Beauty retailers dip a toe into sustainability, but fall short of sweeping change

This story is part of Glossy’s Earth Week series, which spotlights sustainability efforts and topics across the beauty and fashion industries. You can read some of our other coverage here and here.

When it comes to sustainability, retailers are trying to move into the spotlight.

In early March, Ulta Beauty announced a partnership and dedicated website with Loop, allowing customers to shop specific brands and products on and send back their empty packages. In 2020, with the launch of its Conscious Beauty program, Ulta Beauty also committed that all packaging sold from all brands will need to be made from 50% post-consumer recycled or bio-sourced materials, or recyclable or refillable by 2025. Ulta Beauty sells over 600 brands, including Chanel, Covergirl and Ouai hair care. Also in 2020, Credo committed that it would eliminate single-use masks and wipes and that its brand partners would be required to use 50% PCR plastic or other sustainable materials by June 2023.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that Ulta Beauty is continuously meeting those expectations. And we’re using Conscious Beauty as a way to showcase that and influence our partners,” said Monica Arnaudo, Ulta Beauty chief merchandising officer. “Retailers have a lot of influence in this area. We want to ensure that we’re meeting the customer’s needs, so our influence extends to our brand partners and manufacturers.”

Though some retailers like Ulta and Credo are pushing their brand partners to adopt more sustainable solutions and packaging, it is not common across the board. Though retailers have traditionally often had the upper hand in the brand-retailer relationship, retailers are for the most part looking at their own products and operations before proposing changes to third-party brand partners. There are potential reasons for this, ranging from dodging accusations of performative greenwashing to preventing cries of hypocrisy from brands. But it is likely more about the general lack of options available to brands. Despite strides in sustainable packaging, there is no perfect solution and few alternatives that do not materially impact a brand’s packaging design, branding and bottom line.

For example, Sephora’s 2019 goals and progress on sustainability predominantly focus on the retailer’s stores, distribution centers and corporate offices. The retailer is part of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and notes that it “encourages” brands to “embrace efficient [packaging] design” but doesn’t make it a requirement. Since late 2019, Sephora has piloted an in-store recycling program in Utah and Colorado. Customers who bring back three containers from any brand receive a 15% discount on Sephora Collection products. A Sephora spokesperson said there had been no changes or expansions to the pilot as of 2021.

Additionally, Walgreen Boots Alliance only references its own private label brands and products, including beauty brands No.7 and Soap & Glory in a section dedicated to sustainable packaging. On Monday, Walgreen Boots Alliance repackaged its six beauty brands, including No.7, and Soap & Glory, into a new umbrella called the No.7 Beauty Company to drive digital marketing effectiveness and expansion.

CVS’s sustainability strategy around products is mostly focused on its own private-label brands, too, said Joanne Dwyer, CVS vp of CSR and sustainability. This includes discontinuing the sale of single-use plastic straws, all plastic cutleries, and all Styrofoam cups, plates and bowls. CVS will stop shipping these items to stores by June of 2021. It will instead introduce alternative options such as paper straws and bamboo plates but will continue to sell national brands like Solo. The national retailer is undertaking an audit of its CVS-owned brand packaging to understand what is and is not recyclable, as well as what is recyclable but difficult to do. It will complete this audit in June 2021. The plan is to develop a set of recycling standards and guidelines for its brands that are printed on the label; CVS is currently rolling them out in a phased approach and plans to include them in its CSR report in 2022.

“We don’t want to make a sustainable choice or a better-for-you choice that is difficult to make. From an access and cost standpoint, we would like to democratize sustainability,” said Dwyer.

There are some brand sustainability partnerships that CVS has engaged with since 2020. CVS works with TerraCycle and brands like Gillette and Colgate twice a year to promote a takeback campaign. Customers can sign up online and ship their products directly to TerraCycle. CVS and TerraCycle then turn the waste received into materials used for playgrounds and rock walls; the playgrounds or rock walls are then built in locations where the highest volume of participation occurs. The Detox Market and Follain previously added TerraCycle bottle collection boxes in-store back in 2019. On Thursday, Credo debuted in all of its 10 stores a new in-store recycling program called Pact to collect hard-to-recycle packaging.

“When something is difficult to recycle, we want to [experiment to] see if people will send back products if we provide the mechanism for them to do so,” said Dwyer. “It’s important for us to engage our suppliers and our industry peers. Many of the sustainability challenges that have emerged are industry [created]; we need to work as an industry to solve.”