Zero-waste brands stir up India’s beauty and personal care industry

Seeking a share of the $15 billion industry, companies say they need better packaging and recycling support.

Zero-waste beauty
Zero-waste beauty products create as minimal an amount of waste as possible. Image: Diana Light/Unsplash

“Zero waste” has joined the growing list of buzzwords in India’s conscious beauty segment, which is already peppered with the likes of “natural”, “organic” and “chemical-free”. In sync with the global movement towards sustainability, mainstream as well as niche brands in India are starting to take small steps to help reduce and manage the waste they generate.

From lipsticks and foundations to all kinds of lotions and serums, most beauty and personal care products come packaged in plastic. While the government claims that nearly 50 per cent of plastic used in India is recycled, the rest is dumped, landfilled or incinerated. Now, some start-ups are banking on consumers’ desire to not only look and feel good but to do good – to the environment, to growers of natural produce, and so on. From reducing plastic packaging to offering take-back-and-recycle programmes, many brands are attempting to offer consumers a “zero-waste” option.

“Sustainability and going zero waste have taken centre-stage in the beauty world in the last few years, and much of this can be attributed directly to consumer demand,” says Antara Kundu, General Manager for marketing at The Body Shop (Asia South). “With the younger consumer demographic driving growth for beauty brands – especially in the direct-to-consumer space – being verifiably responsible as a beauty brand is not just the right thing to do but also proving to be a sound business choice.”

Although companies are optimistic about the prospects of their zero-waste products, they are handicapped by the lack of sustainable packaging options and wider availability of recycling facilities. Also, companies say, it is important to separate myths from science, and take a holistic lifecycle and carbon footprint view.

What are zero-waste products?

As per the Plastic Pollution Coalition, the beauty industry produces more than 120 billion units of plastic packaging, most of which is not recyclable, says Neeti Mehra, a slow-living coach and a key opinion leader on sustainability practices in India. “Add to this unsold and expired inventory,” she says, “While ‘zero-waste’ implies no waste, typically zero-waste products create as minimal an amount of waste as possible.”

The traditional Indian beauty regimes came from natural ingredients – oil for your hair and body; amla, reetha and shikakai (all plant-based) powders for soap and shampoo. “But cut to modern times, the lack of time, the need for convenience, the rise of social media and a fresh set of beauty standards, and the ready availability of packaged products have taken over our beauty shelves,” Mehra says, “While we welcome convenience, to not harm the environment and have a thing of beauty pile up in landfills, the consumer needs to be mindful of consumption and which business practices to support.”

Brands rise to the challenge

Several start-up brands are taking a lifecycle approach to their products. 

Mumbai-based Aminu is one brand that claims to pay as much attention to the authenticity of ingredients as it does to the impact on the environment. Co-founder Aman Mohunta says Aminu has included sustainable packaging, conserving water, and avoiding single-use plastic into its business model. “We use natural gums instead of microplastic-based acrylates in our formulas. We use glass jars/bottles instead of plastic. We use paper wrap instead of single-use shrink-wrap plastic, and crinkled paper made from waste rather than bubble wrap,” he says, adding, that thanks to increasing environmental awareness, it is easier for brands today to adopt sustainable practices than it was even five years ago. 

Daughter Earth is a brand that has launched concealers in paper packaging made from post-consumer recycled waste. The only other material is an aluminium tray that contains the product. “This one, to me, was big. We gave the customer something completely biodegradable and compostable once the metal tray is removed,” says Prasanthy Gurugubelli, founder of the Hyderabad-based brand. “It set the trend, and now several other brands follow us and have started creating similar packaging. I’m glad we are starting this in the country.” Daughter Earth has also launched other product lines with similar packaging.

Founders Pritesh and Megha Asher of Juicy Chemistry call the zero-waste movement a necessity. They say their glass bottles and tubs are meant for reuse, and their packaging is minimal. “We’ve recently forayed into makeup via our new brand Color Chemistry. Its packaging is primarily made of bamboo, glass, and paper.”

The company is making sustainable choices at the production and sourcing stage, too – it segregates and composts its organic waste such as fruit peel, and picks misshapen natural produce that most consumers leave on the shelf. “Rice water is a common ingredient in some of our products, so we often have a Juicy feast of sorts from the rice produced. Any remaining organic food material from our production is sent to animal shelters,” says Pritesh Asher.

The Body Shop recently opened its sustainability-focused activist workshops in Mumbai and Delhi as a commitment to its “Return Recycle Repeat” in-store plastic recycling programme. Under its renewed sustainability goals, the brand has pledged to drive up its recycling goals to at least 1 million plastic bottles by 2024Currently, all its product lines globally contain 75 per cent post-consumer recycled plastic, including from India

Mehra, the slow-living coach, lists some other notable sustainability-focused brands – Bare Necessities provides personal, home and lifestyle products as well as educates people on how to live a zero-waste life; vegan label Asa Beauty offers refills for products such as lipsticks and lip tints; Switch Fix is a plastic-free, plant-based clean and conscious personal care brand for shampoos, conditioner bars and skincare. 

Refills are, in fact, a very promising albeit as-yet slow-moving category, some believe. “As of now, the number of customers who bother to pick a refill to be sustainable is small,” says Gurugubelli of Daughter Earth. “However, we still do refills for people passionate about sustainability, whose numbers are growing.”

Many mainstream consumer goods companies, as well as luxury brands such as the French L’Occitane are also offering refillable products.

No easy choices

Although plastic gets a bad rap, in some situations it is the best choice, says Gurugubelli, while pointing out the flip-side of glass. “Glass is worse than plastic when it is not reused at least three times. Let’s say the fill volume of a particular product is 3 ml. Tiny glass bottle, won’t be used ever again, worse than having a plastic bottle for the same fill volume,” she says, “Unfortunately, it is easy to label glass as good and plastic as bad, but that’s not what the science shows.” 

As such, some companies such as Juicy Chemistry use as little plastic as possible, and only when it is strictly needed – for example, in the twist-up mechanism of a lipstick or the pump of a bottle. “Earlier, we had implemented a take-back programme wherein we’d incentivise the consumer to send us back their empty products for recycling. Eventually, we realised that while the thought was well-intentioned, it didn’t quite serve our purpose, as the resulting carbon footprint was too high,” says Pritesh Asher. “We then decided to change our approach and become plastic-positive. This means that we take a third party’s help to recycle more plastic than we use. Plastic neutrality would be to recycle the same amount of plastic as we use.”  

Recently, L’Occitane India undertook a recycling programme in collaboration with a social enterprise, Saahas Zero Waste, to recycle all the packaging that customers returned.

“Our long-term goal towards product packaging is to work towards a fully closed loop, i.e. all the plastic we use should be repurposed or reused in our packaging, stores, accessories and fixtures,” says Kundu of The Body Shop, “We have worked for many decades with the food industry to source ingredients deemed “food waste” and create amazingly natural and efficient products with them. This includes strawberry seed oil, banana and ginger extracts from fruits and veggies not deemed well-shaped enough for supermarkets.” The vision, she says, is to create truly clean formulations and work towards fully biodegradable products that can safely decompose on land and in aquatic environments.

The challenges

Packaging is one of the main challenges for most companies. Founders struggle with scouting sustainable packaging vendors and often have to turn to China or other countries for importing sustainable packaging solutions. “As a brand, packaging is my single largest pain point. I know I can nail the formulation, and create world-class skincare, but when it comes to packaging, I depend on a packaging manufacturer,” says Gurugubelli, “The innovation in China and the US doesn’t happen here [in India] – mainly because the market is not big enough to support it.” 

At the same time, recycling solutions are not widely available, making it less likely that consumers will send end-of-life packaging for recycling. “It is a struggle for customers to recycle empty bottles. And it is near impossible for each brand to reach out to every customer individually without adding to the carbon footprint,” says Mohunta.

Aparrna Gupta is a Mumbai-based beauty and wellness writer and consultant. 

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