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Published May 4, 2020
Published May 4, 2020
via @sustain_la

As consumers become more and more aware of the catastrophic effects of single-use plastic on our planet, they’re looking to make the shift towards reusable products. Personal care is no exception, and brands are getting on board by designing for refills.

But designing a refillable packaging system is difficult (we get it—we’ve navigated all kinds of unique challenges for our clients at ​Bartlett Brands)​. It often requires custom design work and a significant upfront cost. It can also disrupt existing supply chains depending on how the refill program works. However, if done effectively, a reusable package can save a brand money in the long run, reduce the impact on our planet and provide a positive experience for consumers.

Four strategies for brands trying to get in on this sustainable movement:

1. Design Twice: In the innovative 2002 book Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart speak about designing an item to be either long-lasting or ephemeral. If you’re designing a refillable package plus a refill, you’re doing both. When designing the refillable package, the goal is durability and functionality for long-term use. It should be easy to clean and utilize durable materials that can hold up. When designing the refill, the ephemeral part, the goal is to use as little material as possible and select materials that are geared towards responsible disposal.

Kjaer Weis was designing refills before it became trendy. KW has mastered the duality of designing a durable package and a refill package. The refillable compacts are everything you want in a reusable package—heavy, substantial, beautiful. They feel less like a package and more like a product. On the other hand, the refill packages (designed to be as lightweight and low impact as possible) are a recycled fiber clamshell that can be re-recycled or composted.

2. Reduce Friction: Refillable packaging often requires consumers to change their mindset—or worse, their behavior patterns. But as makers and designers, we can make the experience as pain free as possible by reducing the disruption of their routine. For example, ​L’Oréal’s Source ​Essentielle line offers shampoo refill stations in salons. Since customers are already visiting the salon several times a year for upkeep, bringing their empties back for a refill doesn’t require an additional trip or task.

Another great example is The Good Fill, a zero-waste store. Besides offering a brick-and-mortar location to refill vessels, TGF sells bulk-size refills online that are shipped in pouches, along with a pre-paid return envelope to mail back the empty pouch. Once received, TGF cleans and reuses the pouches again and again. By offering delivery and a pre-paid return envelope, consumers don’t have to go too far out of their way to reduce waste.

3. Clarity Is Key: When designing a refill system, you’ll want to communicate clearly so consumers know what to expect and how to use the system. For example, if a customer accidentally purchases a refill cartridge without the reusable container (e.g., a deodorant refill without the dispenser), it will be a disappointing experience. By Humankind does a beautiful job of explaining how the refill system works on its website, coupled with clear use instructions on its packaging.

4. Sweeten the Deal: If the refillable version of a product package is aesthetically appealing and creates an excellent product experience, the consumer won’t feel as though a compromise has been made to reduce waste. In fact, it will feel like an upgrade. Case in point—Hermes refillable lipsticks. The launch produced massive buzz and sold out instantly, primarily because of the covetable, collectible packaging. The refill factor is a bonus.

Next Up?

  • Refill Retailers: ​Not every personal care product is a good candidate for refill stations, but certain products would work well—like haircare, fragrance, body care. Smaller, niche shops like Sustain LA (love them!) have popped up, but the major beauty retailers are slow to get on board. Who will tackle refills first and create a luxe, Instagram-worthy experience?
  • Pop-Up Refill Stations: ​One way to make the process easier for the customer is to bring refill stations to the places and events she’s already going to. Brands or retailers could consider pop-up refill stations as a way to gain exposure, build brand equity, and provide her with a useful service.
  • Circular Packaging: ​If you’ve seen the ​Loop project​, you’re familiar with circular packaging—that is, when packaging is returned to be industrially cleaned and refilled. There’s no reason why this concept couldn’t work in beauty or personal care.
  • Concentrates: ​We’ve seen concentrated refills in other evolving industries and are excited for their potential in the beauty industry. A concentrated refill tablet or liquid reduces the size, weight, and amount of material needed for packaging—a great equation for DTC brands.

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