Given the alarming facts about garbage patches inside our oceans and microplastics found inside animals’ and people’s food chain, companies have to start thinking differently about the packaging of stuff they are selling. What is refill strategy and how can you implement it inside your design process? How can environment benefit out of it and how can you make it easy, bonding, and enjoyable experience for your customers?
I am very much a fun of a statement that we do not necessarily need more innovations understood as brand new concepts and disruptive ideas for businesses. Of course, they are needed so we do not stop humanity’s progress, but I prefer the notion of redesigning: products, services, supply chains, customer experience or sales channels that are already out on the market. Refill strategy is indeed nothing new, it has been here for a while, but using it as one of environment-centered design strategies, may be a source of experience innovation ending up in increasing your clients’ satisfaction and sales records, respectively.
Goodbye disposables! Say hi to refillables
Let’s take a closer look of how packaging of your product, say shampoo, may impact the environment from cradle to grave, when being sold traditional way: in disposable bottle. First, we need a material for your bottle. Most of the time it’s HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is born from a natural gas derivative, ethane, through a very complicated process (PP or PET falls into this packaging category as well). Majority of brands only recently started to announce to use more recycled plastics for their packaging: by 2020, 2025, or 2030 they promise to include more recyclate under the pressure of EU changing policy around plastics, and the so called National Sword policy implemented in China. So: high chances are your bottles are not a part of circular material flow, yet.
Polymerization of polyethylene. Before a bottle for a shampoo is shaped through blow molding, ethylene goes through polymerization: boiling, cooling, then: extrusion, calendering and other stuff I am not an expert on. Simply put: it’s complicated, resources-, energy- and time-consuming, based on raw non-renewable materials in majority of cases. Image source: Encyclopedia Britannica
The journey, a raw material has to go through before becoming a bottle and landing in your customer shopping basket, is terribly long. And it’s not the end of this journey, what you’re probably aware of if you’ve done a life cycle assessment analysis of your product, properly. From the Rethinking the Future of Plastics Report collaboratively created by Ellen MacArthur Foundation, World Economic Forum and McKinsey & Company experts, we can learn that on average more than 70% of all plastic packaging materials produced annually ends up either on landfills or leak out to the environment due to wrong packaging treatment, that is, “either it is not collected [by assigned parties] at all, or it is collected but then illegally dumped or mismanaged”.
Doesn’t look good, huh? What an environment-friendly and responsible brand can do about it? Image source: Rethinking the Future of Plastics Report
Now, let’s have an exercise and evaluate the possible link between the disposable packaging and client satisfaction / loyalty to our shampoo brand. Packaging is one of the “faces” of your brand. It’s the way you communicate with your client: by the design of the label, by information about the components used for your shampoo (IMHO: still being too complicated), by the shape and behavior of the bottle that your product is captured inside. The bottle is actually carrying many of the brand values and promises you made during advertisement of the product. It visualizes the promised / expected effect and “jobs” the shampoo helps your customer to get done.
It says pretty much about a brand as well. Do you want your “face” to end up on a landfill or – luckily – being incinerated and transform into new “incarnation” by energy recovery process? Do you want your “message in a bottle” to be disposable and easy-to-throw-away? I would argue that by delivering your shampoo in disposable, single-use packaging, you don’t really want to establish a long-lasting relationship with your clients. On a contrary, by letting them refill your bottles you may increase the level of emotional attachment to your brand. How?
Refill strategy at work: Splosh and Yope
Notice: I am not examining how below products work and I do not review them against their effectiveness and expected performance.
Splosh is* UK-limited home cleaning products manufacturer that sells their detergents in refillable bottles. They operate online and has online-only selling channels. How come customers can refill bottles that ran out the products, when there is no physical selling point for those?
*I think they are right in the middle of redirecting their business, as some of the channels are either not updated or temporarily suspended. So it’s either “is” or “was”.
Images source: Splosh.com
Everything kicks off with a “starting box” – I can order the preferred amount of cleaning products: dishwasher liquid, floor cleaner or laundry detergent. No need to make a supplies though. When it finishes, I can order refills – pouches with concentrated liquids. It’s concentrated on purpose: so it can take less space on delivery (#environmentfootprint) and fits inside mailing box (#userexperience). Everything I have to do is to pour the content inside the plastic bottle, fill it with water, and there it is: bottle refilled!
Notice, that the bottles are easy to open. It’s very user-friendly and environment-centered, since by allowing a customer to open the bottle, we actually let them to truly own the packaging and refill them with ours or other detergent of their choice.
I also like the way brand interact with a customer: they have delivered an app where client can set up an individual account and order refills once liquids finishes up. The same can be done through their website.
What could have been done better?
1. I have not found any information on their website regarding the pouches themselves. What recycling category they falls into? Are they biodegradable? Can I send them back to be yet and again refilled? Given the fact that liquids to refill the bottles come inside another packaging, we cannot call Splosh 100% zero-waste manufacturer, because pouch will eventually become a waste.
The company might have think of another materials for pouches (one that is biodegradable for instance) or make them circulate constantly (upon clients sending empty pouches to Splosh manufacturing sites). Anyhow, great source of inspiration!
2. I like the simple and minimalistic design of the bottles and pouches (#brandtransparency). However, if the company’s main message is “we are cleaning & zero-waste enthusiasts”, why not adding appropriate claim on the bottle so that the user can start to identify with those values as well?
Why not reminding her that she is actively contributing to a) having an ecological detergent in her house and b) minimising her ecological footprint by generating less plastic waste? So she can feel better!
Another brand, Yope, is family-owned cosmetics & home cleaning products manufacturer from Poland. Available both at physical brand stores, at care & beauty chain stores, and at online shop, they started to experiment with refill strategy few weeks ago at their Warsaw-based boutique.
Both Splosh and Yope sells cruelty-free products which were not tested on animals. However, YOPE is outperforming Splosh when it comes to carrying this message on their packaging: you will find happy animals, such as fox, rabbit or toucan within their natural habitat, on YOPE labels. How cool is that?! Images source: Yope | Instagram
The brand does not claim to be zero-waste (yet), however adding refilling experience to their brand image (#vegan #againstanimaltesting #ecological) is a great move regarding latest global events and research findings around plastic pollution. It follows the logic: if you truly want to be ecological and vegan brand, you need to take packaging of your products into account. If it leaks into ecosystems, then it can endanger animals’ health and life. YOPE is definitely listening to their clients, as zero-waste is becoming a sister-value to veganism, among “aware” customers. As the latest trend reports imply, veganism, zero waste and circular design will be one of the strongest consumer trends in 2019.
If you truly want to be ecological and/or vegan brand, you need to take packaging of your products into account. If it leaks into ecosystems, then it can endanger animals’ health and life.
What could have been done better?
1. I cannot throw any constructive criticism at Yope so far, as it is definitely laboratory phase of their refill station. However, any brand that consider to distribute such at their physical stores, shall remember to make the process as hassle-free and hygienic as possible. You know, no sticky fingers, over-fill, leaking bottles etc.
2. Above all: it should be fun! Remember about your small customers (140 cm tall or less). They might wanna take part in refilling the bottles with your products. Make it as much accessible as possible. Ikea step stool should to the job (side note: that is indeed great product design; when thinking about the step stool I automatically think “IKEA” <clappinghands>).
Why we do not see refill stations everywhere, yet?
Apart from zero-waste stores where refill has an obvious application and helps customers fulfill their need to be ecological, conscious or minimise their ecological footprint, or drinking water refill stations, there are not many examples of refillables for FMCG industry. I guess it is just a matter of time as refill stations start to enter supermarkets and chain stores. It is logistically quite complicated, but not impossible. I am impatiently awaiting first mass-produced cosmetics and cleaning products brand such as Nivea, Dove, Garnier or Frosch to install their refill stations at Carrefour, Auchan or Tesco. There are already first stations like that, as this one, from Planet Pure, in Austria.
Planet Pure has already equipped 12 dm, the most popular drugstores in Austria, with their refillable station. One of the incentives to use it is simply financial: customer pays less when they refill the container, rather than buy a new one. Image source: Planet Pure | Facebook
Why not bringing reverse vending machines logic that helps to gather empty PET bottles, aluminium cans or glass bottles within country-wide deposit systems in Germany, Sweden or Lithuania for other packaging categories? If not for recycling process (meaning: remanufacture), they could have been gathered for reuse or refill by their manufacturers.
Even now, it is a low hanging fruit for any brand that has their own boutiques and brand stores, to install a refill station and make a noise in social media about it. Win-win-win: for a brand, for customers, for the environment. Of course it will not wind up the plastic pollution problem, but at least it is a great start for education about plastics. It could be a platform to show customers why separating trash correctly at their homes matters (what happens if it’s not segregated and then recycled) and how they contribute to “closing the loop” for materials by using refillables.
Let me know if you saw any other refill examples for FMCG products. I am more than happy to learn about all the creative ideas out there!
Cover photo shows “ecobar” refill station at terra20 retail store in Canada. Image source: Pinterest