Ethical Cosmetics Packaging – How to find it

Hong Kong-headquartered department store Lane Crawford announced last week that it is rolling out new recyclable and biodegradable FSC-certified paper packaging as part of its sustainability strategy. To mark this announcement, Sjaniël Turrell delves into the complex world of cosmetics packaging – famously as ecologically unsound as it is tempting to buy – in a bid to decipher what it all means.

Like everything in the conscious living world, navigating the most eco-friendly packaging options isn’t nearly as straightforward as we wish it could be. There are pros and cons at every turn. Ethical cosmetics packaging poses quite a different set of challenges to even that of skincare, but with the global drive towards more mindful living, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the ingredients of the containers our products arrive in, as much as what’s in what they contain.   

Organic makeup brands have been ingenious with thinking of new ways to solve sustainability issues, though the majority will still use plastic in some way or another. But that begs the question, is plastic necessarily the worst option? When considering the length of the life of the product and also the user friendliness of that product, could it sometimes be safer? Below we look at the most used packaging options and their pros and cons for sustainability:

GLASS Mostly used for liquid foundations

Made from sand – a 100% natural source
Readily recycled if clean and clear; can be recycled over and over
Easy to reuse or repurpose
Does not leach harmful chemicals into the environment
Dark glass protects fragile ingredients from sunlight

Huge amounts of energy used in production of glass
Often imported with a high carbon footprint (due to weight)
Coloured glass is not readily recycled everywhere and may end up in landfill
Empty bottles are only recycled if cleaned and separated from plastic components such as lids and pumps.

ALUMINIUM Used for pressed powders, eye-shadows, blush, lipsticks and tubes (not to be confused with steel, which has magnetic properties)

Readily recyclable, can be recycled over and over
Protects bottled/tubed products from exposure to light and heat
Has a high overall recycling percentage globally

Specialist packaging may not always be kerbside recyclable
Producing aluminium uses a high amount of energy
Cleaning out tubes and bottles may be difficult, therefore they’re more likely to end up in landfill
Laminated packaging needs to be separated before it can be recycled
Aluminium can leach into liquid and oil based products over time (generally considered safe for non-consumables by governing bodies)

CARDBOARD/PAPER used for solid balms, cream foundations and mineral powders and most outer packaging

Easy to recycle and recycled at all recycling plants
Easy to use recycled or post consumer elements       

Not recyclable if covered in plastic laminate unless manually separated
Beginning-to-end manufacturing uses a high amount of energy and resources
Can attribute to deforestation if not responsibly sourced
Does not always appeal to the high end consumer

BAMBOO used for a myriad of containers

Easy to produce and grow
Lightweight for consumer and manufacturer
Durable and reusable
Biodegradable and compostable
Good for soil
Bamboo as a plant increases carbon capture because of it’s speed of growth and no need for farming

Potential land use issues if not sourced responsibly
Containers are often lined with a plastic inner or glass inner for liquids and need to be separated before composting or recycling
Veneered bamboo products need to be composted in specialised composting plants
Will often be imported and therefore increase the carbon footprint
May not appeal to the high end market


And now for the big one – plastics, in all its guises, is such a multifaceted and complicated subject that it’s difficult to unpick in an article like this, in which we’re trying to help rather than cause even more confusion.

Used for all types of containers and packaging, the term encompasses different materials all of which boast their own pros and cons. Bioplastics, itself a complicated term, can often be wrongly assumed a safer alternative to more traditional fossil fuel-derived polymers – which themselves are deemed less noxious to the environment if they can be readily recycled (with emphasis on the “if”), and therefore not susceptible to the horror term “single use”.

In short, when it comes to plastic, there’s only one definitive rule: If you have to buy it, keep it, refill it, and be mindful (or, even better, demand knowledge) of its journey once it leaves you.


There is a global drive to find more innovative and sustainable ways to change our current consumer climate and post consumer responsibility is a huge factor in this working. The onus is on us as consumers to understand how local recycling works and get into a habit of RINSE.RECYCLE.REPEAT and in the future that may include RETURN as many companies are now working on developing closed loop systems where they can reuse their old packaging.   

Some of our favourite clean beauty brands doing their utmost for sustainability are:

RMS Beauty

Rose Marie Swift takes her responsibility to your skin very seriously, but she takes her responsibility to the earth just as seriously – her ingenious package design for RMS Beauty has now been copied by many other clean beauty brands. Small recyclable glass pots with recyclable aluminium lids make up the majority of her products – all new product line packaging is either recyclable, biodegradable or compostable (under the right circumstances).        

Green People

Green People is at the forefront of global sustainability and was the first beauty brand to help create a beauty standard with Soil Association. All their packaging is 100% recyclable and can be burnt without releasing harmful gasses into the air.

Kjaer Weis

Kirsten Kjaer Weis wanted to create beautiful packaging that would last and has made all her Kjaer Weis products (including her mascara) refillable. The stunning, durable metal outer casing is made to last and you can refill each item as you need with the small refill coming in a recyclable cardboard box. 


This attractive and extensive lipstick range from Axiology has been formulated with respect for the earth and all its beings in mind. The stunning gold aluminium packaging is fully recyclable. 

ILIA Beauty

ILIA is a much loved beauty brand and has one of the most extensive ranges currently available. They use recycled aluminium and glass components where possible, they also package all their containers in post-consumer recycled paper printed with vegetable based dyes. 

Zao Makeup

Zao is brand that is well known favourite among professional organic makeup artists as it offers great basics and one of the first to offer a true range of diverse foundation options. Their bamboo packaging means that you can feel good about you buying choices – many of their products come with handy refill options too. This brand is so confident about their sustainability that they claim a negative carbon footprint.

Inspired? Read Sjaniel’s tips for where to start with Ethical Beauty, and learn what it all means in her guide to decoding clean, vegan and organic beauty.

Browse our catalogue of recommended brands.