount of emissions released by 295 coal plants.

The cup of beauty filled with plastic littered water has been over flowing for a long while now, and with consumers increasingly becoming aware of the environmental impacts of what they are buying, an environmental backlash is ripe to hit. Brands and retailers are making the switch to more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Lush Cosmetics founding principles of keeping it simple has been at the forefront of reducing the packaging on their products even further. Though some of their current cosmetic offerings come in packaging of some manner, they maintain that packaging they do use is made with 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, tin, glass, compostable bags, reusable recycled, or organic cotton wraps and recyclable. “Our product range is currently about 45% naked, and our inventors are continuously formulating package-free versions of products we never thought could come without a bottle or wrap to market,” says Erica Vega Lush’s Brand and Product trainer. They have also had success with their “Naked Stores” (stores completely void of plastic packaging) in Milan, Berlin, and Manchester in the United Kingdom. Changing consumer buying habits is difficult, but the company is a challenge the company is proud to tackle head-on, “What we’re trying to do as a business is go beyond just talking and actually provide solutions for customers to change their behaviours. By offering consumers the option to go naked, we’re aiming to challenge the status quo and get people considering at every touchpoint in their lives,” says Vega.

Bester agrees with the sentiment. With so many beauty brands competing with one another, product packaging is becoming more and more elaborate, with bigger boxes, extra paper, bags, and glitter. “Unfortunately, a lot of the cosmetic packaging is made to be weighted or heavy so that to give the impression of something being luxurious and expensive,” Bester says. Her philosophy is that if a brand wants to keep its packing in line with its luxury status, their products should be refillable. “MAC have had a Back2MAC scheme in place, where you can exchange six empty products in store for a new lipstick free of charge, and the products are then shipped back to be recycled.”

Having been a makeup artist for 13 years, Bester says she is witnessing the beauty industry’s lethargic wake up to the scale of its plastic pollution crisis. She notes that there has been a push in the last two years for makeup artists to try and condense their kits down on product waste. Brands like Kjaer Weis have an organic range with sleek metal casings which can each be refilled once the product has been used up. “If I had my own [beauty] brand, I would actually love to incorporate a proper refillable system!” she says, beaming. She delves deeper, explaining it would be like KeepCup from a coffee house or parfums from Thierry Mugler where you take your vacuum pump bottle back to the makeup counter, and they refill it. “Vacuum pumps are actually brilliant because then you can see when your product is truly empty, plus it makes sure that the air doesn’t oxidise your products, keeping them fresher for longer,” she says. She breaks down a concept where you place your old aluminium packaging out to be picked up like your regular recycling, except it’s taken to be cleaned, sterilised and then returned to the mother company where they can reuse their original packaging. “I think that would be amazing and would love to see beauty brands taking an example from that.”

Plastic has become a foundation pillar in the modern supply chain, taking steps to limit its prevalence will be a long and painful process, with many setbacks. Changing consumer habits has always been hard, but the way a plethora of countries have adopted reusable grocery bags proves it can be done. When it comes to beauty and personal care products, the more informed consumers become, the more it will force the industry to take a look at itself and to produce innovative ideas that don’t harm the planet.

British. Writer and Conservationist. Child of the Commonwealth.

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