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Beauty product makers are working to reduce plastic waste, among them L’Occitane, whose new Hong Kong store accepts empty bottles and tubes, including those of other brands, for recycling. It is also among brands that sell refillable beauty products.

‘Naked’ soap, refillable lipstick: to use less plastic, the beauty industry pivots to recycling and refill options

  • L’Occitane has launched recycling and refill options, Dior has a refillable bottle for one of its fragrances, and Lush sells wrapper-free soaps and shampoo bars
  • Major beauty companies are responding to growing customer awareness of the importance of environmental and ethical issues
Sian Powell

As plastics horror stories pile up, consumers across the world are turning away from the modern convenience of plastic packaging – or at least trying to avoid single-use plastic as much as they can.

There have been too many dead whales found full of disposable bags and bottles; river mouths choked with trash that never rots; beaches carpeted with plastic rubbish. The mood has shifted, and sustainability is becoming a watchword.
The beauty industry, once a massive user of plastic sachets, packs, bottles and tubes, is sensing a shift in attitudes, and the big swing to recycle and refill options is building momentum.

British brand The Body Shop has declared it wants refillable bottles and containers to become mainstream, and began introducing filler stations in its shops worldwide in April 2021. Six are planned for Hong Kong this year.

Dior has introduced a refillable bottle for men’s fragrance Sauvage.
The French beauty company L’Occitane has launched recycling and refill options for many of its products, and luxury French brand Dior – which says its “thoughts are centred on everything that can be modified or optimised in packaging, formulation, transportation, practices and usage” – has introduced a refillable bottle for its Sauvage men’s fragrance.

These companies are in tune with many consumers’ sentiments. For her part, marketing and public relations professional Jaclyn Tsang is horrified by the amount of plastic waste produced every day. The Hong Kong resident buys products that are as sustainable as possible – preferably those with refill options.

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“I stopped using mascara for a while because I couldn’t find anything on the market,” she says. Lipsticks were a problem for her for a long time and, rather than throwing her nearly finished lipsticks away, Tsang kept them.

I’ve become the ultimate trash lady,” she says. “I’ve kept a stack, waiting for the day when someone will recycle them. It keeps me a lot more conscious about what I’m using from day to day.”

Now she uses refillable lipsticks and a mascara tool made by US-based company Hourglass. She likes products from the US company Tata Harper, like its refillable moisturiser. “While the refill pod is still plastic, it is a step to help reduce overall waste as you can just keep reusing the original glass jar.”
Tata Harper’s refillable moisturiser.
Slowood is an organic grocery store in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Tsang, who uses solid bars of soap and shampoo, is spreading the message that plastic bottles are an unnecessary luxury in today’s world. If she uses a plastic bottle for liquid soap, she refills it at an appropriate store, like Slowood or Live Zero in Hong Kong.

“I think people are becoming more aware; people do ask,” she says, when they see her using sustainable products. “It gets people to rethink.”

Jane Zhang, an analyst at market research provider Euromonitor International, sees the evolution of refillable packaging as a consequence of the growing awareness of the importance of environmental and ethical issues.

L’Occitane has announced that, by 2025, all its bottles will be made of recycled plastic.
According to a Euromonitor survey, consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change (with the proportion of concerned citizens increasing from 29 to 31 per cent between 2019 and 2021), Zhang says. In 2021, about 40 per cent agreed refillable/reusable packaging would lead to a better environment.

“This has prompted industry players to take action,” she adds, noting that some consumers preferred recyclable to refillable options, perhaps because some refillable packaging options are also made of plastic.

L’Occitane has plunged into the plastics battle with a campaign which declares that, on the world’s current trajectory of plastics use, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. The company has a refill option: a plastic, recyclable sachet that uses up to 90 per cent less plastic than the original bottles and costs less. The refill sachet choices include shampoos, conditioners, liquid soaps, shower oils and cleansers.
L’Occitane’s Mega Sustainability Concept Store in Pacific Place.

In early 2021, L’Occitane opened a Mega Sustainability Concept Store in Hong Kong’s Pacific Place shopping centre, an outlet that markets wrapper-free soap and accepts plastic containers (from L’Occitane and other brands) for recycling. The company has announced that, by 2025, all its bottles will be made of recycled plastic and since March 2020, 92 per cent of its packaging material has been recyclable.

“Consume less” is a lesson to live by in the beauty game, and the British beauty firm Lush has dispensed with a lot of packaging, selling a range of “naked”, wrapper-free soaps, shampoo bars, solid deodorants and solid “bath bomb” bath salts. Some liquid products are still sold in plastic bottles and, rather than provide refills, Lush offers a free pot of Fresh Face Mask for every five Lush containers returned to the shop.
The number of Lush container returns in Hong Kong is slowly increasing, a Lush spokeswoman says. More than 44,000 containers were returned in 2018, more than 46,000 in 2019 and more than 47,000 in 2020, she notes. Lush would not provide the number of plastic containers sold, so estimating whether the actual proportion of sold items were returned has increased is impossible.
British beauty firm Lush has dispensed with a lot of packaging.
The Australian beauty brand Aesop is considering various environmental policies.

It can be difficult for consumers to understand the sustainability of, and relative worth of, various green options. This company uses refillable glass containers, but how does the energy cost of shipping heavier glass factor in? That company offers refill sachets made of plastic, but it is recycled.

“Greenwashing” – when companies promote so-called environmentally sound policies or packaging – has also emerged in the beauty market. In April 2021, Korean beauty brand Innisfree acknowledged the words “Hello I’m paper” on a plastic container could be misleading. “We used the term ‘paper bottle’ to explain the role of the paper label surrounding the bottle,” Innisfree told The Korea Herald.

The Australian beauty brand Aesop is considering various environmental policies. Now owned by Brazil’s Natura & Co, Aesop doesn’t offer refills, but will recycle plastic bottles and containers returned in Hong Kong and will accept certain types of glass containers returned in Adelaide (which it sends to Melbourne for cleaning and refilling). There is no customer incentive for either.

Aesop also sells screw-top versions of its pump bottle hand and body cleansing products – each pump, the firm says, is made of 12 grams (0.4 ounces) of plastic. “Our packaging team,” Aesop says, “is continuing to research refill and circular solutions that demonstrate a tangible environmental benefit while also maintaining product quality.”