The beauty industry has a plastic waste problem. And it knows it. A quick Google search brings up articles from Allure, National Geographic, Forbes, Teen Vogue and 31,800,000 other results about the issue. 

It seems those concerns finally have reached a critical mass, inspiring a sustainability makeover at three of the biggest beauty brands in the business — Sephora, Natura & Co, and Ulta Beauty.

Last year, Sephora launched Clean at Sephora , a label that originally screened for 13 ingredients considered « unclean » but in July was expanded to over 50 substances, including butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), sulfates, mercury, talc, aluminum salts and lead. The company announced a partnership Aug. 17 with the Environmental Defense Fund to continue the reduction of toxic chemicals in its products. 

Sephora reported that 94 percent of its products contain no high-priority chemicals laid out by its chemical policy, and 13 percent more products on its shelves release ingredient information compared to last year. Sephora also recently took action on the racial justice issue by becoming what it believes is the first beauty company to commit to giving 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned brands per the 15 Percent Pledge — however, it hasn’t given a timeline for when it will complete that goal. 

Natura & Co., which recently announced its 10-year Vision 2030 sustainability plan, is prioritizing initiatives including habitat protection and reimagining its packaging. The strategy expanding preservation of the Amazon rainforest to 7.4 million acres from its current 4.5 million, having fully circular packaging by investing $100 million in developing regenerative solutions, and decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Ulta Beauty also recently announced a new overarching sustainability initiative, Conscious Beauty. The program commits to elevating cruelty-free and vegan products highlighting these brands in-store.

Ulta, like Sephora, is planning a Made Without list that will tag products free of parabens, phthalates and 25 other chemical categories. Ulta also ran an advertising campaign in 2018 highlighting diversity in beauty including different races, genders and even a model in a wheelchair. In the past few years, the company has added black-owned brands such as EleVen by Venus Williams, Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross and Juvia’s Place.

But Ulta’s marquee pledge is getting to 50 percent recycled, bio-sourced materials or refillable containers by 2025.  

According to the Ulta press release, the cosmetic industry produces 120 billion packaging units every year across the globe. And with 1,264 retail stores across 50 states, Ulta is a large contributor to this issue. Many tubes of mascara and lip gloss and tins of powder, blush and eyeshadow can’t be recycled at all. 

Loop sees an opportunity with the high-priced luxury makeup brands sold by Ulta.

« We know the packaging in beauty is a challenge, » said Dave Kimbell

ll, president of Ulta Beauty. « But we think we could be part of the solution. »

To get to that 50 percent goal, Ulta has teamed up with reusable packaging darling Loop from TerraCycle. Loop distributes products including Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Pantene shampoos and Clorox wipes in refillable containers. When customers buy the product online, they put down a deposit that is returned when the consumer mails the containers back via a designated tote. Loop already has U.S. partnerships with Kroger and Walgreens, and it is planning to offer in-store drop-off locations by the middle of next year. That’s something it also hopes to do with Ulta in the future. 

a selection of Loop's refillable packaging

Loop sees an opportunity with the high-priced luxury makeup brands sold by Ulta that it doesn’t have with the ones sold at your neighborhood grocer or pharmacy. 

« Beauty products need to have packaging that has a beauty aspect because beauty is about beauty, » said Tom Szaky, CEO and founder of TerraCycle. « There’s this huge opportunity for epic design that is unique to the beauty category. Doing things that can’t be done when you have a cheap disposable package. » 

There’s this huge opportunity for epic design that is unique to the beauty category.

Beauty products in the 1950s came in beautiful glass, gold, silver, crystal and ceramic bottles and containers that were refillable. Since the 1960s, the amount of plastic packaging on everything, not just cosmetics, has increased 120 times. As the industry moved to disposables, cosmetic packaging designers typically prioritized more function over form. The Ulta-Loop partnership could spur a return to a previous era for the industry, the partners believe. 

« It’s going to allow packaging innovation in a way that’s never been done before, » Szaky said. « Because the beauty brands are willing to be brave and push the envelope. » 

While Loop already has a few partnerships in the cosmetic space — including with brands such as Pantene, REN and The Body Shop — Ulta is the first collaboration focused specifically on the lucrative world of makeup. 

« We’re going to really leverage the relationships and the influence that we have in the industry to help drive change as [Loop is] building their packaging and their supply chains, » Kimbell said.

Loop's drop off box

Loop will use Ulta’s connections in the beauty world to create innovative new packaging designs for Ulta’s in-house brand and other consumer favorites; the exact brands have not yet been nailed down.

According to Szaky, Loop plans to tap the best and most creative designers for the project. Ulta has a unique power to pressure its vendors to take up sustainable initiatives such as this to get better placement in-store. And Loop can use Ulta’s connections to expand its own portfolio. In the end, there will be a joint website to sell the products before transiting to with a Loop-specific section.

« It’s going to take multiple efforts to really attack this, » Kimbell said. « There’s a packaging opportunity that we collectively have as the industry, and we think it’s important for Ulta Beauty to be a leader in helping drive it forward. »