If you try to explain unboxing videos to your grandma, she might shake her head in disbelief. People can really rack up 400,000 views on YouTube by doing nothing but unwrapping fashion and beauty products? Despite Grandma's incredulity, it's true — fancy packaging has become so normal that there's a whole genre of video devoted to it.
But what happens to all that tissue paper and confetti when the video ends? Quite often, it's immediately disposed of. Here at Fashionista HQ, we've seen it firsthand as the mound next to our recycling bin has become a semi-permanent fixture. So we wondered: in an age that's seen eco-friendly brands becoming the preferred collaboration partners for famous cool teens and other labels suing the President over environmental conservation issues, are fashion and beauty people really just overlooking packaging waste?
Turns out, the answer is no. We asked, and over 350 of you who work as influencers, editors, stylists, PR pros, models, makeup artists, CEOs, designers and more let us know how you feel about the waste you see — and what you think the industry can do to be better.
Eighty-five percent of the people who responded to our survey said they regularly receive or send out swag. To clarify what was meant by "regularly," we asked how often exactly product changed hands. Over a third of responders said two to three times per week, while another third said between four and 20 times per week. In short: fashion and beauty people have a lot of product to deal with! And even if we like many of the things we're sent, a lot of us are frustrated with the waste that accompanies it: 81 percent of responders said the mailings they work with involve "excessive" packaging.
"It breaks my heart every time," wrote one industry pro.
While waste abounds in all corners of the industry, responses resoundingly pointed to beauty and skincare brands as the worst perpetrators when it comes to superfluous stuff in mailings. One theory is that there's more pressure to make a big splash with packaging when you're dealing with products that are physically small — a fancy new serum may be just as pricy (and exciting to its new owner) as a pair of shoes, but it doesn't inherently require big, memorable packaging.
Besides skincare and cosmetics companies, responders specifically called out holiday-related mailings as being egregious, from all types of brands. One other frequently-mentioned waste category? Paper invites for fashion week shows, and paper lookbooks.
"I wish we would just send all items that are not meant to be physically used via email. It's easier to track who has received and not received it, you can utilize bar codes and it's not wasteful," wrote one responder.
In discussing excessive mailings, there are a number of different levels of superfluity to be addressed. Crinkle paper, for example, was frequently called out as wasteful and just generally a pain to deal with. "I am writing this as I drown in crinkle paper," quipped one responder. Packing peanuts, endless layers of tissue paper and boxes-within-boxes-within-boxes followed close behind in mentions.
But it's not just an excess of "normal" packaging items that fashion and beauty people deal with — it's also all the wacky things that may accompany product. Numerous people mentioned single-use video screens that automatically play an ad once the product box is opened as a wasteful novelty that they could do without.
"There is absolutely nothing I hate more than the auto-playing video screens that come in boxes and play obnoxious sounds or video at you without your consent," wrote one survey-taker. "It is such a colossal waste of money... and makes me feel annoyed and guilty every time I receive."
Others called out superhero figurines designed to look like them ("what am I supposed to do with that!?"), faux space helmets, neon light-up signs, giant balloon arrangements, a life-size Jenga game and a "beauty compact" the size of a desktop computer.
If so many fashion and beauty people hate ridiculous excess, why does it persist? The truth is that packaging waste, and how it comes to be, is complicated. While everyone from PRs to editors to influencers said they'd like to see waste reduced, there are serious obstacles. Some simply feel that it's out of their power, as decisions about mailings are made by people higher up in the office food chain. Others claimed that fancy packaging is more effective in getting swag recipients to post about a brand on social media.
"It's become an instance that everyone is looking to stand out, and in order to, we're seeing bigger, more elaborate mailings that grab editors' attention. When our clients see this, they want to do the same or bigger/better to make sure they are seen," one PR professional wrote. Another editor reluctantly admitted that super-cool packaging did in fact make them more likely to post about the brand, even if they aren't proud of the fact.
Another responder, who runs a direct-to-consumer brand, mentioned that packaging feels like one of the most significant touchpoints they have with their consumer, since there are no physical stores in which to create a customer "experience." In that case, the goal of packaging is to create a moment with the consumer, one which can be prolonged by adding more layers to unwrap or sequins to scoop out of the way.
So what can be done to realistically address the problem? As great as it is that some brands are opting to reuse boxes from the supermarket and old newspaper to pack their products, it's hard to imagine that will ever become the industry standard. Many responders pointed to the need for a balance: Packaging is an important part of making sure that products arrive at their destinations undamaged, and it can add to the recipient's positive association and experience with a brand when done right. But all of that should be possible without creating something unjustifiably bad for the planet, not to mention downright annoying.
Part of the solution may come from finding packaging materials that are both recycled and recyclable. One responder noted that their brand had replaced cardboard packaging with recycled fabric bags, while another had switched entirely over to GreenWrap, a biodegradable paper-based alternative to bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts. Other responders on the brand side said they were taking action by trying to come up with alternative mailing options to present to senior employees with decision-making power, re-educating their clients on the environmental impact of the fashion and beauty industries and encouraging consumers to recycle packaging once it's received.
On the swag side of things, one influencer even suggested that brands and their reps not send any mailings unless the recipients explicitly agree to them — and claimed that they would actively call out brands that indulge in excess on their personal platform.
Like many of the fashion industry's problems, there's not necessarily a single, clear solution, but in an industry as full of creative innovators as this one is, change can never be far off if people really care.
"After all, what will we tell future generations who inherit a garbage-filled planet?" asked one influencer. "Sorry, but I really loved my swag?"