Business Categories Reports Podcasts Events Awards Webinars
Contact My Account About

Beauty Space, Meet Returnable Packaging

Published March 24, 2024
Published March 24, 2024
Ace of Air

In the last few years, there has been a lot of buzz in the beauty industry around designing packaging with refills. From a sustainability perspective, refillable packaging can offer significant waste reduction in an industry that’s notorious for producing staggering volumes of largely unrecyclable waste.

However, there’s another model that may have the potential to have an even larger impact in terms of waste reduction and carbon footprint than at-home refillables—returnable packaging. Although the idea of returnable packaging seems novel today, it’s actually a system that was common before the widespread prevalence of plastic and disposable packaging.

Refills vs. Returns

First off, let’s explain the terms we’re using to avoid any confusion. When we talk about refillable packaging, we are referring to a system where the consumer purchases a refillable vessel, and can either purchase packaged refills to refill the vessel at home, or can visit a bulk retailer to refill the vessel at the store.

Returnable packaging, on the other hand, refers to a system where the consumer purchases a package and upon emptying, returns the package to be sanitized and refilled for another customer to purchase. In this kind of model, the brand maintains ownership of the package, and the consumer is essentially borrowing or renting it to store and use a product. 

Returnable Packaging in Personal Care

So how would this work in a personal care product? Let’s follow along with the life cycle of a fictional shampoo bottle below.

Why Does It Work?

Returnable packaging works well for several reasons. From the consumer standpoint, there are fewer friction points and less confusion around shopping. The purchasing experience is essentially the same as shopping for products with disposable packaging. Usage experience is the same, if not improved (more on that later). The biggest hurdle for the consumer is returning the package when it’s empty. If we can make the return process convenient, widespread adoption is possible.

From the brand’s perspective, having one package is much simpler to produce and merchandise, rather than having to develop two fully separate SKUs as with refillable products (the refillable vessel plus the refill).

The economics also make sense, if the system is successful. After a certain number of refills, the cost per use of a returnable package becomes lower than the cost of producing a disposable package. But how can we implement a successful system?

Scaling Returnable Packaging

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently released a new report called “Scaling Returnable Packaging.” The report outlines what would be required from infrastructure, brands, and consumers to make this system work, and the environmental and economic benefits that would be realized when a certain level of scale is reached.

The report is 82 pages long, so let’s use the Cliffs Notes. There are three drivers to success for a system like this: shared Infrastructure, packaging standardization, and high return rates.

Shared infrastructure refers to the cleaning facilities, collection, filling, and distribution facilities that are required to build out the supply chain and life cycle for returnable packages. Right now, there are very few shared package cleaning facilities in the United States. The few consumer packaged goods brands that have launched with returnable packaging have set up their own infrastructure, which is a huge barrier to entry and very difficult to scale.

Packaging standardization refers to standardizing packaging to be compatible with cleaning and filling systems, i.e., a standard neck size of a bottle. This allows for shared infrastructure to happen. Take it a step further with pooled packaging, which is essentially another word for stock packaging that multiple brands may purchase, using labeling and branding to differentiate. The interesting thing about pooled packaging in a returnable system is that after a pooled package is cleaned and the label removed, it could be returned to any brand that uses that bottle to be refilled and relabeled, potentially reducing the distance the bottle must travel on its life cycle journey.

The last driver is high return rates. This is essentially a function of shared infrastructure, clear messaging, and consumer appetite to shift behavior patterns. In other words, if we make it obvious and convenient for consumers to return packages and incentivize them, they will do it. Incentives might take the form of a small refund or discount on the next purchase, or loyalty points.

If we are able to get to a successful, integrated system, the environmental impact is significant. The report estimates greenhouse gas, water use, and material reduction can be reduced by 35%-75%.

Pioneering Examples in Beauty

Izzy Zero Waste Beauty launched in 2021 with a returnable mascara. The vial is made from stainless steel and designed to be cleaned and refilled many times. Izzy overcame the potential inconvenience of returning the empty vial by offering a subscription service, where the old bottle gets shipped back in the same envelope that the new mascara arrives in. It’s led to success—Izzy sees an exceptional 97% return rate.

Also launched in 2021 was Ace of Air, a fully circular personal care brand of skincare and supplements. Ace of Air packaging was designed with stainless steel and natural rubber, a rare feat of including no plastic. Besides building its own cleaning facility, the brand developed its own technology to track package inventory using a QR code system. Unfortunately, Ace of Air is no longer operating, but its innovative launch inspired the industry to think bigger.

In both examples, the brands were forced to set up their own infrastructure since durable packaging and sanitizing infrastructure didn’t exist in the United States.

From the Packaging Design Perspective

As a packaging designer, all this talk about pooled packaging might make you less excited about this trend. However, there is a lot of interesting opportunity in the returnable packaging space when it comes to design. Because the economics of the package are designed to be spread out over multiple uses, the brand or packaging developer can contribute more money to the design and materials, truly optimizing the user experience. Designing a durable package is much like designing a product. For example, the Loop program developed a durable ice cream canister from stainless steel that was designed to keep the ice cream softer at the top for scooping, but colder at the bottom to maintain freshness. These types of design innovations would typically not be possible with a disposable package.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Not all product types are good candidates for returnable packaging. BeautyMatter spoke with Mark Buckley, one of the writers of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, who explained that returnable packaging works best with products that have a short and predictable use rate. This allows brands to accurately estimate how long it will take for packages to be returned after use to appropriately plan inventory. Products with shorter use rates are more likely to be returned and returned in good condition. Products with package types that are easy to clean would also be good candidates.

Based on that criteria, some personal care items that might be a good fit for returnable packaging include daily hair and bodycare, deodorant, face wash, moisturizer, sunscreen, foundation, primer, mascara, lip balm.

Many brands will have hybrid approaches that incorporate a few different sustainable packaging strategies. For example, Izzy offers several returnable products, along with an at-home refill concentrate pod for its hydrating milk skincare product.

Bringing It All Together

From here, the work is to build out infrastructure and start designing products and packages that could fit within this system. Many existing packages wouldn’t need to change much or even at all—plastic is such a durable material that many single use packages would likely already have the potential to be cleaned/refilled/reused.

We also need to identify the best types of products and packages to fit within the different viable circular systems—returnable, refillable, recyclable and compostable. Returnable packaging isn’t the only answer, and it will take a combination of different approaches to get us closer to zero waste.

Lastly, the piece that will truly move the needle for returnable packaging is collaboration between brands and retailers. A fragmented system will never be successful, and the brands that set aside competition to work together towards a circular economy will push the industry forward.


2 Article(s) Remaining

Subscribe today for full access