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How effective are refillable beauty products in 2020?


TextElizabeth Bennett

In the quest to reduce beauty packaging, forward-thinking brands are redeveloping the refill system but these advances only go so far

Much like we were taught in school, ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ is the best system for cutting back on waste. However, somewhere along the way, we ended up focusing on just the last ‘R’: recycling. Chucking something in the bin (albeit a different colour one) is much easier than resisting the temptation to buy new or bothering to actually reuse. But, with the environmental crisis finally making front-page news, the myth of recycling is coming to the fore. It turns out not everything we put diligently in the green bin gets transformed into something new, and only around nine per cent of the world’s plastic scrap actually ends up being recycled. 

This is why reducing and reusing is so important, and refillable options can make a huge difference. According to LCA, an independent centre for studying the environmental impact of packaging, buying a refill instead of a new product saves 70 per cent CO2, 65 per cent energy, and 45 per cent water. For an industry like beauty, which creates 120 million units of packaging each year, refillable products have the potential to make a huge difference. After all, why do you need a new container for your favourite moisturiser when you could just fill up your current one again and again?

It sounds like a great solution but in reality, the current options are limited and often from the luxury end of the market. Subsequently, they are expensive and inaccessible to regular consumers. Take Kjaer Weis, the New York make-up brand that offers refills for their sleek stainless steel cases (cream blushes cost £41 with a refill for £24) or Le Labo, the cult fragrance brand that will refill your bottle of perfume in store for 20 per cent off (£127 for 50ml). The Conscious Beauty Co and other brands offer refillable pouches for their products which certainly cuts back on packaging – L’Occitane’s refill packs use 69 to 90 per cent less materials. But, of course, the best option is something that can be filled again infinitely without the need for any additional plastic. 

“The problem at the moment is with partial refills,” Margot Noel, founder of London-based start-up Refrain Ldn, tells us. Brands that offer a refill pouch, capsule or pod “don’t solve the entire problem,” she points out. These products may reduce some packaging but they don’t provide a long-term solution. For Noel, it’s crucial to create packaging that can be used indefinitely and she has spent the last 18 months working with Imperial College London to develop a glass and stainless steel bottle. “We buy the liquid product in bulk from partner beauty brands (to be revealed) and fill these bottles for you to purchase through our website. When you’re finished, you order another online and the local bike courier swaps your old bottle for a new one,” she explains. While the April launch will only roll out in London, they have plans to expand across the UK later in the year. 

“None of the current refill beauty solutions are accessible and affordable to all but they are certainly a step in the right direction. For consumers who can buy these, they are a great way to cut down on your plastic consumption. For those who can’t, making noise about the issue is the best way to ensure that reducing plastic remains a priority”

Refill stations also provide a good solution for customers who are loyal to one product. As long as you remember the empty bottle, it’s no different to going into the shop to buy a new one. This isn’t a new concept per se – The Body Shop was doing it in the 90s and Bleach London launched theirs last year – but one that is coming back as more of us prioritise cutting down on plastic. For example, Faith in Nature offers refills of its affordable shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand wash (from £5.79) in 450 health food stores across the UK (see the full list here). “Refillable bottles were always in the plan – after no one took us up on it in the 80s and 90s, our refill scheme really took off last year. We’ve seen roughly a 140 per cent increase over the last 12 months and this rate is set to continue over the next year,” shares CEO Joy Parkinson.

Similarly, sustainable beauty brand Beauty Kitchen announced at the Davos Economic Forum in January that it will launch 1000 refill stations in the UK over the next two years. The initial machines will sell refillable shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand wash, and facial cleanser from as little as £5 for 500ml. Excitingly, this won’t be reserved for big cities and retail stores but also smaller towns, zero-waste stores and universities. The first will launch in April and it’s estimated that the touchscreen machines could save 100 million single-use plastic bottles. Hair salons are increasingly offering this as an option too. In London, all ten Blue Tit salons offer refills of Oway products while East London sustainable hairdressers Buller & Rice offers a similar service.

However, refill stations aren’t a silver bullet. For brands and retailers, it’s expensive and logistically challenging. “Producing products in a refill format (five litres in our case) requires significant investment. In the factory you need a completely new production line and that’s not cheap. For many brands the investment isn’t worth it and it’s hard to justify – particularly if they don’t think the demand is there,” Parkinson explains. Plus, it tends to only be applicable for liquid shower, skin, and hair products. While it could work for make-up – say foundation – it would never be appropriate for a powder or mascara. 

Arguably even easier for the customer is the revival of the milkman model. “I try and use refill services as much as possible but I always find I forget the empty bottles. The home delivery model makes things much easier,” refill fan Alice shared.  Simply order products to your door in reusable bottles which can then be swapped for a full one when you are empty. Clean skincare brand REN has partnered with Terracycle on a new Loop™ initiative which will allow you to purchase six of their bestselling products (including the cult Rosa Centifolia™ Cleansing Gel and the much-loved Atlantic Kelp And Magnesium Anti-Fatigue Body Cream) in glass label-free bottles which can be sent back to be refilled up to 100 times. 

But what about the mini products we stuff into clear plastic bags when we fly? Circla, another new start-up based in London, recently piloted a scheme at Luton airport to tackle the issue. “In the UK, over 100 million travel miniatures are purchased every year, the majority of which are never recycled, which creates 980 tonnes of plastic waste,” founder Claudia Gwinnutt highlights. Their Luton airport pop-up enabled customers to buy products for their travels in mini reusable containers (prices ranged from £1.50 to £7.99) which they could drop off in arrivals on their way home. After the success of selling over 4000 products in six weeks, they are looking at new ways to scale the business further both at airports and with hotels.

The biggest challenge? Changing hardwired customer behaviour. “Refill solutions need to be easy and affordable for customers. You really need to add value beyond sustainability,” Gwinnutt emphasises. “Price is always going to be the biggest driving factor for me when choosing between products. If I am not paying for packaging, I expect to get some kind of discount,” one refill sceptic told me. Beauty customers are notoriously brand loyal, so it will be hard to persuade committed customers to switch up the way they shop until brands that dominate the beauty market get on board with refills.

Change therefore also needs to be enforced at policy level. “It is possible – just look at the success of the 5p plastic bag charge,” Gwinnutt points out. According to official government figures, disposable carrier bag sales have declined by 86 per cent since the levy was introduced. The government has made some progress in this area – like the banning of microbeads or the upcoming ban on cotton buds - but until they address the wider issue of single-use plastic packaging across the board (by introducing bans or penalties on certain materials or rewarding companies financially for introducing refills for example), we’re not likely to see widespread changes. There are multiple petitions, past and present, lobbying the government to ban this and Greenpeace ‘Stop the Plastic Monster’ petition,  addressed to Johnson and Johnson and the world’s biggest brands directly, has nearly two million signatures.

Installing refill models are not a financial quick win so a real shift is only likely to happen when businesses are forced into making it. “Entering a product that works for the circular economy is difficult to do with any scale,” Jo Chidley, founder of Beauty Kitchen, points out. “When your strategy is placed on shareholder value and commercials, you view the circular economy and sustainability as too complex, that it doesn’t pay off quick enough. So it drives a certain behaviour in your business that doesn’t look to the future.” 

None of the current refill beauty solutions are accessible and affordable to all but they are certainly a step in the right direction. For consumers who can buy these, they are a great way to cut down on your plastic consumption. For those who can’t, making noise about the issue –  whether it’s signing petitions, writing to your MP or sharing the topic on social media – is the best way to ensure that reducing plastic remains a priority. 

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