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your fave beauty calendar is probably really bad for the environment

In the past few years festive calendars selling high-end beauty products have exploded in popularity. But their ‘use one day, chuck the next’ mentality is anathema to the ethos we should be embracing.

by Roisin Lanigan
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07 October 2019, 7:00am

There’s no way of avoiding the fact that summer is well and truly dead and we are in the grips -- already! Before it’s even Halloween! -- of the festive season. An apocalyptic rain has descended on us. It’s getting darker in the evenings and the temperature has dropped to ‘you at least need a light coat’ weather. It is less than three months until Christmas.

Of course, the dread around the festive season is something you develop against your will in adulthood, like council tax bills and worrying about your Uber rating. When you were a kid it was fun, and that was primarily thanks to the invention of the humble advent calendar. The dizzying excitement of rushing to the little cardboard box every morning to eat soapy chocolate for breakfast. The illicit thrill of opening box 15 when it was only the 12th of December and hoping your mum wouldn’t go mad. One of the saddest parts of growing up is losing that thrill, which perhaps explains in part the huge explosion in the popularity of beauty advent calendars over the past few years.

For as cheap as 20 quid or -- if you’re feeling flush -- several hundred more, you can recreate that childhood excitement, replacing the soapy chocolates you once loved with tiny versions of all your favourite beauty products instead. It’s a big and lucrative business. Beauty calendars, supposedly festive-themed, now go on sale as early as August. Selfridges and Boots sell several different brand offerings, while others, like those from Liberty and Cult Beauty, sell out so quickly that for the honour of owning one, you’ll have to get yourself on a months-long waiting list. Since launching their advent calendar five years ago Jo Malone has increased production from a few hundred to 10,000.

“Beauty advent calendars are good for getting a lot of products at a discounted price,” says Nicole, creator of Vegan Beauty Girl. “Whilst they can be fun and help you discover new products, you’ll often find yourself stuck with a lot of beauty products that you don’t want or need. They are often bought as gifts — a nice gesture — but are left unappreciated once the novelty of having something new wears off. If this doesn’t happen day by day, it’ll happen by Christmas. I don’t believe beauty advents are sustainable, they’re a product of over-indulgence which inevitably leads to unnecessary waste.”

And the beauty advent calendar boom is growing. Last year Space NK, Debenhams, Fortnum and Mason, and Net-A-Porter all launched their own versions, with Lush joining the fray in 2019. But for beauty fanatics, the environmental impact of their favourite festive purchases could be a little harder to swallow. Many of the leading brands currently selling beauty advent calendars manufacture them in factories based in China or overseas, which means that, even in the cases where they’re packaged in the UK, there’s a lack of transparency over manufacturing practices. Additionally, while many brands told i-D that their advent calendars were recyclable or partly recyclable, not all the elements could be reused. The downside, then, is a huge proliferation of sample-sized, single-use plastic products.

The worrying aspect of this, though, is that the calendars themselves are sold to us through the rose-tinted glasses of sustainability. Birchbox, for instance, advertises their calendar as recyclable because the structure of the calendar itself, and the paper that sits inside, is. “We knew we wanted the advent calendar to be recyclable, so we made sure that we had less than the threshold of foiling that made it ok to recycle. This is something we make sure we do with our monthly subscription boxes too,” Birchbox told i-D. But when asked about the products themselves, of which only a selection are full-sized, a representative from the brand explained that not all were recyclable, and that the calendar was produced by a supplier in China.

There’s also the matter that the point of the advent calendar is by its very design meant to encourage further consumption and spending. Samples lead to sales. In 2018, Liberty’s beauty buyer told Vogue Business that after including a certain fragrance in their advent calendar the previous year, they saw sales figures increase by a massive 90%. But that mentality feels increasingly at odds in a beauty landscape that’s encouraging us to consume less and consume more consciously.

Of course, not every brand has the same practices, and -- rejoice! -- there is a way to consume responsibly if you absolutely must have your beauty advent fix. For Liberty, who sold almost half their stock of advent calendars last year online before the doors had even opened at 8.30am, 19 of their 25 days of goodies are full-sized. That goes some way in explaining both the huge popularity of the calendar, the fastest-selling product Liberty has ever made, and the high price point (it will set you back a cool £215).

This year, the calendar is, the brand explains, completely recyclable, and they’ve also launched a “Conscious Beauty” campaign, which includes a partnership with Teracycle allowing customers to bring their empties to store to be recycled, rather than going to landfill. “We have [...] developed a completely recyclable calendar that is both premium product and that is also socially responsible,” said a representative for the brand, who told i-D that while the calendar is manufactured in China, it was with an emphasis on making sure it could be recycled.

“Unfortunately, there’s very little regulation of what ‘sustainable’ means in the beauty industry,” Nicole says. “Often a consumer will think they’re buying something that is kinder to the environment than it really is. Partly-recyclable is always confusing and frustrating for consumers who often give-up and throw all the packaging in the bin. When shopping for gifts this Christmas, try to avoid cardboard gift sets with a glossy cardboard finish or plastic ‘peep through’ windows as these are more difficult to recycle.”

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Holland and Barrett also emphasise their commitment to “clean and conscious beauty” this festive season, with a 2019 “Clean Beauty” advent calendar. What this means is that all their products are free of parabens, SLS, microplastics and are made with palm oil that only comes from “sustainable, RSPO certified sources”. But dig a little deeper and the same problems persist. “A good selection of the products are in recyclable packaging,” a representative from Holland and Barrett explains, adding that the products are “a mix of full and mini sizes”. And while the calendar itself was packaged within the UK, the supply chain is less clear. “The calendar was a collaboration with all of our suppliers,” the brand says.

In fact, if you really want to ensure that your festive beauty is environmentally friendly, your best bet is -- shock -- Lush, famous for its bath bombs and terrifyingly overzealous staff. This year they launched their advent calendar with the interesting step of only producing 500, despite the obvious mass-market appeal. It sold out almost immediately. The Lush calendar, though, (RIP) was a good example of how to do the beauty advent correctly; all the products were full-sized and made in the UK, and all the products either came in recycled packaging or were completely packaging-free. In addition, everything from the chest itself to the ribbon wrapping it up was created in the UK and recyclable (or already recycled itself). This is encouraging, but it seems that the rest of the industry is yet to follow Lush’s lead. And while they can make so much money off importing and mass-marketing mini-products, they might be slow to change.

But maybe the best thing to do is to save a bit of money, buy the real, full-sized thing and stick to those nostalgic chocolate calendars instead. Vegan chocolate though, obvs, yeah?

Tagged:
christmas
sustainability
advent calendar