LONDON — Plastic pollution is a massive problem: more than a billion tons of plastic waste will end up in oceans or in landfill by 2040.
The beauty industry is one of many contributors to plastic waste, but it's a complex issue that doesn't have a simple solution.
One option is to treat plastic trash as a raw material, explains Mark Davis, who runs the Community Fair Trade program at beauty company The Body Shop. The program is an ethical sourcing initiative that was founded in 1987 and now makes up around 25% of the company's ingredients budget, where the company procures ingredients like shea butter from Ghana and items such as paper gift boxes from Nepal.
The program has now started to source waste plastic from Bangalore, India, to use in its packaging.
Waste-pickers in some developing countries make a living by trading trash in an informal industry that can be dangerous and dirty. The Body Shop is working with sourcing company Plastics For Change to help it procure plastic, while providing better conditions for workers.
"We need the best quality bottles, we need them at the right time in the right place. And … this is just like how we work with (ingredients like) shea, this is how we work with Brazil nut, this is how we work with mango," Davis told CNBC by phone.
"Effectively, if you transpose Bangalore city to the rainforest, it's exactly the same method. You've got a group of people and you need them to be organized. You need them to know what good quality looks like, and if they bring you better quality, you can pay them more money for the better quality," he added.
Sourcing plastic like this is an initiative that has taken a while to come to fruition: it took five years to build the supply chain and get to the point where the raw material met The Body Shop's needs, before it could be turned into plastic granules and made into packaging.
"(Waste pickers) needed to have lots of support around business training. So how do you then build a scaled-up business? How do you manage the cash flow through it? They had to have support around … environmental and social certifications (and make sure) they had decent working conditions," Davis said.
While sourcing initiatives like this are a positive option for businesses, raw materials suppliers ideally need to broaden their customer base to avoid becoming dependent on one buyer, as demand for ingredients can vary. "Ultimately, cosmetics is a fashion business. Customers might want to buy (for example) … mango body butter this year, but next year it may not be the thing they wish to buy. Generally, our customers are quite stable in (their preference for) those 'hero' ingredients but there's definitely a volatility," Davis explained.
Demand for plastic may vary less than for ingredients, but The Body Shop guaranteed it would buy a certain amount of plastic in its first year. In 2020, it will buy 500 tonnes (551 tons) via Plastics For Change and by 2021, that figure will reach 600 tonnes.
The Community Fair Trade program has sourced cocoa beans from Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana since 1996 and has since introduced suppliers there to other customers. "From being their biggest customer, we are less than 1% of their business today. It was one of the earliest conversations actually held within The Body Shop, which is how can we make this an incubator process rather than something that will always make people work with us forever," Davis stated.
The Body Shop has put Plastics For Change in touch with competitors and also Ikea, Davis said. "They are already cutting deals with them on how they can use … (all) kinds of plastics."
Deciding how to tackle sourcing, and sustainability more broadly, is a complex issue that beauty companies of all sizes are undertaking, according to chemist Barbara Oliso, founder of The Green Chemist Consultancy. Her business helps beauty brands navigate issues such as formulations, packaging and certification and she advises clients to think about the full lifecycle of the product.
"Where do your raw materials come from, how are they produced? Then you have middle of life, where you (look at) how much energy is used to produce them, how much water is used. And then there is end of life … with issues around aquatic toxicity (for example) and that is a big issue for SPF (sun protection) products," she told CNBC by phone.
She advises setting goals over a period of time. "For this year, we are going to … look at our water consumption and CO2 emissions. But maybe longer term, we're going to focus on end of life (of the product) and we're going to phase out silicones. I think you need to have a long-term plan," she stated.
The Body Shop's Davis also leads sustainable operations at Natura & Co, the Brazilian cosmetics giant that bought the smaller company from L'Oreal in 2017. In June, Natura & Co launched its Commitment to Life, a 10-year plan covering three broad themes: the climate crisis, human rights and circularity of packaging, of which Davis is a part. "(It's about) making sure that we don't just make products that don't (do) damage, but the underlying principle of driving products that actually do good in the world," he stated.
Davis is currently working on how the two companies' sustainability efforts can learn from one another — for example, Natura & Co works directly to source ingredients from communities in the Amazon, a region that The Body Shop has less knowledge of. "(Natura & Co works) very directly with the suppliers in their communities, we work with more suppliers in a much more geographically diverse context and we use a lot more partnership work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) … so there's two quite different models," he explained.