refillable beauty products are here to save the planet, but will they even make a dent?
Industry experts aren’t sure they’re the environmental saviour we need them to be. So what is?
Kjaer Weis via Instagram
The beauty industry has a sustainability problem, that’s not up for debate. Microbead-ridden face scrubs have already ravaged our oceans, flushed make-up wipes are cementing the fatbergs clogging our sewer systems and contentious palm oil continues to be used in product formulations, despite the grave consequences on our rainforests. Dark, we know. And that’s before you’ve even considered the copious amount of plastic found in beauty packaging.
But the industry has an answer for that last problem -- refillable products.
Designed to cut down on the copious amount of jars, bottles and tubes created by our bathroom routines, and counteract shockingly low recycling rates (only 14% of recyclable plastic is actually recycled, FYI) beauty brands are rolling out refill schemes. Some, like L’Occitane and Kjaer Weis offer simple refill carton systems that slot into the original outer packaging once you’ve scraped out the final dregs of face cream or reached the silver at the bottom of your eyeshadow pan. Other brands like cult fragrance brand Le Labo require you to head into store to refill your empty bottles. Not only do these schemes cut back on your packaging consumption, but most of the refills cost less than the original product.
On the face of it, any move to reduce waste is positive and --as reported by Refinery29 -- sustainable packaging experts The LCA Centre found that the purchase of a refillable product creates 70% less CO2 emissions, uses 60% less energy and 45% less water than if you bought a brand new bottle. But that’s exactly where the issue lies; will fickle consumers, obsessed with finding the next big thing in beauty, ever actually bother to refill their empty containers, even with a financial incentive?
Victoria Buchanan, senior strategic researcher at trend forecasting agency The Future Laboratory admits refillable beauty has its challenges, even if the the world is finally waking up to the sorry state of the environment. “It requires quite a big behaviour change on behalf of the consumer as well as redesigning the supply chain,” she says. “Therefore, in order to really create an impact, brands need to combine eco-friendly and cost-saving innovation with products often associated with luxury.”
Millie Kendall, CEO of British Beauty Council has long been a fan of refillable beauty -- she started her career with OG refillable beauty pioneers Shu Uemura -- but she too has her reservations. “Whilst I love the idea of the sustainable refill, I do think there is some way to go to make the refillable beauty product that beneficial to the planet," she tells i-D. "Skincare and body products can be refilled, but jars and receptacles need to be sanitarily cleaned so that they are hygienic. I do worry about that aspect as it’s bound to throw up all manner of sensitivity and allergy issues."
Make-up offers a more viable target for refillable packaging, as outer palettes can be restocked with fresh pans of product. High-end make-up brand Kjaer Weis has managed to amass a cult following by offering this packaging innovation across its entire range, although other iterations haven't worked as well. "The pans can be stuck down with magnets, but that can make palettes pretty heavy," adds Kendall.
Others are more positive about the move. “Refillable beauty ties into this environmental approach to beauty that is resonating with eco activist consumers,” explains Lisa Payne, Senior Beauty Editor at global trends analysts Stylus. “Currently, it’s harder for brands to get across the importance of this strategy in regards the wider issue of waste, but we predict stronger uptake in the future the more media traction the ‘plastic problem’ garners, and as more retailers make refillable beauty not only a part of their offering, but a really fun, attractive part of it.”
Should refillable beauty became a more universal standard, it would stand a greater chance at making a substantial difference, which is exactly why beauty retailer Cult Beauty is championing refillable beauty brands. “We are starting to see a trickle of brands come out with refill versions of their products and we are really supportive of this concept. It’s not only eco-friendly, but it allows beauty companies to design beautiful, original vessels that really embody their branding and the consumer saves money on subsequent refill buys, which encourages loyalty. It’s a virtuous circle where everyone wins,” promises Cult Beauty founder Alexia Inge.
Whether the refillable revolution will truly save us remains to be seen, but something needs to be done to reduce the environmental impact of our beauty routines. We didn’t even need Collins Dictionary to announce "single-use" as its Word of the Year to realise that. Lush’s recently launched make-up range uses an innovative plastic-free, practically packaging-less system. The Slap Stick foundation, Trix Stick concealer and Robin Glow Stick highlighter come as pebbles of solid product, the bottoms of which are dipped in peelable wax to act as a handle.
Olivia Crighton, founder of Glasshouse salon, believes multi-use products are the way forward. “Reducing the number of products we buy and use in the first place is a huge step towards a more sustainable routine,” she explains. That’s why she created a multi-use hand, hair and body wash, for use by an entire family. “This means [customers] can cut down on the number of bottles they use, reducing consumption and therefore, waste. And we designed the bottle to hold 500ml as opposed to the more standard 250ml.” Like brands such as Floral Street fragrances and men’s skincare line Bulldog, Glasshouse uses bioplastics made as a by-product of sugarcane harvesting, too.
Larger moves are now required to really make a difference. “I think the government need to add eco-taxes to one-use plastics immediately and ‘Robin Hood’ the funds raised to subsidise bio-degradable technologies. For example, cellulose-based packaging, which is currently too expensive to use because they don’t have the economies of scale needed to be a viable alternative,” recommends Inge.
Basically, for consumers that can commit to buying the top-ups on the regular, refillable beauty could be a step in the right direction. But for the rest of us, cutting back on our consumption, and investing solely in products that come packaged in sustainable materials, or better still, no packaging at all, is our best bet to make amends with the environment.