The Problem of Miniature Plastics in Beauty AKA Do You REALLY Need That Beauty Advent Calendar?
Ah Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, according to Keats, anyway. But in the beauty world, it’s the season of a gazillion emails arriving in your inbox — and roughly the same number of social media posts — all touting this Christmas’s ‘must have’ advent calendars, that promise to shower you (or someone you love) with 25 products for — ostensibly — a knock down price. And that’s after you’ve spent the summer collecting Gifts With Purchase (GWPs) from the department stores, and having samples and miniatures pressed into your hands by counter staff desperate to offset almost a year of not being able to sell anything.
The one thing they all have in common? They’re invariably tiny bits of plastic that are adding to the mountain of plastic that the industry is already producing.
Let’s be clear about this, nobody’s saying that, when it comes to plastic pollution, the beauty industry are the worst offenders. The fact that in 2018, an estimated 120 billion units of plastic packaging were produced by the beauty industry globally is often referenced. But we need to put that into a bit of context. The 2019 Global Packaging Trends Report found that across all sectors, 3,271 billion units of plastic packaging were produced in 2018, with bottled water alone accounting for 300 billion of them.
Admittedly, it’s not always a like for like situation. Because a lot of people don’t have space for a recycling bin in the bathroom, it’s estimated that a greater percentage of kitchen waste, than bathroom waste, is recycled, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, as Kathy Rogerson, who for years worked for consumer product giants, P&G, and now runs her own science and sustainability consultancy, Springfield House Consulting, explains.
‘You can put a little eyeshadow pot made from recyclable plastic in the recycling bin, but the likelihood is that it won’t be recycled because it will literally fall through the gaps. For the recyclers, it’s not worth sorting tiny things into different types of plastics.’
And, as James Ingleby, founder of plastic-free beauty brand Nereus London, explains, it’s not just about size.
‘It’s difficult to recycle dark plastic, which is often used in the luxury industry, because it can be very difficult for recycling machines to detect and sort. If it isn’t separated from other plastics, it’ll turn everything into a shade of brown that isn’t a popular choice.’
Industrial recyclers don’t recycle out of the goodness of their heart, there’s an economic angle.
But many people are concerned that TerraCycle are just enabling brands to carry on regardless. And, in the US, there’s even a lawsuit that’s been brought against them — and some of the brands that they work with, including big beauty corporates Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal. Lex Law Group who has brought the case on behalf of The Last Beach Cleanup, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending plastic pollution, say on their website that ‘strict numerical limits that prevent most consumers from being able to participate in the [TerraCycle] program. Consumer product companies are thus able to reap the rewards of portraying their products as recyclable while offering no corresponding benefit to the environment or to consumers concerned about sustainability.’ While the case is still pending, it’s worth bearing in mind that Terracycle shouldn’t be seen as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the beauty industry.
But why is it that beauty brands seem to love a mini as much as they do? Are they money-spinners? Does the try before you buy approach convert consumers into repeat buying full sizes?
One bath and body brand that I spoke to that, because of the controversial nature of the topic asked to remain anonymous, is passionate about sustainability — they encourage refilling, sell many of their products in 5l and 20l bulk sizes, use plastic made from sugar cane rather than fossil fuels, offer a recycling scheme, don’t do advent calendars because they don’t like to encourage that level of consumption... but they also sell products in 50ml bottles. So what gives?
‘It’s partly the price point — the 50mls go into our gift sets, because there will always be a customer who wants to buy a gift set at a reasonable price,’ the founder tells me. ‘They’re also a great introduction to the brand, and let’s not forget that you still can’t take anything over 100ml on an aeroplane.’ She also points out that they supply a lot of product to hotels. ‘We’d encouraged many of our hotel clients to switch to refillable 250ml bottles,’ she says. ‘But Covid changed that and many told us that their guests feel safer with individual 50ml bottles so they swapped back.’
‘We make no money on the 50mls, it’s more of an intro to the brand and a good way of sampling — and we know that guests who come across our product in hotels do subsequently buy it.’
However, she says that ‘in the short term’ travel sizes will continue to be available in store, but she points out that they are attempting to mitigate their impact by using 50 per cent recycled plastic in miniature bottles, and implementing a return, recycle reward in-store programme that sees customers returning empties in exchange for discounts on their next purchase.
Molton Brown’s latest move towards sustainability involves offering refill pouches for their handwash bottles, which they felt would have the greatest impact on sustainability and also be a compelling offer for customers.
Descorps admits that ‘advent calendars were lower on the priority list as their impact is not as big as the millions of bottles that we sell [to hotels and as handwash] every year, but we need to look into it.’
While it’s tempting to assume it’s all about the money, Nicola Kilner, CEO of Deciem, is another one who confirms that the profit margins on smaller packages of product do tend to be smaller.
‘The cost of a 100ml bottle of a product is never double the cost of a 50ml,’ she says ‘What’s in the bottle might cost double, but the costs for the human labour, the dispensing system, the bottle itself aren’t double so the margins for larger sizes are different.’
But while it might not be about raking it in on the smaller sizes, many companies, such as Molton Brown, have talked about the long-term gains of customer acquisition through samples, amenities in hotels and on flights, and there’s obviously a hope that GWPs and advent calendars will drive sales. REN clearly believe that samples will continue to be an important part of their business model as they’ve just launched what they claim is a zero-waste sampling pack made from recycled and recyclable aluminium. But do we even need samples at all? Kilner is sceptical.
‘I think when it comes to skincare, sampling is quite an outdated concept. Two to three uses of a product isn’t really enough to see a difference,’ she says.
Instead, she points to the company’s 365 day return policy that applies even to used products.
She also believes that in terms of cost, it’s more economical.
‘I think our return policy costs us less than it would to give out samples, and you get the opportunity to put it right on the rare occasions that a customer doesn’t like the product.’
I can see that with low-cost products such as The Ordinary where a full-size purchase isn’t much of a gamble, you might not need sampling, but with their premium skincare brand, Niod, surely people do want to try before they buy?
Kilner says that as well as being reassured by the returns policy, consumers have far more opportunity to learn about a product pre-purchase than they might have done in the days when glossy magazines were stuffed with sample sachets and every counter handed them out, hand over fist.
‘As well as being able to test in store, there is now so much more information out there online and on social media, and people rely so much more on word-of-mouth recommendations that brands can’t lure consumers in simply by handing them a sample.’
‘I think that’s why bricks and mortar still has a place,’ she says. ‘It’s such a good way for consumers to try before they buy.’
Others in the industry tell me that while consumers and brands are often on the same page, the same can’t be said of retailers. Brands have told me that they’ve come under pressure from retailers to provide samples and that this can cause tension. While bigger brands can stand up to external pressures like this, if you’re a smaller brand, desperate for the exposure that being stocked in a big retailer can give you, you can understand the temptation to cave.
Judging by the wealth of advent calendars, free gifts and free samples that continue to flood the market, it’s obvious that any change on the industry’s part is going to be slow, but there are things that you, as a consumer can do.
- Contact brands and tell them you want to see them moving away from this approach and towards more sustainable approaches.
- Lobby brands to offer a full-sized product as a Gift With Purchase rather than a handful of miniatures.
- Don’t take samples when you shop - instead see if you can try a product in store, or ask if you can return it if it doesn’t work for you.
- Look for advent calendars that contain full-sized products rather than miniatures - even if you end up with fewer products.
- Don’t bin your small beauty packaging with the rest of your recycling. Instead take a look at the various Terracycle schemes available — this page gives details of the various beauty packaging recycling schemes and links to drop-off points, just check first as what each scheme accepts can vary.