Speaking to Cosmetics Design, Dr Vicky Lofthouse, lecturer in Industrial Design at Loughborough University and co-ordinator of the Sustainable Design Network, identified refillable packaging as one of the most promising ideas in sustainable beauty packaging.
Milk bottles are perhaps the most established and successful example to date of refillable packaging. After having had their milk delivered people are quite happy to leave out their empty bottles to be refilled.
Various refillable approaches
In the beauty industry some companies have copied this idea. For example, Givenchy has introduced a refillable container to encourage consumers to reduce their packaging use.
Alcan Packaging designed the pyramid-shaped sachet for Givenchy so perfume users can refill their 50ml glass bottle rather than buying another.
Lofthouse said this is not the only way cosmetics companies can approach refillable packaging. She said other concepts could be conceived for products that seem, at first glance, to be unsuitable for refilling.
For example, shower gel would be messy to refill but it could be sold as a concentrate, removing water from the equation. Consumers could buy jelly capsules and a reusable bottle and then add the water at home to make a shower gel.
Lofthouse said Boots and Unilever are pursuing this approach but warned that there are still stumbling blocks.
On the technical side, the manufacturer cannot control the water that is added so the formulation has to be adapted to suit different water types.
And on the design side, the capsules and bottle must be attractive to the consumer and the process of mixing must be hassle-free.
Hassle is a big problem. As the Body Shop experiment with refillable packaging in the 1990s showed, inconvenience is perhaps the most difficult hurdle to overcome.
Encouraged to think that “once is not enough” consumers were invited to return their cleaned bottles to the store and then have them refilled. Unfortunately, the experiment failed suggesting that once is indeed enough.
However, Lofthouse claims the problem lay in the execution and not the overall idea of refillable packaging. Body Shop required consumers to return to the store with the cleaned bottles, which is a lot to ask the time starved modern consumer.
In the shower gel example Lofthouse gave, the consumer can just go to the shop to buy the refills without having to bring a cleaned bottle along and fill up in store. This cuts away a lot of the inconvenience.
Lofthouse said there are a myriad of refillable packaging concepts and companies must think creatively to persuade consumers to embrace the idea.