Their contents promise "miracle" ingredients, extracted from the deep ocean or the heart of a volcano, with the power to bestow "new life" on ageing mortals. Welcome to the hype of the beauty cream world, epitomised by the lavish wrapping swaddling what are essentially moisturising lotions often encased in more than six times their own weight of packaging.
Elaborate pumping systems with multiple washers, springs and moulded plastic parts; thick glass jars hiding like Russian dolls within multiple cardboard boxes; and golden test tubes peeking out of transparent presentation cases – all routinely encase just 50ml of cream, which is less than the contents of a single egg.
Beauty creams have become the latest flashpoint in the environmental campaigners' battle against excess packaging, with UK trading standards officers lining up to prosecute the worst perpetrators. Brands from Crème de la Mer and La Prairie at the top of the luxury spectrum down to the Olays and L'Oréals at the lower end are all feeding a multibillion-pound global industry that is soaring in value, despite concern at the amount of waste clogging up landfill sites.
The cosmetics packaging industry was worth £6.7bn to manufacturers worldwide in 2005 and is tipped to grow by more than 10 per cent to £7.5bn by 2009. Nearly two-thirds of all cosmetics packaging is made from plastic, with around one-fifth made from paper.
Figures from Lush, a soap maker and cosmetics company that shuns packaging, show that packaging often makes up more than 80 per cent of a product's total weight. Mark Constantine, Lush's founder, said: "Packaging is unnecessary, bad for the environment and uneconomic. If you get rid of it, then manufacturers will have more money to spend on the content and you get more product."
Trewin Restorick, director of the environmental campaign group Global Action Plan, said cosmetics were often "excessively packaged to make a very small amount of content look alluring". He called on shoppers to put pressure on the worst offenders, which tend to be the most luxurious brands, by boycotting their products. "Consumers can really start to shift the industry if they move towards companies like Lush and Aveda and away from these overly packaged items," he said.
Trading standards officers said companies were guiltier than ever of over-packaging their products, despite an industry-wide crackdown three years ago. Christine Heemskerk, trading standards officer at Surrey county council, said a new investigation into the industry was "possible", warning that the worst offenders could be prosecuted under existing laws against excess packaging.
The cosmetics industry relies on the "less is more" principle to boost its bottom line, according to marketing experts. "That's an absolutely golden rule. The grander the brand, the less you get. The 'what a lot you get' principle is downmarket. People want to imply this is very, very valuable stuff," said Peter York.
A spokeswoman for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) defended the industry. "A cosmetic product has a very long life and it has to be in a robust and durable package to maintain it in good order. The packaging for our industry is an absolutely vital component.
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