How Vasudha Rai said no to excess beauty waste, and why you should too

How and why this writer refused to accept excessively-packaged products, and is encouraging other influencers to do the same

Updated - February 21, 2020 03:05 pm IST

Published - February 21, 2020 02:12 pm IST

Vasudha Rai with the tower of gifted boxes collected over the course of a month

Vasudha Rai with the tower of gifted boxes collected over the course of a month

I first started writing on beauty in 2002. Since then, I have unwrapped, opened, twisted, slathered, misted, patted and massaged an exhaustive list of products. In terms of volume, I must have discarded a three-storied mountain of vanity. Triple that number with the added packaging, print outs, invites, empty tubs and tubes of product, and you have a landfill in the making.

I’m not proud of it.

During my time as beauty director of Harper’s Bazaar , Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health , I would discard (on a daily basis) a three-foot hillock of glossy press kits and coffrets. Handling three titles meant triple the amount of information and products. I was worried but not alarmed, assuming that India had the best home-grown recycling system, our local raddiwallah . However, even they don’t accept the most superfluous aspect of beauty waste — the decorative boxes that are handouts for the press and bloggers.

Speaking out

It took me years to take action. Like any other beauty journalist, I didn’t want to offend brands or appear ungrateful. But one day, as the boxes stacked taller than me, I decided (with great trepidation) to write a post about these laminated coffrets. It was around Diwali, when gifting was at its peak. Brands had designed their boxes, and elaborate invitations were pouring in. The worst offenders were invites to wedding shows: reams and reams of laminated paper, with half-broken cookies and earrings never worn. It seemed apt to talk about waste in the season it is generated most.


I posted my picture with a stack of boxes, reaching over six feet. All in just one month. ‘Could the brands please focus on the products and not accoutrements?’ I asked. The post was shared multiple times, especially because I had tagged influencers and editors. Everyone wanted to say it, but didn’t know how. We all understood that the products are small compared to the mammoth waste created by boxes, bubble wrap and pamphlets.

According to a study conducted by Zero Waste Europe, we have discarded 142 billion units of beauty products in 2018 alone. Beauty packaging is challenging. Most products are water-based, and therefore, require preservatives. So the jars must be non-reactive. The units must also be durable to withstand transport and reach in an impeccable condition. Even though green beauty is the fastest growing segment within the industry, no one talks about waste. Even the most ‘woke’ customer has old-fashioned expectations. We won’t forgive a chip in the bottle and will return a carton if it is slightly crushed.

Know your responsibility

Do you know that mixed/compound plastics or mixed materials are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle? These would include face wipes and sheet masks made with fibre and plastic, packaged in sachets made with plastic, paper and foil. Additionally, bio-plastic, beauty’s blue-eyed favourite, doesn’t degrade naturally, but requires special facilities, which are only available in a few places around the world.

While there are Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines that expect producers (especially of plastic) to collect and responsibly dispose as much as they manufacture, there is neither clarity and nor action. I don’t even want to hazard a guess about how much paper and plastic is dumped by beauty writers, editors and bloggers every week. At the very least, press releases and coffrets must be refused. When asked, the brands are happy to comply.

Sustainable subscription box, Verth

Sustainable subscription box, Verth

This January, a friend posted an image on his Insta-story and tagged me. India’s biggest beauty retailer had sent him a package with reams of bubble wrap. When I reposted, it was like the floodgates had opened. DMs flew in, naming names and questioning practices, most notably of the country’s biggest beauty e-tailer. I shared them all. Because of the collective noise, brands are sitting up, taking notice and changing plans. One replaced a box with a cane bag, while another used seed paper for their yearly calendar.

The aftermath

Despite these efforts, beauty companies need to look beyond production and take responsibility for collection. Bio-plastic, glass, seed paper, organic fibre, corrugated cardboard and newspaper packaging may be sustainable options but they’re worth nothing in a landfill. Because landfills are packed tightly with waste, they lack air and soil — two components necessary for biodegradation.

The responsibility for waste disposal extends to customers, too. As people messaged me poor packaging examples on Instagram, I asked them to suggest their favourite waste management services. Out of the 4,000 or so who viewed my story, only five answered with suggestions. While there is no doubt that recycling is a problem in India, a quick Google search for waste management services will throw up many choices in big cities. I signed up with Ecowise, who operates out of 15 cities, including Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow and Bengaluru.

The good news is that everyone wants to do something but lack initiative. There will never be a perfect solution, so it is imperative to begin somewhere. If you can’t recycle, make better choices, reuse the jars. Instead of buying several mediocre products, invest in one amazing serum. Refuse decorative boxes and return superfluous packaging, pamphlets and leaflets to the store. Call out influencers who do ‘unboxing’ videos. Keep making noise. The brands will deliver eventually, but it all begins with you.

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