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Unilever Expands Refillable Packaging Trials in the UK

June 23, 2021
June 23, 2021

Consumer goods firm Unilever has expanded its refillable packaging trials across the UK, including the placement of its first refill stations at selected Asda supermarket and Co-op convenience stores.

Following the successful trial in Asda's sustainability store in Leeds last year, Unilever is expanding its refillable packaging trials across the UK. This includes the first-ever "return on the go" pilot where shoppers looking for a quicker grab-and-go purchase can pick up a pre-filled stainless steel bottle from the shelf and return it in-store once used, where they are collected to be cleaned and refilled.

The bottles, which are pre-filled with the best-selling brands in the UK including Persil, Simple, Radox, and Alberto Balsam, will be merchandised in-aisle to test if integrating refillable products into usual shopping habits will increase uptake. In addition, Unilever will continue to test "refill on the go," where consumers can purchase and refill reusable stainless steel bottles using a stand-alone refill machine.

These new test-and-learn trials will be the first of their kind at this scale in the UK. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of the likelihood and habits of consumers using refillable and reusable packaging. They will evaluate different refill models, store formats, and in-store locations, as well as different shopper experiences that could enable long-term use of refillable products.

The Unilever research team discovered:

  • 94% of consumers in the UK are more likely to invest in refills vs buying new products in-store if available
  • 89% are likely to purchase a product if it’s reusable
  • Nearly a third revealed value for money offered by the Refill Stations was a key reason for being likely to purchase in the future
  • 18% wanted a sealed product option, and 16% wanted to be able to return empty bottles to stores

“To tackle plastic pollution with the speed and urgency needed, we must create scalable solutions which make it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices,” says Unilever UK & Ireland EVP & General Manager Sebastian Munden.

“We believe refills could be a game-changer in our ambitions to halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025; however, unlocking the full potential of the reuse economy requires a shift in mindset of how people shop. We are testing different refill models on a large scale in order to continue to build our understanding of how to enable this change most effectively.”

As part of its efforts to make all our plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, Unilever is working on ways that shoppers can buy one container and refill it over and over again. The company is testing refillable concepts with retailers around the globe.

Australia: Unilever has partnered with supermarket giant Coles to bring consumers their first-ever in-store laundry liquid refiller where shoppers can refill old bottles of Omo and Surf. There’s also an added incentive of saving money, since using the refillery costs less compared to regular Surf and Omo bottles. Survey results show that 100% of consumers say they would switch from their current laundry brand to using the refillery.

Mexico: At the end of 2019 Unilever set up refill stations in ten Walmart stores, allowing consumers to fill up reusable aluminum bottles with Sedal shampoo rather than buying the product in the usual plastic bottles. Consumers pay for the reusable bottle in the first instance; every time they refill it, the product is cheaper than if the equivalent amount were purchased in a plastic bottle.

Pakistan: Unilever launched a refill station at the Carrefour supermarket in Karachi, Pakistan, where shoppers can fill up on Sunsilk shampoo. The station offers a discount to anyone who brings an empty shampoo bottle with them. In return, they are provided with a reusable bottle, customized with their name printed on it.

The trials have revealed that when it comes to refill–reuse, it’s definitely not a case of one-size-fits-all. Success depends on tailoring solutions according to the different needs and desires of consumers and by removing barriers to entry and keeping systems as simple as possible.


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