Sure, we’re all getting a bit better at looking for ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘natural’ labels on our beauty products (we can talk about the pitfalls of that later).


Image by Jenny van Sommers

And we’re getting better at considering the environmental impact of our purchases — that’s great — but it’s the practice of returning these products that we need to talk about…

Fashion waste and sustainability have been put well and truly under the microscope. We now know to ask where our clothes come from, how they’re made, what they’re made from and who they’re made by. Opting to buy with more consideration and to buy less is a practice that’s been encouraged and ever-so-slowly adopted. 

But what about the beauty industry? Beauty pollution, though in slightly smaller volume to fashion pollution, is still highly insidious. A study by Zero Waste Europe found that the use of beauty and personal care products produced 142 billion units of packaging in 2018. 

Plastic takes roughly 1,000 years to decompose — how long does it take you to get through one bottle of deodorant? Let’s say it takes two months. That’s six bottles you’ll be using in one year, which is 6,000 years of decomposition for one year of keeping your pits smelling good. And that’s for a product you’ve actually used. 

Earlier this month, Bianca Ann Levinson went viral on TikTok after lifting the curtain on what happens to returned products at US mega cosmetic retailer, Ulta Beauty. It’s called ‘damaging out’ and, in a nutshell, it refers to the destruction of products before they’re thrown in the bin. In her video, Levinson scrapes an unused Too Faced eyeshadow palette into the bin, snaps a brand new Kylie Jenner lip liner in half and squeezes a whole bottle of shampoo out. She explained these returned products have to be ‘damaged out’ to prevent dumpster divers from picking them up and on-selling them. 

Beauty industry watchdog, Estée Laundry (a must-follow, tbh), explains, “beauty companies enforce damaging out for hygiene reasons. It is often done because they don’t want lawsuits on their hands from selling/donating products that could be tampered with.”

Ulta Beauty also commented saying, “the health and safety of our guests is a top priority and we want to ensure an exceptional shopping experience for all. Our policies and practices do not allow the resale of returned products, used or damaged, to avoid any issues, ensure product integrity and guest safety.” 

Levinson revealed that she sees over $1,000 worth of returned items a week. Forty-five per cent of the customers she sees a day are returning items and only 30 per cent of these returns are able to be put back on the shelf, the rest is all ‘damaged out’. 

Ulta Beauty isn’t the only perpetrator, just the one that has received the brunt of the limelight. Sephora, Target, Lush, The Body Shop, Clinique, Benefit and Mecca Cosmetica all also practice ‘damaging out’, according to Dazed Digital.

You can clearly see the issue — as a customer, you don’t really want to be purchasing a product that has potentially been opened, used or tampered with by someone else. And the companies certainly don’t want to be sued or held liable for this either. Which begs the question, why should products be allowed to be returned at all? The obvious reason is customer satisfaction. Of course, we’re all going to shop at the store that allows us free returns on product. That’s just better bang for buck, right? 

On their website, Ulta Beauty says, “Happy returns are our style.” Their returns policy states, “we’re all about bringing you a top shopping experience from start to finish. If you’re not completely satisfied with a product, for any reason, just return the product to us for a full refund or exchange.” Basically, there’s no obligation for the customer to purchase responsibly or thoughtfully. 

Mecca Cosmetica seems to have a similar approach. Their returns policy states that a customer is entitled to a full refund if the product is in a new, unused and resalable condition. However, if the product has been “lightly sampled, opened or unwrapped” (i.e. will have to be ‘damaged out’), the customer is entitled to an exchange or store credit. 

Sephora, MAC, Smith & Caughey’s and Farmers all accept cosmetic returns for items that are still in original purchase condition (packaging must be unopened, unused, unmarked and not defaced in any manner). 

Easy, simple returns are a great incentive for the customer. It gives them the freedom to purchase more, knowing they’ll be able to get their money back for little or no (visible) consequence. 

So, is it the companies fault for giving us an option to return our cosmetic purchases or is it our — the consumer’s — fault for adopting this reckless attitude of ‘purchase and return’ as part of our shopping practice? 

If there was a blanket ‘no return’ policy for all beauty stores, we would, without doubt, shop with more care and thought. It’s not outside our capabilities, so maybe it’s time to put it into practice. It’s simple really. Do. Your. Research. 

Before purchasing a product from a beauty retailer — ask for a sample, read reviews, research the product, talk to the experts, watch video reviews (there are still some credible beauty YouTubers out there). 

Maybe you can re-purpose the product for something else? Shampoo makes for a great make-up brush cleaner and unwanted face cream could become your new hand or elbow moisturiser. 

If we knew the exact environmental impact our unused, but returned, bottle of deodorant had — would we have spent a few more seconds deciding on whether it’s the right one to buy? Probs, yes.

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