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The Realities of Zero Waste Beauty Businesses

Published October 13, 2021
Published October 13, 2021
Loli Beauty

Zero waste has been the gold standard of brand sustainability, but the realities of conducting a business with carbon-neutral, or even plastic-negative, practices are more challenging than some may realize.

Firstly, the definition of zero waste varies. The Green Business Bureau defines it as “trying to prevent anything from ending up in landfill or incinerator”; Carbon Trust declares it “the longer-term ambition to almost completely eliminate waste from business activities, both upstream with suppliers and downstream with customers. This has a lot of overlap with the concept of the circular economy”; the Zero Waste Alliance describes it as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health”; the time-honored dictionary simply states zero waste is “a situation in which no waste material is produced.”

In 2008, Bea Johnson brought the term to prominence with her Zero Waste Home blog. The self-proclaimed “world’s first zero waste brand,” Ethique, launched in 2012. Lauren Singer, who launched Trash Is For Tossers in 2014, and Kathryn Kellogg, founder of the Going Zero Waste website in 2015, were other early proponents. In 2017, the conversation around zero waste gained momentum but certainly hadn’t hit mainstream quite yet.

Certainly many low-waste brands such as Activist Skincare are adopting refill models which greatly reduce packaging excess. Meow Meow Tweet, launched in 2009, was a frontrunner with its plastic-free shampoo bars, while Lush Cosmetics was an early adopter of recyclable packaging and solid, packaging-free product formats. Waterless products in compostable packaging, such as those made by LOLI Beauty, present another huge milestone in the industry’s mission to counteract the tons of plastic produced every year. This past year certainly has seen a spike in interest for the category, with the launch of solid skincare line SBTRCT, and REN Clean Skincare, which now offers amples in recycled aluminum tubes and a refill model in collaboration with Loop, adopting the term zero waste.

But alongside this growing revolution, there have also been voices questioning the probability of beauty that leaves no ecological trace. When Ethique recently turned its messaging to regenerative practices, it reignited the conversation around this sustainability method. Media outlets such as Allure have published pledges to not use the term zero waste. Can a beauty brand be truly zero waste? What methods need to be implemented in order to reach this status?

BeautyMatter spoke to Mia Davis, VP of Sustainability & Impact at Credo and co-founder at Pact Collective of Credo Beauty, and Tina Hedges, founder of LOLI Beauty, to get their insight into the prerequisites for zero waste practices and how the industry can evolve to accommodate them.

What challenges have you faced running a zero waste company?

Tina Hedges: A lot of brands that started to talk about zero waste within their brand promise were tagging on to what seemed like a cool and relevant statement that was resonating with the consumer. But the truth is a lot of these brands are retrofitting. When I started LOLI, I started it from that perspective of: how can we look at being low to zero waste across every part of the company. Most of our products, if not all, are made with upcycled organic food waste, wherever possible. So, number one, from an ingredient perspective, we're trying to address the waste issue. Number two, we are not purchasing highly processed, refined, synthetic ingredients that may have been originally from a natural source, but then a tremendous amount of energy and water have been used to process this in the lab. We also remain local wherever we can. For our sourcing, we don't necessarily go to the cheapest vendor, we go to the vendor that meets our standards, that is vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, non-synthesised, fair trade, even biodynamically grown wherever possible. But we will make choices that are more expensive, we'll choose suppliers that make more sense from a carbon footprint.

Some ingredients, like our upcycled date nut oil, comes from Senegal, but we offset that by the fact that we are supporting and giving back to seven to nine fair trade co-ops. We look at the whole picture. We formulate with no water and minimally process. If we have heat, it's a very low temperature and for a very short amount of time, it's only with our two balms. Everything else is cold processed, we're not doing very complex high-end emulsions, creams, and lotions that get mixed in a big vat for a long time and have a lot of water. We have several manufacturers across the country. For example, we had a huge wholesale order for FabFitFun. We didn't make those products on the East Coast and then ship them across the country. We chose a facility that was an hour away from FabFitFun and manufactured there. We also do small batch runs so we try not to sit on tons and tons of inventory that may get wasted. Then there's our whole packaging stance. We have, from the beginning, been almost 100% plastic free. Less than 1% of our total packaging footprint is plastic, and it's recycled and reusable plastic, just the caps of a couple of products. All the bottles or jars are undecorated glass that can be reused. The labels are certified, home-compostable sheets. One of the questions I had recently though was how many cute yogurt jars in glass can you keep? I would get it, how many jars can you use, but if you have to throw something into the recycle bin, undecorated glass is the minimal, easy thing to get recycled.

Then we've even elevated further to launch our wholesale and in-store [displays]: we are growing mushrooms around upcycled hemp fiber to create trays that we then wrap with upcycled hemp paper, so that the entire secondary package is 100% worm food. You could literally break it up and put it in your garden. There's a lot of water, resources, and carbon imprint created with [traditionally used] paperboard cartons. There's also devastation of our forests, even if it's recycled, there's tons of issues going on there. On top of that, we're plastic negative. For every single product we sell, whether on our website or any of our other partners, we clean up to two pounds of plastic in the universe. Last year, we cleaned plastic equivalent to the weight of an orca whale. Then we offer carbon-free shipping on our websites, and offer 10% back on every order as a donation to charity. Then lastly, the customer experience. All our products are multipurpose, so we've shrunk your beauty cabinet.

It’s tricky and scary to still talk about zero waste when brands and media platforms are coming out against it—it’s a lonely island to stand on. However, we feel really strongly that the only piece left for us to do, and we're working on it and have a solution, is refills that are compostable. And just from an office practice, I am diligent about us being paper free, reusing whatever resources come into the office. We try to be extremely resourceful and do whatever we can. Eventually, I would love a world where LOLI was powerful enough to have standards for our vendors, where we say no we won't accept plastic bubble wrap or plastic gallons that then get thrown away. But that's not here yet.

"By saying that zero waste is impossible, it is creating a defeatist attitude, rather than trying to solve the problems. Zero waste is a way of saying this is as low waste as possible."
By Tina Hedges, Founder, LOLI Beauty

What do you make of that statement that zero waste isn't possible?

TH: Everything is possible with the right intention. By saying that zero waste is impossible, it is creating a defeatist attitude, rather than trying to solve the problems. Zero waste is a way of saying this is as low waste as possible. But I don't think that most brands were built that way. It's way easier to gain traction and adoration when you're in a trendy pink tube with great foil versus clear glass, which also means that your product has to be really stable and you're showing how much you're giving away. Most brands are selling a heavy wall jar that gives you the impression there's a lot of product in there, but when you really look at it, it's maybe one ounce. What I wish would happen is, rather than brands coming out and saying we don't believe in zero waste, why not collaborate, come together and define standards of what minimal to low waste to zero waste means. Right now, it feels exclusionary versus inclusive. This is a complex problem, and none of us have 100% of the solutions, but some of us are further along than others. Why don't we bring what tools are in our toolkit and come together as an industry to create a standard that makes sense?

Mia Davis: This subject is really important and that, and it's brave to be bringing this to light. I probably agree with them. I have been working very hard on increasing packaging sustainability and driving the beauty industry toward greater circularity for ingredients and packaging. I'm really proud of the work that we've been doing at Credo, but we have a huge, huge way to go. We're very honest at Credo and I'm very honest through Pact Collective, the nonprofit that we co-founded to address this issue as well. I don't even use the term zero waste, because I feel that it is too convenient, oversimplifies the issue, and is usually misleading. A lot of the time, I see folks using the term zero waste when they really mean recyclable. And the same [with] circularity. The definition that I use is from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is a real thought leader on this topic across industries. Circularity really means a safe return to the environment or nature, it can biodegrade in a way that causes no harm, which would be real refill and reusing schemes, where the producer of the material is taking responsibility for it. We call this extended producer responsibility, and believe very much that that is the most sustainable way to go and the closest thing you could ever get to zero waste. But because folks have started to use zero waste as a marketing term without it really being very meaningful and operational, I'm very concerned with that.

What would be the “correct” term to replace zero waste?

MD: The more accurate term that people should be using is sustainability. Moving toward more sustainable solutions because most of the time, when people say zero waste, what they mean is more renewables, easier to recycle, or more likely to be recyclable. We have so many recycling challenges in our industry because of material choice and size of components. It's virtually impossible to have a zero waste product unless you, for example, live in a place where shea nuts grow, sustainably harvest it, make it yourself, and put it in a glass jar that you reuse over and over again. Then you can tell me about zero waste. But if you live in Brooklyn and are going down to your zero waste store, thinking that you're shopping your way towards sustainability, I have bad news for you. Check the back of the store. Do you really think that there's no packaging waste, no bubble wrap back there? I'm not criticizing, it’s the system that we all have. I just don't want people to be righteous about it, to think that they are doing something that they're not. We are in a crisis moment. I don't think we're going to make the real changes that we need to our consumption and waste problems by pretending things are zero waste when they're not.

Are legislation and regulations going to be the best mode of securing zero waste practices?

TH: It's always a double-edged sword. There's pros and cons that need to be weighed, like for example, what a Fortune 500 beauty company needs to consider when they're trying to think about a low waste to zero waste solution is different to an indie brand, so the standards may be different. No one had thought of using freshly grown mushrooms wrapped in up-cycled hemp as an alternative to cardboard until we did it, but if there was legislation, maybe I wouldn't have been pushed to figure out that innovation.

The first thing that has to happen is an educational platform where we can have these discussions together as brands, where it's not a competition or about trying to make anyone look bad. I think any brand that is trying in some way to think about its impact on the planet, people, and animals, it's terrific. There are things to debate like, for example, aluminum tubes. Even though aluminum itself is very recyclable, the carbon footprint of mining new aluminum outweighs the benefits of the aluminum tube. It'd be really fabulous to have that conversation with other brands and find a good source for recycled aluminum as a group, because as a small indie brand, it's very hard to get the vendors that have the technologies or answers. They're always looking for one of the big mammoth beauty companies to come in and fund that innovation. But those big mammoth beauty companies don't move that quickly, though they're making small changes.

MD: It's a really important piece of the puzzle. I think of this as tools in the toolkit: we need a lot of different ways to tackle this because it's a huge problem, there isn't just one solution. Legislation is really important, whether you're talking about ingredient safety, more sustainable materials, or greater accuracy around what is recyclable. California just passed the SB 343 bill, which is hopefully about to become law, that says you can't use the recycling arrows on packaging that can't be recycled. Right now there's no law around that, so plastic companies are getting away with massive greenwashing in epic proportions. Credo, and Pact, were both calling attention to that. We absolutely need to raise the floor, but the floor is crazy low when it comes to sustainability and packaging. We don't have any rules, in the United States or globally. For the producer and other players that purchase these materials to have no responsibility for that material which can then end up in the ocean and do an incredible amount of harm—state and federal policy change can address that in a more comprehensive way than market changes. I believe very much in the power of the market to make smart, great, sustainable changes, but that's an example of where we really need policy change. I'm really happy that California is taking a leadership position on that issue.

We need infrastructure investment from producers, governments, and private investors. We need everybody coming together in a collaborative way to do an infrastructure overhaul. Right now the folks that are really benefiting from the manufacturer confusion around single-stream recycling is the petrochemical and the plastic industry. Not the planet, not brands, certainly not customers. Part of our Credo sustainable packaging guidelines, the work that we're doing in a partnership with Novi, and the work that we're doing at Pact, is to say: this system is messed up and we need to fix it in a lot of different ways. But we shouldn't be paralysed by that, it's not as if we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't. There are definitely better choices and things that we need to be calling for right now. We have a hierarchy in our sustainable packaging guidelines; there's no silver bullet when it comes to packaging, every brand has to make their own decision, and there are trade-offs. Refill systems are king, especially if it is made out of metal, glass, or a durable plastic that has PCR as opposed to virgin plastic. Recyclability is important but it's one tool in the toolbox, it is not a solution. We're not going to end our consumption and pollution crisis through recycling, it's just not going to happen. That said, we still need to work on it, and having no resin codes on plastic or having confusion around what can even be recycled, which is only plastics number 1, 2, and sometimes 5, and only when they're larger than two inches. If you think about the beauty industry, how much of the packaging is smaller than that or other types of materials? That's not going to be recycled in your curbside bin. So if we're talking about zero waste and circularity, we need to be thinking of nothing short of a system change, which we're starting to do via Pact collective.

Let's not think we can shop our way to sustainability. Let's be honest about what we can do together to move this industry and our government to a more sustainable direction.
By Mia Davis, VP of Sustainability and Impact, Credo Beauty

It's challenging as well because the amount of time it would take for those legislative things to take hold would be much longer, and sustainability, unfortunately, is not high up on the agenda of a lot of powerful companies.

TH: A lot of these companies would lobby against the legislation because [of] the impact it would have and most of these companies are publicly traded and they can't make those decisions. But none of what we're talking about is new, I was talking about how the beauty industry is wasting water five years ago. Waterless beauty is just beginning to be a thing now. And yet you can walk into many retailers and see rows and rows of single-use plastic, 8- to 16-ounce bottles for bath, body, and hair products that are mostly water. There are people in this world that don't have access to fresh, clean, drinkable water. All the merchandising units, holiday edition kits, and collateral created for in-store displays, that are used for several weeks and then thrown away, how do we rethink that experience from a zero waste perspective?

It can be construed as “us versus them,” but asking who benefits is really important. There's a lot of money and influence in those circles.

MD: There's a very clear paper trail, it's out in the open. There is a very vested interest in making more plastic, drilling for more oil, and fracking for gas to make more plastic. Anything that industry can do to keep that going, keep those pipes turned on, is what they're going to do, because their only responsibility is their return to shareholders. When you have debates around “What does clean beauty mean?” or “I'm zero waste and I'm better than you,” the chemical industry is sitting back at their desks with their feet on the desk, having a whiskey and a laugh.

What’s the next chapter to this development?

TH: Refills that aren’t in micro-plastic containers like sugar cane resins, but garden-compostable materials. Not just pumping out a product pipeline to have more and more SKUs, but really products that make a difference. The third thing is, how do you look at transforming the entire process of taking food waste and turning it into beauty products? If a brand wants to call it zero waste versus low waste or minimal waste—we're all in the same thinking. No one walks in anyone else's shoes. What the industry as a whole should do is find synergy and alignment in the mission and purpose.

For a start-up, to take a hit on your margin because it's the right thing to do for your mission, [it’s about] finding the balance. For companies that aren't a public benefits corporation, it's a harder choice, [they] are incredibly reliant on sourcing turnkey products from China. No one is looking at how sourcing from China and the price surge is going to ultimately impact us negatively from a sustainability perspective, because companies are going to have no choice but to try to find a cheaper alternative. A cheaper alternative is never going to be better for the environment, because the technology is not there yet.

MD: If you're a customer or a brand and moving towards zero waste, I think that your heart is in the right place and you're ready to get to work to help increase sustainability in this industry. That's great. It's just that when there's a misunderstanding about zero waste—like if you choose to live in a major city, you're definitely participating in a lot of waste that you might not even think about, and then you go to the zero waste store and think you're holier than thou—that is something that I'm concerned about. It’s totally different than somebody waking up and saying: how can I reduce waste in my life, how can I help others to do that in a way that is not judgmental, how can I support brands that clearly are working on reducing their material use in the first place? That’s a more helpful approach because it's more realistic. I am deeply steeped in the effects of plastic on this planet and in this industry, but you'll never hear me push people to be plastic-free, because for many it feels unattainable, elitist, and unrealistic. I want us to have a smarter way of designing and using materials. I am hoping that if we vote to pass policy on the state and federal level, it makes it easier to do that and levels the playing field, and also that people will vote with their dollars to support everybody up and down the supply chain. That is making actual real steps in that direction.

Let's not think we can shop our way to sustainability. I could see some people feeling that's a little bit harsh, but I want to strip it down and be honest about where we're at. Let's be honest about what we can do together to move this industry and our government to a more sustainable direction. Let's stop producing extremely harmful, forever chemicals that contribute to climate change, to poisoning human beings and the environment, and let's focus on the big stuff.

I don't want sustainability to be a competitive advantage in marketing, I want it to be an imperative. And I want companies to show their work. If you are making real, amazing progress, are really sustainable, want to tell people about that and want them to reward your efforts by purchasing your products, I'm all for that. But if you're using zero waste as a marketing term, and what you really mean is it's probably going to be recycled, that needs to stop. I'm not up for debating what clean beauty means at all; I also, on the other hand, have a strong definition for clean beauty, zero waste, and circularity, and think that's important in order to not just have it become greenwashing.

While the path to a circular beauty industry model is by no means an easy feat, and will require an infrastructural overhaul supported by government legislation, pressure from brands via coalitions and alliances, plus demand from consumers through their purchasing choices presents good ammunition in the fight for less wasteful practices. An elitist and dogmatic approach hinders rather than helps this revolution. Whether a brand decides to completely overhaul their supply chain in favor of sustainable practices remains a personal choice, but the ensuing costs of that decision go beyond individual impact. While it may not be realistic for every brand to erase their ecological footprint overnight, every little (compostable or refillable) piece helps.


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