Has your IP protection got the memo? Eco-friendly cosmetics will be the new normal

An estimated 120 billion items of packaging are produced globally every year by the beauty industry, with only a fraction of those items currently recyclable or recycled. Clearly this is a problem that the industry needs to tackle, and quickly. The UK government amended the Climate Change Act in 2019, introducing a minimum 100% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with the threat of carbon taxes to those businesses who do not comply. But how can companies in the cosmetics sector, many of whom are SMEs, ensure that their Intellectual Property (IP) continues to work hard during this transitional period?

Transition to sustainability

IP protection is an essential tool in re-enforcing your brand and those values which are associated with your products.

It is important to address how achieving net zero will impact business operations. You might decide on a gradual transition such as initially changing to sustainable ingredients, introduce a net zero sub-brand to run in tandem with existing marques, or perhaps you will decide on a complete re-launch of the existing brand? But remember, unless those net zero steps are authentic and accurate no amount of marketing or branding will help your business, if further down the line those claims are found to be misleading or false.

Whatever route you decide to take, make sure your IP protection is part of the process.

Recycled and recyclable materials

As consumers and governments demand net zero packaging solutions, the need for innovative packaging which does not rely on single use plastic grows. This new generation of plastic-free or low plastic packaging can benefit from IP protection through registered design rights while continuing to enjoy existing trade mark rights. This is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective option to secure protection for packaging design. A company can use design rights protection to safeguard packaging innovation which may be an unusual shape to enable easy re-fill, or a biodegradable plastic alternative.

Market leaders have already taken steps to change their packaging. In 2020 L’Oréal launched the first cardboard cosmetics tube containing 49% less plastic in its La Roche-Posay product range, rolling out this packaging technology to its Garnier Bio range.

Greener sciences, biotechnology, and formula

However, looking to achieve net zero doesn’t have to originate from changes to the product packaging, the product itself can be changed. A staggering 87% of cosmetics products from leading brands contain microplastics, although products containing microbeads in the UK are now banned, it is clear companies need to innovate to navigate these issues. Once again this creates an opportunity for IP: formulations need to change. Although you cannot patent a natural ingredient per se,  patent protection can be used to safeguard new eco-friendly formulations.

Ethical sourcing of materials, cruelty free, using renewable energy for production

Alternatively some companies are doing away with packaging all together. Maybe this will be the better solution to truly becoming net zero? But a reduction in packaging can also be a threat to a brand. It can be in danger of becoming homogenised – if there is no packaging, how can consumers associate your company with the product? Here trade mark rights come into the fore. Companies need to rely heavily on branding (which can be trade marked) either in store or online and the communication of their brand values which are often related to business relationships, customer relationships and company growth.

Lush UK  has successfully provided package-free equivalents, such as shampoo bars, and has even set up three completely package-free shops. Without the option of packaging, Lush UK still uses its’ trade marked name to protect its brand and promote its brand values, weaving that IP protection into the ‘experience’ of buying a Lush product. The Body Shop adopts a similar stance, and has recently rolled out a product refill scheme across its UK stores.

Both companies promote their commitment to adopting an employee-owned business model, trading ethically with suppliers, and seeking out ways to produce their products powered by renewable energy. All these values are clearly communicated and are synonymous with their brand.

Net zero: two little words that mark seismic change

The industry will be watching closely to see how these initiatives fair in the marketplace and whether the consumer responds favourably.

Whether you are already making positive changes towards net zero or are thinking of taking steps, it is important to consider how eco-friendly changes will impact any existing IP and whether you need to secure new IP rights to ensure robust protection.

At Barker Brettell we have a team of IP experts, experienced in supporting the cosmetics sector. If you would like to discuss this article in more detail, please do not hesitate to contact our Head of Cosmetics Sector, Rosalyn Newsome.