Are Plastic-Free Beauty Products Just a Trend or the Wake Up Call We Need?We ask the “why”, “what” and the “don'ts“ behind planet-positive cosmetics7 min read15 March 2023 (Updated: 4 April 2023)
When one hears phrases like “plastic-free” or “zero-waste”, there's an immediate satisfaction that comes from knowing that something we do or buy is going to be good for the environment. Or, at least, not as bad as other options available, which we may have used in the past too. While the use of plastic in beauty products has been a concern for some time in the beauty industry, the trend toward plastic-free options has gained significant attention in recent years. More and more people are becoming aware of the negative impact that plastic has on the environment, and are actively seeking out sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives.
And yet, the savvy consumer may already be trained to spot the easy and quick greenwashing techniques of major corporates. Indeed, after scratching the surface, things get murky. At Disruptor London, we have spent more than two years researching alternatives to plastic-polluting cosmetics, and one thing is clear: it's not easy. Here we share some of our thoughts during an ongoing journey.
The Impact of Plastic on the Environment
For different reasons, most people prefer plastic-free beauty products, such as zero-waste shampoo bars, solid moisturisers and many others. When we ask our customers about their top reason to do the switch, more often than not, plastic pollution comes at the top of their answers. Environmentalists have been warning everybody about this for decades. In the UK, it took a BBC documentary, narrated by the amazing Sir David Attenborough, to bring ocean plastic pollution to light. The release of a piece on ocean pollution as part of Blue Panet II in 2018 sent waves of concern and worry across the country. All of a sudden, even politicians were releasing statements and drafting laws to combat the issue. It's debatable how much impact those efforts have had, but this was a national moment of no return.
Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world, and for good reason. It's durable, lightweight, and can be moulded into virtually any shape or size. It's also very cheap, something which packaging manufacturing companies most certainly love. However, the widespread use of plastic has come at a great cost to the environment. Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, and even then, it never truly disappears. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics that are nearly impossible to remove from the environment.
The impact of plastic on the environment is far-reaching and devastating. Plastic waste is responsible for killing marine life, polluting our oceans and waterways, and clogging our landfills. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastic waste also contributes to climate change, as the production of plastic requires large amounts of fossil fuels.
It seems very clear now: plastic waste is a significant environmental problem, and using plastic-free products can help reduce the amount of plastic in landfills and the ocean. Or can they?
Should We Trust Claims About Plastic-Free Cosmetics?
I wish I could give a definitive answer here, but it all depends on the product and brand. When it comes to sustainability claims, it’s best to proceed with caution and do research into the company’s practices. Learn more about the company beyond marketing slogans and try reading up on independent third-party reviews that can provide insight into a product’s actual ingredients and manufacturing standards.
One quick tip to spot greenwashing is to go beyond the headlines and product names. What does a beauty brand really mean by “plastic-free”? For example, a product may claim to be “plastic-free,” but upon closer inspection, you may find that its packaging still contains some plastic components, such as a plastic pump or cap. One example of this is the traditional dropper bottle. Although the body may be made from glass, the cap is usually made of multiple materials like rubber, plastic and glass, which no recycling plant would even dare to touch.
We have also talked about the impact of plastic packaging in the oceans, but packaging is only part of the story. Some people may be concerned about the potential health effects of some types of plastic, such as those that contain chemicals like phthalates and BPA. Thankfully, the UK passed legislation banning the use of microbeads (tiny microplastics in products like exfoliators and make-up), but that hasn't stopped cosmetics companies from using other petrochemicals in their formulations. This is why we developed something called “The Honest List”. You'll find it in all our product pages, like our Balance shampoo bar. We do not hide any ingredient, and all we put in our shampoo bars is there for everybody to see. Not only that, we have developed a widget where you can swap between the legal INCI list that all cosmetics have to publish by law, and the equivalent in old plain English for us mortals to understand.
Another consideration is the actual environmental impact of the product. This is what a sustainable officer would refer to as “lifecycle analysis”. While a product may be marketed as plastic-free, it may still have other environmental impacts, such as the use of energy and resources in production or transportation. Look for products that have a low environmental impact across their entire lifecycle, from sourcing of ingredients to packaging and disposal. Arguably, this is the most difficult information to find out, since it's not easy to measure and document.
Doing all this research is exhausting, but, thankfully, in this day and age, there are many independent organisations that exist to verify sustainability claims made by companies and make our lives easier. They provide third-party certifications and ratings that anybody should be able to confirm. For example, all Disruptor London products are certified to be animal cruelty-free and fully vegan, and you can check our certificate here. Similarly, we have asked the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Mark to certify that we follow the best practices when it comes to sourcing ingredients, manufacturing and corporate practices. You can verify our status here.
It Only Takes Answering Three Questions
Despite all the noise, greenwashing and clutter around us, plastic-free beauty products must be here to stay. For there is too much at stake. They are not just a passing trend, but a wake-up call for the beauty industry and consumers alike. Plastic waste has become a global crisis, and it's time for all of us to take action to reduce our plastic footprint. By embracing sustainable and eco-friendly practices, we can create a more sustainable future for ourselves and for future generations.
But it's not always that easy. There are so many sustainability claims floating around the beauty aisle. Even each product seems to tell an entirely different story! Can you compare pears with apples? Most certainly not. This is why, as consumers, we may have to take one small extra step to go beyond the headlines and ask ourselves whether the products we buy are truly sustainable.
This doesn't mean it has to be hard, though. In our journey to planet-positive skincare and haircare, we have been able to reduce the complexity to just three questions:
- How “plastic free” is the packaging?
- Can I be sure that no ingredients come from petrochemicals or other plastic sources?
- How is the product made?
If, as a consumer, I have to bend over backwards to find that information, then something is starting to smell fishy. On the other hand, there are many companies and organisations like Disruptor London, that are driven by a mission to effect planet-positive change. Thanks to their work, next time you reach for a beauty product, you are taking care of both yourself and the environment.