I own a natural deodorant that doesn’t work—but it wasn’t for lack of trying. It made me smell worse. Still, I stuck it out for four long, stinky months before giving up on it for good. But this isn’t about that journey. It’s about wanting this particular one to work so badly because of its packaging: a refillable roll-up container that sold me on the idea that I could eliminate all future deodorant-related plastic by only purchasing refills.
It’s not a new concept, I know. In middle school, I had a customizable MAC eye shadow palette, but I never hit pan so I could replace the original shades. I ended up throwing it away a decade later. And last year, after a search on sustainability led me down a rabbit hole into the zero-waste lifestyle, I was introduced to Kjaer Weis, a luxury beauty brand that houses its natural (if not organic) formulas in these stunning refillable silver compacts that are meant to be treasured forever like heirlooms. I got a tube of lipstick, a blush, and a highlighter with every intention to never discard an empty compact again in my life. But after wearing the same lipstick and cheek colors every day for months on end, I cheated on my beloved purchases. Now they sit neglected on my vanity—next to my other 20 tubes of lipsticks and stack of products.
All of this begs the question: As eco-friendly as a refillable packaging system sounds, how much good is it actually doing for the planet?
The beauty industry—like every other industry—is wrestling with the global single-use plastic crisis. The alarming rate at which we’re consuming and discarding plastic has become a problem so massive, so overwhelming that any attempt to curtail it seems hopelessly futile. A 2016 study by the World Economic Forum found that 32 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is found in the oceans—the equivalent to dumping one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. In 2015, the EPA reported that nearly 70 percent of all plastic waste produced in the U.S. ended up in landfills, which amounts to nearly 10 million tons.
While the biggest offenders are single-use plastics like straws, water bottles, and plastic bags, the beauty and personal care industry, which is valued at more than $90 billion the U.S. alone, is guilty of generating an enormous amount of plastic packaging that could be also considered single-use; once you finish a bottle of shampoo or a tube of lipstick, you toss it.
“Plastic has become ubiquitous, and it’s because we’ve become addicted to it,” says Freya Williams, North American CEO of sustainability agency Futerra. “Every sector is facing the same challenge, particularly consumer goods, where plastic is a lightweight, practical solution. It’s gotten to the point that we’re waking up to the monster we created.”
In the 100-plus years since plastic was first conceived, plastic consumption has pervaded every aspect of our lives in such a way that we’ve come to expect it—no questions asked—from our products. But there’s no hard and fast solution to tackling it. Companies, Williams says, should explore options like using recyclable materials, reducing excessive packaging, making sure a recycling infrastructure is in place, and yes, refillable systems. “There are so many pieces to the puzzle and all of those pieces need to be on the table,” she continues. “Refills are an interesting part of the puzzle, but what goes along with that is thinking about consumer behavior.”
Right now, the way we consume anything is rooted in a disposable, single-use plastic approach. And in beauty, when you factor in trends, innovative launches pushed by conglomerates, and endorsements from celebrities and influencers, it makes it that much harder to commit to finishing a single product before buying another one (I should know).
For Kirsten Kjaer Weis, the founder of Kjaer Weis, she’s seen how much of a challenge it’s been to reconcile her refillable system with consumer behavior. When she was working to bring her brainchild to life back in 2003, the odds seemed to be stacked against her: Green beauty at the time came with compromises in both performance and packaging. She wanted something recyclable or biodegradable that also read luxury, which, as it turns out, was an impossible feat. She tapped designer Marc Atlan who suggested a luxe metal called ZAMAC (an acronym that stands for zinc, aluminum, magnesium, and copper alloy) that may not be recyclable, but could be used to package refills.
“When I started, there was pushback both from stores and customers who were trying to wrap their heads around it,” Weis says. “A lot of our consumers own multiple colors in compacts. A lot of them will want a new compact every time they buy a product because they don’t like how the old one scratches. I’m not in control of how consumers buy into the line—it’s an option that exists, but it’s not necessarily for everybody.”
Of course, she’s not happy that people might be throwing away the non-recyclable compacts, but she says that just means doubling down on educating the consumer that they should be cherished, like a high-end bag or a beautiful watch. But since she launched Kjaer Weis in 2010, refill purchases (which are 30 percent cheaper than buying a brand new compact) have steadily increased. Now, refills are 25 to 30 percent of Kjaer Weis’ business.
A refillable system, too, essentially means pledging loyalty to a specific brand.
“Refillable systems have to lock consumers in, and it’s on the brand to do that, to create value for refills. We have to be careful that people aren’t treating products that are designed to be used for years as disposable—then we would have made the problem worse,” Williams says. “What we know is that consumers will only change their behavior if the sustainable option is actually the better option overall. Tesla, for example, is a better car period. And, yes, it also happens to be sustainable.”
This thinking is what fueled Josh Goodman and Brian Bushell to reinvent personal care products, launching their born-good, mission-driven sustainable brand By Humankind early in February with three all-natural products: a refillable deodorant that reduces a customer’s single-use plastic output by 90 percent; a mouthwash that was dehydrated into effervescent tablets; and a shampoo bar. In doing so, their hope is that it becomes less about reeducating or retraining the consumers to use their products and more about implementing them into their daily routines with minimal disruption.
“We’re asking: What can we do to make this product easy to use and better for us without wreaking havoc on the planet? An average person uses upwards of 750 deodorant containers in their lifetime, which equals 70 pounds of plastic waste. That’s one personal care product for one person,” says Goodman, co-founder and CMO of By Humankind. “It’s hard to be a plastic superhero and go zero waste; the best way to meaningfully reduce single-use plastic is to use products that are easily adaptable into your own routine without sacrificing quality or convenience.”
By Humankind’s deodorant container is, however, made of plastic, but Goodman is quick to jump to its defense: “Plastic as a material is not evil, but the problem with it is our misuse of it in a single-use capacity. By using a plastic deodorant container, we’re allowing for the refills, for the convenience, and for affordability.”
On the other end of the spectrum, luxury brands, which have long been guilty of excessive packaging, are also treading in the sustainability space by exploring packaging that’s durable as opposed to disposable. Both Dior and Hermes have refillable perfume options. Guerlain partnered with French porcelain house Bernardaud to create a beautiful jar for the brand’s Orchidée Impériale Black Cream.
“It’d be wonderful to see luxury brands lead the way because they can make sustainability aspirational and desirable for consumers and set the trend for other brands to follow suit—to have a product that’s beautiful and functional with the added benefit of it being sustainable, it’s an opportunity to redefine luxury,” Williams says. “People aren’t coming to beauty to feel guilty, like they’ve had to make a sacrifice in quality or performance, so if a brand can drive glamour and excitement while being sustainable, then it’s a real win.”
That’s not to say that all brands should rush to switch from plastic to glass. Williams warns that that could have unintended negative consequences: added shipping weight means increased carbon emissions plus the demand for recycled glass is low so it could end up in a landfill. Her advice to companies is to think beyond the product. “We’ve seen a lot of biodegradable packaging, but if they’re still going into landfills and not compost, then they’re not biodegrading,” she says. “You can’t put a good product in a broken system—you have to change the system. You have to make sure it’s actually recyclable and not just theoretically.”
In the end, it all comes down to the consumers. With the rise of Gen Z, there’s the expectation for companies to be honest, transparent, and sustainable, which has already led to the birth of more direct-to-consumer brands to meet that demand or driven legacy companies to innovate. “If you vote with your dollars, the companies will follow,” Williams says. “As a consumer, use your power because you can drive the change.”
There’s a curiosity, too, about what we can do in our daily lives to go green. Kathryn Kellogg, founder of Going Zero Waste and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, says since the launch of her blog in 2015, her readership has ballooned to 8 million (her zero-waste beauty secret is using a 13-item capsule makeup collection that comprises refillable or recyclable products she loves and uses every day from brands like Alima Pure, Kjaer Weis, RMS, and Ilia).
Despite the scary stats and the daunting task ahead for consumers and corporations to rethink their use of plastic, there’s still a glimmer of hope for a more sustainable industry—and possibly even a post-packaging world (brands like Lush have already eschewed packaging with its shampoo bars and bath bombs).
“We’re right at the beginning of a huge movement—in 10 years, I would love to see a world where products that don’t use single-use plastic are the rule rather than the exception,” Goodman says. “Based on what we’re seeing, we’re moving in that direction. I’m very optimistic about the future.”