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Business ideas for 2020: Eco-beauty

The beauty industry can no longer ignore its ugly record on the environment, opening up opportunities for sustainable alternatives in 2020...

When it comes to the environment, the beauty industry is not a pretty picture.

Our obsession with looking good is also an addiction to unsustainable products and single-use plastics.

This cheap, durable material was a godsend for a sector that needed to transport liquids and gels around the world. But a lot of those plastic containers end up in the oceans, where they’re not easily broken down, and are consumed by sea life.

According to Surfers Against Sewage, recent studies have found plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals, and 40% of seabirds examined.

It’s not just plastic in the oceans that’s the problem. It’s the whole supply chain of producing, packaging, and transporting beauty products around the world.

And with 83% of consumers saying they would opt for a brand with a good record on sustainability (according to J. Walter Thompson Intelligence), environmental impact should be one of your main considerations if you’re launching any business in 2020.

Why is eco-beauty a good business idea?

The 2020s are set to be defined by hyper-sensitivity about the environmental impact of our consumer choices, but the beauty industry still has a long way to go…

New businesses in the sector are in the privileged position of being able to build sustainability into their products from the outset (rather than as a tricky and expensive retrofit).

That goes for the way products are packaged, and the various liquids, gels, sprays, and vapours we douse ourselves in everyday.

According to retail analytics firm Edited, the global beauty industry is valued at $532bn. And according to the British Beauty Council’s Value of Beauty report, the UK’s beauty sector alone was worth £27.2bn in 2018.

By capitalising on this new breed of environmentally-conscious consumers with sustainable alternatives, you could tidy up.

The Blue Planet II effect has been significant. According to the Waitrose & Partners Food & Drink Report 2018-19, 88% of people who watched the programme have changed their lifestyles to reduce single-use plastic.

However, while we’re generally good at recycling kitchen waste (an estimated 90% of us do), only half of us recycle bathroom products such as shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. It’s no good just reducing your use of one kind of plastic if you’re too lazy to recycle your empty toiletries.

Big brands have been doing their bit to try and change consumer behaviour. Selfridges has been running its Project Ocean campaign since 2011. Held on the ground floor of its Oxford Street flagship store, the Beauty Booth allows shoppers to discover, shop and test plastic-conscious products, with 10% of sales donated to the Zoological Society of London.

And this National Geographic article covers a number of smaller companies that are introducing more environmentally conscious alternatives. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be more expensive to produce, and therefore to buy.

Regulation can go some way to improving environmental practices in the industry, but changing consumer behaviour is going to be essential if we want widespread adoption of alternatives. First movers might face a challenge, but people are increasingly willing to sacrifice some convenience if it means protecting the environment.

Is it Brexit-proof?

As with any business that relies on the transportation of products across borders, if a trade deal isn’t agreed promptly, there could be issues with customs checks, tariffs, and regulation.

Other than that, the EU currently has a major influence on the regulation of the UK cosmetics industry. According to Cosmetic Business, In the event of a No Deal Brexit, a new database and new notification and labelling obligations would be introduced.

Eco-beauty business opportunities

relax skin studioThe beauty industry has already seen a flurry of innovations around sustainability. To help inspire you, we look at a few of the most disruptive startups in the space below.

UpCircle is a 100% natural skincare range that uses waste products like used coffee grounds and brewed chai spices. It also sells a scrub tube squeezer that you can buy from its site to squeeze every last drop of scrub from the tub. Think about all the other waste products generated by our daily routines. Are there any others that could find a second life as a skincare product?

Or there’s Vemel, the range of waterless, vegan skincare products founded by Agi and James Miel. Why waterless you ask? Well, many of the beauty products that you use on a regular basis are 95% water. According to Vemel, water needs emulsifiers to penetrate the skin, and preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. Without water, you don’t need the chemicals. Perhaps you could explore what other unsustainable ingredients could be removed from our products without sacrificing their effectiveness.

Of course, packaging is the worst offender when it comes to the environment, and many startups are rethinking how products are stored and transported.

Founded by Anna Priadka The Conscious beauty Co. allows its customers to buy an aluminium “bottle for life”. Whenever you run out of product, you can buy refill pouches, which can be returned to the company for recycling. The business is running a Kickstarter at the end of January where they’ll be offering subscribers up to 50% off depending what subscription they choose.

Brands should also think about what else they can do to prove their eco-credentials.

As well as being wrapped in 100% recycled or biodegradable packaging, Dr. Bronner’s has gone further than many with its commitment to ethics and sustainability. In November 2019, it launched the All-One UK Initiative, which will see at least 1% of its sales to the UK market each year donated to local advocacy efforts in support of social justice, animal advocacy and environmental sustainability. The company also launched a global international campaign called ‘Heal Earth’ to support regenerative farming practices and community development in India where it grows its peppermint.

Some companies are doing away with permanent packaging completely. Check out this range of shampoo bars that can be delivered to you in recyclable carboard with no need for plastic bottles.

Whether there’s a beauty product that has yet to be given a sustainability makeover, or you’ve simply spotted a way to do something better than anyone else, why not kick the 2020s off with an eco-beauty business?

Is it sustainable?

Well, if you’re doing it properly it should be! Starting an eco-beauty business should be about more than just a token effort to appeal to changing consumer expectations.

Think about a holistic approach to sustainability and be mindful of how every aspect of your business, every step of the supply chain can have an impact on the environment, and the people involved in the production and sale of your product.

Insider opinion

Katie White, founder of re:lax, a Hackney-based Skin Studio offering bespoke, non-invasive facials, comments:

“The beauty industry is responsible for massive amounts of waste and the rise of sustainable beauty startups is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of production from big beauty houses.

“However, many of these big brands are beginning to recognise the responsibility they have for the environment, and are making sustainability pledges for the future.

“In the past, many elements of beauty product packaging  – including tops and pumps – haven't been recyclable. More and more, major beauty brands are making sure this is no longer the case. As well as creating entirely recyclable packaging, they’re now offering refill initiatives through supermarkets, which is great to see.

“I think 2020 will see the industry adapting to sustainable business practices more than ever. It was only this year that microbeads were banned, which is probably the first in a wave of unsustainable ingredients such as glitter experiencing the same fate. While this will force existing companies to act on the environment, the space is wide open for disruptive new startups”

Henry Williams
Henry Williams

Henry has been writing for Startups.co.uk since 2015, covering everything from business finance and web builders to tax and red tape. He’s also contributed to many of our industry-renowned annual indexes, including Startups 100 and Young Guns, and created a number of the site’s popular how to guides. Before joining the team, he reviewed films for a culture website, and still harbours ambitions of being a screenwriter.