How beauty brands can take a 360-degree approach to sustainability, starting with three key steps

There is a massive opportunity for the beauty and personal care sector to create new, sustainable products and business models that will benefit both businesses and the environment. These updates will also tap into the growing zero-waste movement sweeping the globe.

While brands have made headway in several areas, including cruelty-free, zero-waste, and recyclability, the one-step-at-a-time approach is often driven by marketing campaigns rather than being intrinsically entwined in the brand’s overall business strategy. To make real headway, sustainability needs to be fully integrated into the brand’s purpose, rather than serving as a check-box. The brands that make this mindset shift will have a stake in the $12 trillion market opportunity in achieving global sustainability goals.

Already, brands such as Unilever have been a case study in the success of robust sustainability programmes. Their Sustainable Living Brands famously delivered 75 per cent of the company’s growth in under a decade, and grew 69 per cent faster than the rest of the business.

For beauty brands eager to catch the growth wave, there are three areas the industry should focus on.

1. Learn from the disrupters: be agile and pivot

The first steps that will enable companies to be more sustainable are already being taken by industry leaders. Currently in the market, there are twin razor blades that consumers can post back to the makers to be recycled; beauty products made with sustainable, naturally sourced ingredients sold in refillable pods that can be returned for refills or replenished in-store; and increasingly, single-use plastics replaced at scale by cellulose pulp that can be reused, recycled or composted.

Companies such as FFS, Emma Lewisham, Eco Warrior and PulPac are already making strides in these areas, along with others. Beauty brands should embrace agility and see how they can modify their own products for sustainability.

2. Make it personal: use technology to individualise offerings

A big step forward for the beauty industry is the ability to personalise products for customers. From perfumes to facial massage to individually prepared skin creams to razors inscribed with your name; apps can be used to craft products to the individual, while also building in sustainability, such as returnable, refillable bottles, and using certified sustainable products and suppliers.

The twin drivers of greater personalisation and sustainability are increasingly important for consumers within this market. Customers are looking beyond brand names for premium products that are tailored to them but do not carry exorbitant costs for themselves or the environment. There are even apps available to break down ingredient lists so customers can review the safety and effectiveness of various skincare products before making a selection. This cuts down on returned items since customers have more insight into what they’re purchasing before they make a selection.

3. Spend more on R&D: create future value and sustainability today

To make the step-change to greater sustainability, big businesses need to adopt a start-up mentality to achieve agility and pivot their products. The global industry is set to be worth £395.7 billion in 2022, yet major beauty companies typically only spend about one to three per cent on R&D, putting considerably more money into advertising their wares.

One way that large companies can be more imaginative with R&D is to start incubators to help finance and develop new products and ideas from entrepreneurs. Another is to set up blue-skies thinking divisions, where teams can brainstorm without limits to create breakthrough and innovative ideas, or subsidiaries with separate reporting lines to reimagine products and services and try new models. For brands with limited resources, partnering with organisations that have R&D capabilities – even those from other industries – provides opportunities for innovation with lower overhead. University partnerships in particular are a great way to make strides in research without in-house research capabilities.

Bottom line: take a multi-prong approach to sustainability to create value

Moving to the next phase of “green” for companies requires envisioning a future beyond the current rhetoric of recycling: only so much is being, and can be, reused and many things cannot be recycled indefinitely. Eliminating waste in the first place needs to be the order of the day.

Too often, companies have their supply chain, manufacturing processes and distribution already set up and want to make them more sustainable. Sustainability cannot be a bolt-on if it is to be truly successful, it needs to drive the rationale for product development from the start.

Learning the lessons of sector disrupters, focusing on greater personalisation and spending more on sustainably targeted R&D, will add value and improve the likelihood that companies will survive and thrive in the future. Those that can demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability are likely to do best of all.

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