Carbon Positive Packaging From Lush: A Game Changer?

TerraCycle Garnier Include USA

If you walk down any drugstore aisle, you become quickly aware of how plastic packaging enwraps most of the cosmetics and personal care products we use daily. Estimates of the cosmetics industry’s annual plastic packaging production range between 76.8 billion and 150 billion units.

Plastic packaging became the norm for the cosmetics industry starting in the 1950s due to its versatility in shape and size, as well as cultural shifts in the U.S. around hygiene and beauty that emerged during World War II. As showers became standard in Americans’ morning routines, so did the demand for liquid personal care products that could wash easily down the drain.

However, ongoing public outcry across the globe about plastics in oceans has encouraged cosmetics brands to rethink plastics and develop more responsible packaging. Notable cosmetic companies tackling the plastic packaging problem are L’Oréal and Garnier. For example, Garnier has teamed up with TerraCycle—a recycling and “upcycling” company that says it is determined to “eliminate the idea of waste”—to offer a take-back program for specific Garnier beauty products. L’Oréal signed with PureCycle Technologies, a company that uses waste plastic to produce virgin-like plastic, to get closer to its 2025 goal for 50 percent of its packaging plastics to be bio-sourced or of recycled origin.

While the work of Garnier and L’Oréal is a step in the right direction, their solutions do not remove plastic from the packaging equation entirely, nor do they remove the emissions from transportation further down the value chain.

'Carbon positive’ packaging: Sailing ships and regenerative forestry

Lush—a United Kingdom cosmetics company that boasts a line of package-free products—has developed what it calls a "carbon positive" packaging process that removes additional carbon dioxide from the air. The process does not use plastic packaging or container ships and results in what will encase some of Lush’s shampoo bars.

The packaging process is considered carbon-positive because it uses commercial sailboats instead of cargo ships to ship finished cork containers from Portugal to the United Kingdom. Lush also sources the cork at premium prices from forest owners who grow cork oak regeneratively.

“The [Lush] team’s calculations suggest that each cork pot sequesters over one kilo of carbon dioxide gas (and this is a very conservative estimate),” Miles King, a nature writer who works with Lush, told the Telegraph.

A revenue stream encouraging regenerative cork forests in Portugal

It is through Lush’s buying partnership with Eco Interventions, a nonprofit that works to restore Portugal’s Cork Oak forests, that regenerative practices have returned to the Portuguese cork industry. In recent years, forest owners’ ambitions to produce more cork have had a negative effect on the cork oaks’ well-being. Monte De Vida details how there has been a widespread die-off of cork oaks in Portugal due to a fungal disease and Portuguese cork harvesters’ excessive cultivation of land, which damages the shallow cork oaks’ roots and degrades the soil.

The 5 euros that Lush pays to Eco Interventions for each cork pot helps provide forest owners with the resources to cultivate native plants to replant around the trees and to transition away from pesticide usage. The 5 euros per container could quickly add up to bring meaningful change to the Portugal cork forest landscape, as Lush says it plans to purchase 500,000 cork containers by the end of the year.

Lush launches program that ships cork by sail

Lush also brought the regenerative philosophy of cork harvesting to the transportation portion of its “carbon positive” packaging process. The company launched a trial to ship 6,000 cork containers via a commercial sailing ship from Portugal to the United Kingdom at the beginning of July 2019.

“Transporting goods by sail cargo is a good fit with our ethics and ambition to reduce harm to the planet as it’s largely carbon neutral,” Derek Hallé, trade compliance manager for Lush U.K., told Fast Company.

At the same time, Lush is aware of the challenges of shipping by sailboat, such as the longer shipping time and lack of infrastructure that could increase costs drastically. It is important to Lush that acting ethically doesn’t get in the way of profitability, as it is essential in scaling up solutions such as shipping by sailboats. While shipping the containers by sail for now is unique to the cosmetics industry, entrepreneurs and academics believe the benefits of shipping cargo by sail will outweigh the challenges in the long run, according to Jeff Spross of The Week.

This process is a reminder that sustainable packaging requires a system reset—one that dares to redefine traditional logistics that make up not only the global cosmetics industry but also most other industries. Since 90 percent of what the global economy buys comes from container ships (which account for 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions) and 6.3 billion tons of plastic have found refuge in our oceans, more companies need to act on innovative transportation and material solutions similar to Lush’s process to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The more companies that try to reinvent their logistics with the environment in mind, the closer our global society is to finding regenerative solutions that can work in the long term.