Synthetic biology is the key to a sustainable beauty industry

This emerging field of science has the potential to disrupt packaging and ingredients

November 10, 2022
Fire Ant

This article was originally published on the Wittington Ventures blog. Check it out here, where you can access more content on the fund’s investment areas and portfolio companies. 

The beauty industry needs to focus more on sustainability. As reported by Vogue Business, industry insiders estimate that between 20 and 40 per cent of beauty products — depending on the category — end up as waste. From a packaging standpoint, other sources report that 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, consisting of complex lids, multi-layered boxes and cellophane. Much of this packaging is tough to recycle and ends up in landfills and oceans.

In addition, many factions of the beauty industry have allowed themselves to indulge in the cultivation and use of ingredients in such a way that is harmful to humans, animals, or the environment at large. An estimated eight out of ten cosmetic ingredients are sourced unsustainably, and the shift to “plant-based sourcing” is only exacerbating the problem. Take for example forever chemicals (which never truly biodegrade) or palm oil (70% of cosmetics contain some form of it). Both have lasting impacts on nature, which in turn has the potential to affect human health down the road. A recent documentary titled Toxic Beauty delves into the complicated relationship many personal care brands have with human and environmental health.

Fortunately, the reality is that there is an accelerating shift in demand among consumers for packaging and products that are not made from the same materials and chemicals which have led us to the current state. As reported by NielsenIQ, growth in clean and sustainable products have outpaced the total beauty category at an average rate of over 7%. Furthermore, consumer searches for “plastic-free” personal care products shot up 897% during the height of the pandemic. These numbers indicate that consumers are actively expressing a preference for products that are natural, non-toxic, and environmentally sustainable in their entirety.

Given all that’s at stake and what consumers are increasingly demanding, the question then becomes: What can beauty brands do to change the paradigm and shift towards a more sustainable future? I believe synthetic biology technology holds the answer to this question. Brands would be well served by studying this emerging field of science and paying close attention to its potential to disrupt packaging and ingredients.

So, what exactly is synthetic biology? It’s a field of science that involves modifying microorganism DNA to give them new abilities. For example, bacteria DNA can be modified so that the bacteria can produce a drug molecule that would be impossible to manufacture by other means. This is no longer the realm of science fiction — it was synthetic biology technology that allowed us to speed up vaccine development during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers and companies around the world are using this technology to manufacture molecules in numerous fields including medicine, agriculture, and beauty.

The beauty market alone represents an over $500B industry globally. The industry has been cycling through the same sorts of packaging and ingredients for years. There has been little innovation to date as most of the incumbent brands do not have the deep R&D and/or technical capabilities to explore synthetic biology applications. But there’s a growing army of companies that are applying synthetic biology technology to use cases in packaging and more sustainable ingredients.

With respect to packaging related use cases, Alliance for Science recently reported on how synthetic biology could greatly speed up progress by producing engineered enzymes that can degrade plastics efficiently while creating a new generation of truly disposable plastics. The technology can also be used to develop new, more easily compostable materials. For example, a startup called Ecovative Design is working with big brands to replace polystyrene and styrofoam with Ecovative Design’s plant-based mycelium packaging, which decomposes within a month of composting.

Beyond packaging, there is endless potential on the ingredients side. Per a recent report by CB Insights, biosynthetic ingredients can serve as a differentiator for brands and lead to cost savings down the line — including reduced transport costs, lower supply chain risk, and decreased emissions. Several companies are working with beauty brands on cultivating scientifically derived ingredients that are healthier for people and safer for the environment. A recent film by The Economist provides examples of these businesses, which includes the likes of Arcaea Beauty (Wittington Ventures is an investor) and Amyris. Companies innovating on the ingredients side are doing everything from developing eco-friendly versions of organic compounds traditionally cultivated from killing animals, to producing new and unique scents without relying on growing and harvesting large amounts of expensive plants.

The blueprint for ingredient innovation through synthetic biology technology has existed for some time. Beauty company Shiseido was the first to pioneer synthetic biology technology to produce Hyaluronic Acid to move away from animal sourcing in the 80’s. The subsequent sophistication of the technology is also what has made significant improvements on Hyaluronic Acid beyond what exists in nature, which is why we now see it in so many forms — across several products — for so many use cases.

Despite the opportunities, synthetic biology technology presents some risks and challenges. For example, there is a challenge that remains in scaling up production — it’s not cheap to ferment new compounds. Furthermore, some types of fermentation processes use unsafe or non-environmentally friendly gases and chemicals. But there is work being done to bring down the cost curve to make synthetic ingredients on par with traditional alternatives, and to remove the need for unsafe chemicals in the fermentation process.

Consumers also need to be educated that the technology yields safe products and effective environmental outcomes. This is a longer journey that will require a concerted effort by industry players, with an emphasis on ingredient and supply chain transparency from beauty brands. Few incumbent brands are taking a programmatic approach to being 100% open with customers about what their beauty supply chains consist of. This is the wrong approach when considering that customers are increasingly demanding greater insight into what their products are made of — with the help of several apps that make it easy to check ingredients with the touch of a button. Brands should invite customers to be on this sustainability journey with them, while being open about what they’re learning along the way. This has been done before by the likes of successful cosmetics companies such as Beautycounter and Krave Beauty.

We can’t ignore the path we’re on if we continue to let beauty supply chains and manufacturing processes operate as per usual. And we can’t ignore the changes that consumers are increasingly demanding. Embracing synthetic biology technology is one viable path to seeking a more sustainable and healthy future that we all want.

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