As plastics horror stories pile up, consumers across the developed world are turning away from the modern convenience of plastic bags and plastic packaging, or at least trying to avoid single-use plastic as much as they can. There have been too many dead whales found with bellies full of disposable bags, boxes and bottles; too many river mouths choked with trash that never rots; too many Asian beaches carpeted with everlasting plastic rubbish. The mood has shifted, and sustainability is now becoming a watchword.
British brand The Body Shop, which has declared it wants refillable bottles and containers to become mainstream, began introducing filler stations in its shops worldwide in April, and says six are planned for Hong Kong this year. The French beauty company L’Occitane has launched a global war on plastic with recycling and refill options for many of its products, and luxury French brand Dior, which says its “thoughts are centered on everything that can be modified or optimised in packaging, formulation, transportation, practices and usage” has introduced a refillable bottle for Sauvage eau de toilette.
These companies are in tune with many consumers’ sentiments. For her part, marketing and public relations professional Jaclyn Tsang is horrified by the mountains of plastic waste produced every day. The Hong Kong resident buys products that are as sustainable as possible and preferably those with refill options. “I stopped using mascara for a while because I couldn’t find anything on the market,” she says.
Lipsticks were a problem for her for a long time, and rather than chucking her just-about-finished lipsticks in the bin, Tsang kept them, just in case. “I’ve become the ultimate trash lady,” she says. “I’ve kept a stack, waiting for the day when someone will recycle them. It keeps me a lot more conscious about what I’m using from day to day.”
Now she uses refillable lipsticks and a durable mascara tool made by US based company Hourglass. She likes products from the US company Tata Harper, and buys the brand’s refillable moisturiser. “While the refill pod is still plastic, it is a step to help reduce overall waste as you can just keep reusing the original glass jar,” she says.
The marketing professional also uses solid bars of soap and shampoo, and she is spreading the message that plastic bottles are an unnecessary luxury in today’s world. If she uses a plastic bottle for liquid soap she refills it at an appropriate store, like Slowood or Live Zero in Hong Kong. “I think people are becoming more aware; people do ask,” she says, when they see her using sustainable products. “It gets people to rethink.”
Once a massive user of billions of convenient plastic sachets, packs, bottles and tubes, the beauty industry has sniffed these winds of emotional change and the big swing to recycle and refill options is building momentum.
Jane Zhang, an analyst at market research provider Euromonitor International, sees the evolution of refillable packaging as a result of the growing industry and consumer awareness of the importance of environmental and ethical issues.
According to a Euromonitor survey, consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change (with the proportion of concerned citizens increasing from 29 to 31 per cent between 2019 and 2021), Zhang says, and in 2021 about 40 per cent agreed refillable/reusable packaging would lead to a better environment. “This has prompted industry players to take action,” she adds, noting that even so, a proportion of consumers preferred recyclable to refillable options, perhaps because some refillable packaging options are also made of plastic.
L’Occitane has plunged into the plastics battle, with a campaign that declares that on the world’s current trajectory of plastics use, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. The company has a refill option: a plastic, recyclable sachet that uses up to 90 per cent less plastic than the original bottles, and costs less. The refill sachet choices include shampoos, conditioners, liquid soaps, shower oils and cleansers.
In early 2021, L’Occitane opened a Mega Sustainability Concept Store in Hong Kong’s upmarket Pacific Place shopping centre, an outlet that markets wrapper-free soap and accepts all plastic beauty containers (from L’Occitane and other brands) for recycling. The company has announced that by 2025 all L’Occitane bottles will be made of recycled plastic and since March 2020, 92 per cent of L’Occitane packaging material has been recyclable.
“Consume less” is a lesson to live by in the beauty game, and the British beauty firm Lush has completely dispensed with a lot of packaging, selling a range of “naked” often brightly-coloured wrapper-free soaps, shampoo bars, solid deodorants, and solid “bath bomb” bath salts. But some liquid products are sold in plastic bottles, and rather than provide refills, Lush offers a free pot of Fresh Face Mask for every five cleaned and returned Lush plastic containers returned to the shop for recycling.
The number of Lush container returns in Hong Kong is slowly but steadily increasing, a Lush spokeswoman says. In 2018 more than 44,000 containers were returned, in 2019 more than 46,000 and in 2020 more than 47,000, she notes. Lush would not provide the number of plastic containers sold, so estimating whether the actual proportion of sold items were returned has increased is impossible.
It can be difficult for the concerned consumer to understand the sustainability of and relative worth of various green options. That company uses refillable glass containers, but how does the energy cost of shipping heavier glass factor in? This company offers refill sachets but the sachets are made of plastic, on the other hand the plastic is recycled.
“Greenwashing”, when companies promote so-called environmentally-sound policies or packaging, has also emerged in the beauty market. In April, Korean beauty brand Innisfree acknowledged the words“Hello I’m paper” on the outer surface of a plastic container could be misleading. “We used the term ‘paper bottle’ to explain the role of the paper label surrounding the bottle,” Innisfree told The Korea Herald.
The Australian beauty brand Aesop is considering various environmental policies. Now owned by Brazil’s Natura and Co, Aesop doesn’t offer refills, but the company will recycle plastic bottles and containers returned in Hong Kong and will accept certain types of glass container returned in Adelaide (which it then sends to Melbourne for cleaning and refilling). There is no customer incentive for either.
Aesop also sells screw-top versions of its pump bottle hand and body cleansing products – each plastic pump, the firm says, is made of 12 grams of plastic. “Our packaging team,” Aesop says, “is continuing to research refillable and circular solutions that demonstrate a tangible environmental benefit while also maintaining product quality.”