The cosmetics industry generally sells luxury, or at least the aspiration of luxury, with issues like the environmental impact of its packaging often much farther down the list of priorities.
But judging by conversations with plastics packaging companies at the recent CosmoProf Asia show, the largest cosmetics show in Asia, the sustainability of packaging in the industry seems to be slowly getting more important.
Cosmetic packager FS Korea Industries Inc., for example, said it thinks attitudes are changing. It was using the show to heavily promote a new line of wood-plastic-composite bottles and compacts that it said may be the first cosmetic packaging in the world to contain the composites.
The company makes composite brushes that are already being sold in a major department store chain in the United States, and other brand makers are asking about the material reflecting the small but growing interest in green packaging materials in the cosmetics industry, said J.K. Hwang, president of Seoul-based FS Korea, which employs more than 1,200 people at factories in China and Korea.
[Interest] has been very limited but now it is expanding, said Hwang, whose company makes 100 million brushes a year and supplies significant amounts to U.S. retailer Body Shop. People want a more environmentally friendly product.
The firm uses 75 percent wood and 25 percent plastic in the materials, and sources sawdust only from furniture factories that use lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, he said.
Hwang thinks demand for such enviro-packaging will grow, pushed by rising oil prices, concerns about carbon emissions and a desire for more natural materials among customers.
In interviews at the CosmoProf show, held Nov. 10-12 in Hong Kong, packaging companies said they are seeing more interest from cosmetics manufacturers in environmental topics, like plastics made from plants, recycled content or just using natural materials, like bamboo.
Consumer-products giant Unilever, for example, announced plans Nov. 15 to halve the environmental footprint of all its products. And U.S. cosmetics maker Aveda said most of its plastic bottles already use at least 80 percent post-consumer recycled resin.
But often, there are definite limits on environmental focus for an industry where appearance and image matter most, and competition for consumer attention can be fierce, executives said.
I think every cosmetic company would like to be more environmentally conscious, but on the other hand, this is a business that is driven by aesthetics and therefore it's a difficult balance, said Rick Schofield, president of cosmetics packaging maker Portola Tech International in Cumberland, R.I.
One obvious area for packagers, he said, is recycled-content plastic, but that is sometimes limited when recycled resin does not look as good as virgin resin, such as with a line of glycol-modified PET cosmetic jars that Portola makes.
Clarity is critical for that product line, and recycled resin has issues in that regard, he said.
Still, he said some cosmetics makers have senior executives whose main job is to look at the environmental impact of their products, and they were asking Portola about the issue at the CosmoProf show.
Everyone has this knowledge [that] it will become a more important part of our business, Schofield said. Measuring the environmental impact of a package from beginning to end, and being able to explain how a growth strategy improves that total positioning, is where we need to go.
There's an opportunity for any packaging supplier that can come up with environmentally sound, environmentally conscious packaging that also meets the needs of the market, he said.
Shanghai-based cosmetics molder HCP Packaging also sees more interest in recycled content.
HCP has invested considerable time in finding a qualified, responsible supplier of recycled plastic in China for its factories there not an easy task, said Jackie Mantle, managing director of the company's London subsidiary, HCP Packaging UK Ltd.
As a result, the company can use up to 20 percent post-consumer content in many of its packages, higher in some, if customers want that, she said.
HCP globally employs 3,000 people and operates injection molding plants in China, the U.S. and Mexico.
Still, appearance remains the most important in many applications, and sometimes trumps other considerations.
Some cosmetics makers use plant-based, biodegradable polylactic acid to injection mold a greener package, but then covered it with a lacquer because the PLA on its own doesn't look quite good enough, according to Gary Fagan, vice president of sales for the company's U.S. unit, HCP Packaging USA Inc. in Shelton, Conn.
Some brand owners are also skeptical of bio-based materials like PLA because they worry that the material will not be fully green until better systems are developed to compost the packaging at the end of its life, said Mantle.
Even some cosmetics makers at the show that tout completely organic products, like Japanese cosmetics maker Aksa Co. Ltd., said they find it difficult to use recycled plastics or non-petrochemical-based plastics.
The company markets its products as natural and free of petrochemicals, but uses mainly petrochemical-based plastics in its packaging, said Kensuke Watanabe, general manager of the company's Tokyo branch.
We are interested [in packaging from non-petrochemical sources] but it seems the price is too high, said Watanabe. As we have 4 million customers who usually buy our product, this is a mass product. Sometimes new materials do not fit.
He said customers also seldom ask what materials the container is made from.
Other packagers also are exploring more recycled resin, with the interest driven in part by some tougher global regulations for cosmetics packaging, said Bruno Boccardo, business development manager with Brivaplast srl, a small plastics processor based in Osnago, Italy, with a factory there and in China.
But that interest is tempered by the relatively small gains that come with the size of the packages in cosmetics, meaning many global manufacturers with a big product range will focus first on redesigning packaging in non-cosmetic applications, he said.
A company can achieve a lot more focusing on shampoo bottles or other items like that, he said.
Still, he said Brivaplast introduced several new recycled-content cosmetic products this year, including a polypropylene mascara package with up to 50 percent recycled content. It plans to introduce recycled-content lipstick packaging, he said.
DuPont Co.'s global market manager of cosmetics and personal-care packaging, Philippe Milazzo, agreed that interest is growing, but said the cosmetics industry is generally not as interested in green packaging as, for example, the flexible packaging industry.
Brands that sell more luxury, more dreams, that sell more 'jet-set' products, they don't want to alter their brand image, Milazzo said.