The beauty industry has come a long way in terms of sustainability. From shampoo bottles made from repurposed ocean plastic to refillable make-up compacts and packaging-free solid cleansing bars, the innovations are impressive and the options endless. But as consumers within a business that thrives on newness, can we really reduce our carbon footprint in a meaningful way if we keep buying so much stuff?
However responsibly made a product might be, if it’s gathering dust at the back of a shelf thanks to three more you’ve bought since, its eco credentials are somewhat pointless. In our hurry to try the make-up line everyone’s raving about, or the ingredient promising to solve our skin concerns forever, it’s easy to end up with a whole library of half-used products, many of which will dry up, expire or lose their efficacy before we get the chance to finish them (and then, inevitably, get thrown away). How to make your beauty routine more sustainable? Use the products you already have, and use them until the very last drop is gone.
This is something that has been on Randi Christiansen’s mind since she and Nick Axelrod co-founded cult bodycare brand Nécessaire in 2018. Responsibly sourced ingredients, bottles made from vegetable waste and full offsetting of the brand’s carbon footprint each year are key parts of Nécessaire’s responsible approach to beauty. But Christiansen is clear that simply churning out new products isn’t the goal. Instead, the idea is that Nécessaire creates only the products that are “necessary”— hence the name—making them as effective and pleasurable as possible, so they actually get used.
“Obviously body wash, body lotion, deodorant—these are everyday essentials. But for things like our body serum, or neck serum, these are essential for just some. If you have this specific concern, only then is this a necessary product for you. That’s what it means to be necessary,” she says.
The brand’s product line-up is accordingly tight, with existing products tweaked and bettered where needed, rather than new products being introduced. Customer feedback online has been helpful for highlighting gaps in the range, or potential areas of improvement. “If there’s a better body lotion to be made then we should make a better body lotion, we don’t need six of them,” Christiansen says. “It’s really important to recognise as a company that you have a footprint. To me, that means understanding what your footprint is and minimising it. Because the only truly sustainable product is the one that’s not made. And if we are making it, it had better be used in full.”
As well as minimising waste, there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching that last pump of a bottle of serum, or the final squeeze of a hand cream tube. YouTube has long played host to beauty influencers raking through baskets full of the “empties” they’ve conquered, and a new generation now shares theirs on TikTok, where the #empties tag has 18.9 million views.
Meanwhile, Reddit is the home of r/PanPorn, in which users proudly share photos of the products they have “hit pan” on: a term based on the idea of using an eyeshadow, blush or powder product so heavily that the metal base—or ‘pan’—becomes visible. The obsession with “hitting pan” developed among beauty fanatics on the r/MakeupAddiction subreddit who became overwhelmed by the volume of new beauty products launching, and determined to instead finish the products they already owned. And while on Reddit this often translates as 20-somethings still miserably ploughing through glitter eyeshadows they bought in their teens, the sentiment is valid. Waste—whether in terms of your hard-earned money, the planet’s finite resources or simply the space in your home—doesn’t feel, look, or do good, but there’s a whole lot of it happening if you don’t actually use the products you buy.
But using your products in full doesn’t have to mean sticking with things you hate until the bitter end. Instead, finding things you love and buying them on repeat could save you a lot of money, time and shelf space, as well as cutting down on product and packaging waste. Your skin will likely thank you, too—chopping and changing might feel exciting, but any dermatologist will tell you that consistency is key to a happy complexion.
Let’s work on the basis that if you happily used an eye cream until the very last drop, you’ll probably want to buy it again. That’s where the beauty brands offering refillable packaging come into their own. Look to Emma Lewisham, which sells refill pods for all of its skincare products, as well as allowing you to send back used pods to be sterilised and refilled. Or Hermès, whose beautiful lip and cheek products are refillable without compromising a jot on luxury. Or L’Occitane, whose super-sized refill pouches for soap, haircare and bodycare use on average 85 per cent less plastic than the original products.
Matt Kennedy, founder of refillable deodorant brand Fussy, says that the key is making the experience convenient for customers, and offering newness, but in different forms. Fussy allows customers to choose a deodorant ‘case’, then purchase refills in a range of different scents, including limited-edition drops such as a recent collaboration with Parma Violets, or a citrusy Rosé scent for summer.
“Our research has shown us that while consumers want to do the right thing, to make the more sustainable choice, all too often that comes at a sacrifice,” says Kennedy. “In an ideal world everyone would just stop buying ‘stuff’ but I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon. People, me included, are a little bit like magpies. We like new shiny things. So for us as a brand it’s about ensuring those new shiny things are providing a positive impact and have a strong reason to exist.”
Fussy also offers a flexible subscription model, so consumers can have their refills delivered free, with a 15 per cent saving. Beauty refill subscriptions may well be one of the most interesting developments in the eco beauty space, as it’s here that beauty brands, consumers and our environment can all benefit; businesses win loyalty, customers enjoy savings, and waste is reduced overall. Hairstory offers subscription refills on its cult New Wash, Bramley on its hair, hand and body products (via Bower Collective), and SBTRCT on its pioneering range of solid skincare. For the latter’s founder, Ben Grace, customer appetite for services like these demonstrate just how far we’ve come.
“I think innovation will always be very important in beauty, but what is changing is a move away from newness for newness’s sake,” he tells me. “I think there’s a bit of backlash against that now, and customers are taking a less-is-more approach, buying fewer products, but the right ones for their skin. And investing in brands that take time and effort to develop intentional products and accessories that not only perform, but also elevate the bathroom space and tackle big issues like plastic pollution and water waste.”
Nobody is saying you can’t buy new products. But before you do, just consider whether you’ll be willing to stick with them until the end.
This story originally appeared on British Vogue.