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Sustainability Drives Game Changing Innovation in Beauty

Rob Walker, Euromonitor International
  • Recent innovations have brought sustainable packaging full throttle into the competitive mainstream of beauty, with the potential to strengthen a brand’s environmental position.
  • Certified natural products from major global brands are evidence that the eco-category is no longer the exclusive terrain of niche players.
  • The green integrity of consumers is often shallow, and consumers look to flex their green ambitions without any quality downside.
  • Alternative materials for plastic bottles—sugarcane, for example—will grow in profile, and it is also predicted that there will be a shift toward cardboard packaging for personal care products.

Naturally sourced ingredients have become increasingly visible in the portfolio mix of leading beauty brands as issues of sustainability and social responsibility drive a new era of competitive differentiation. But, eco-friendly packaging could be the industry’s most significant green innovation to date.

Learning From the Bottled Water Crisis

Four years ago, the bottled water industry slipped into crisis in the U.S. and Western Europe when it became the target of widespread environmental campaigning over its use of throwaway plastic bottles. The issue developed momentum because consumers, both in restaurants and at home, had an easy and legitimate green alternative—tap water in a glass.

Bottled water had become a powerhouse of growth, its profitability making it the target of substantial new investment from the likes of Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestlé. Yet, almost overnight, the category developed a pariah status among eco-conscious consumers, pushing sustainable packaging right to the top of the innovation agenda in soft drinks.

It was a warning shot for other fast-moving consumer goods that the use of throwaway plastic bottles could become defamatory in the increasingly eco-conscious consumer culture of Western markets. The development of greener packaging alternatives was, therefore, not only a big challenge for the soft drinks industry, but for all fast-moving consumer goods.

Sugarcane Plastic Bottles Herald New Era of Eco-packaging Innovation

That the need for plastic innovation had crossed industry borders was illustrated in 2010 when, right on the heels of Coca-Cola’s launch of a 100% sugarcane-based high density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle (for one of its juice brands), Procter & Gamble announced the use of a sugarcane-based packaging for Pantene’s Pro-V Nature Fusion line and its CoverGirl and Max Factor brands [“P&G Announces Plan to Use Innovative Sustainable Packaging”].

The sugarcane, a natural and renewable resource, is a replacement for petroleum, which is identified as the main environmental culprit of a normal plastic bottle’s composition. Sugarcane is also less costly than petroleum, which is vulnerable to erratic price hikes. The innovation has brought sustainable packaging full throttle into the competitive mainstream of beauty and personal care and strengthened P&G’s environmental position.

Leading Beauty Companies Lining Up To Flex Sustainability Credentials

P&G’s main competitors had been focusing on organic and naturally sourced ingredients to beef up their own sustainability credentials. Unilever, for example, recently introduced Timotei Organic Delight, a certified (conforming to the authenticity principles of the COSMEBIO charter) organic line of shampoo, which is said to be free from colorants, silicones, parabens and sulfates.

This type of “free from” claim is increasingly common as a rallying call for eco-conscious consumers. L’Oréal’s Garnier Fructis Pure Clean line of hair care products claims to be free from silicone and parabens, for example, while Beiersdorf’s Nivea Pure & Natural line of skin care flexes similar biodegradable credentials.

That L’Oréal, Unilever and Beiersdorf—the world’s second, third and sixth biggest players in beauty, respectively, according to Euromonitor International—are active in certified natural products is evidence that the eco-category is no longer the exclusive terrain of niche players. This is a strategic shift that has happened over the past two years.

However, none of their natural brands can stake claim to the type of eco-friendly packaging introduced by P&G, which, as a result, has taken a strategic advantage in the sustainability race. Until the sugarcane bottle came on stream, eco-packaging innovation focused on cutting back the amount of material that had potential negative effects in terms of the environment, though not actually eradicating offending material.

The problem with stripping back the packaging is it risked compromising the ease of use of a product, as well as its perception of quality. And the eco-integrity of consumers is often eroded when there is a compromise at stake. For example, demand for recycled toilet paper is low in the U.S. and much of Western Europe because consumers perceive too much compromise on comfort. Quite simply, the green integrity of consumers is often shallow.

Green Consumption Choices Free From Compromise

The key selling point of P&G’s eco-friendly bottle is that there is negligible compromise on the original. It is, therefore, a pain-free consumption choice for eco-minded (but potentially fickle) consumers, meaning consumers can flex their green ambitions without any quality downside.

That the innovation has come from one of the world’s biggest players is also important because most eco-packaging innovation in non-food consumer goods had come from niche players. In recent years, for example, U.S.-based Seventh Generation, a frontrunner in eco-friendly home care, introduced a liquid laundry detergent in a bottle made from recycled cardboard and newspaper.

It is virtually certain to see more ecological packaging in beauty in the year ahead as consumers in developed markets buy into compromise-free alternatives to plastic bottles. Sugarcane bottles will grow in profile, but we could also see a shift toward cardboard packaging for personal care products. Tetra Pak, for example, is rumored to be looking at new non-food product categories for its packaging formats.

What is clear is that issues of sustainability, social responsibility and environmental integrity are key components of the operational landscape in beauty, and they are here to stay. Companies will be announcing new ethically driven initiatives in 2012, ranging from investment in the ecological strength of the supply chain and innovation in biodegradable ingredients to social projects in developing countries. But, ecologically friendly packaging is another area to watch. It could be a catalyst to a radical shake-up of the packaging mix.

For additional information on the topic, read “From Biodegradable to Recyclable: Packaging Choices for Beauty Brands,” available in the January/February 2012 issue of GCI magazine.

Rob Walker, senior fast-moving consumer goods analyst, Euromonitor International, can be contacted at