Promising For Sustainability, Refillable Beauty Packaging Is A Tough Sell For Consumers And Retailers
Most beauty brands create products to respond to what people want or capitalize on trends. Elate Cosmetics takes a different approach.
“We look at what type of package a product will have to go in and how that is going to impact the planet,” says founder and CEO Melodie Reynolds. The makeup company offers eyeshadow, powder, blush, bronzer, brow balm and highlighter refills that slide into its signature bamboo palettes. If its sales are any indication—they’ve doubled each of its four years in business—Elate’s planet-conscious model is working.
Of the three R’s of waste management improvement – reduce, reuse, recycle – recycle has been getting the most attention in the beauty segment, but reuse and reduce are increasingly entering the eco-friendly spotlight. In addition to Elate, indie beauty brands like Kjaer Weis, Myro, Zodica Perfumery and Hermetica have introduced replenishable packaging, and Ashley Edwards, strategy director and trend forecaster for brand innovation consultancy LPK, suspects it will become more common.
“It’s an idea that’s here to stay,” she says. “Consumer sentiment toward sustainability is only growing stronger, and we’re seeing people wanting to more overtly align their consciences with their choices by reconciling conflicting behaviors.”
Consumers are waking up to the vast stream of plastic beauty merchandise produces. According to statistics from Euromonitor, the beauty industry produced 76.8 billion plastic packaging units in 2017, the majority of which aren’t being recycled. Refills are intended to stem the plastic tide. For example, Myro founder Greg Laptevsky estimates his new deodorant brand’s refill pods reduce plastic waste by 50% from the standard deodorant sticks in the mass market.
Refillable packaging sounds like a no-brainer in theory, but it can be a different story in practice. Refilling requires education, and many beauty consumers aren’t that interested in it, at least not yet. Retailers find refill offerings take up too much store real estate and don’t yield sufficient results on a per square inch basis to justify their footprint.
“The thing about sustainability is that it is a partnership between the companies that are offering those types of solutions and the customers who are buying it,” says Reynolds. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how user-friendly and how sustainable our packaging is if people aren’t actually reusing it. Then, it kind of defeats the purpose.”
“It’s an idea that’s here to stay. Consumer sentiment toward sustainability is only growing stronger, and we’re seeing people wanting to more overtly align their consciences with their choices by reconciling conflicting behaviors.”
Able Cosmetics’ founder Dana Rae Ashburn has experienced several of the challenges plaguing refillable packaging first-hand. She tried to be as eco-friendly as possible when designing her brand’s Cat Eye 101 liquid liner. The outer casing is an aluminum shell she envisioned customers keeping while refilling its innards. Her vision, though, didn’t match reality.
“After having a refillable product, I started to realize, ‘more parts, more problems,’” says Rae Ashburn. “Customers wouldn’t put the parts back on correctly and their pens would dry out. Others would misplace a little piece when refilling and would be unable to reuse the product all together.”
On top of the user errors, Ashburn reports she heard from a sizable retailer that customers “would rather just buy a new one than deal with refilling their old gunky container.” She decided to repackage the liner without the refill capability. Ashburn says, “Being conscious is extremely important to Able, and we still are. The refillable route just did not work for Cat Eye 101 in particular.”
Reynolds has received similar pushback from retailers. Elate is currently sold at about 160 retailers, but Reynolds commitment to refilling and skipping exterior cartons has caused her to miss out on others.
“They ask us to change the packaging,” she shares. “To be quite frank, that’s why we’re not in any larger retailers at this moment—because we’ve had to say no. I recognize that a refillable system can be a little bit more cumbersome. However, I can’t sacrifice the core values of my company or the planet just to get into a large retailer.”
The biggest complaint Reynolds hears from retailers is that refillable packaging is complicated. “It’s not complicated,” she declares. “If you want to buy an outfit, you go buy a pair of pants and a shirt and some shoes. This is the same idea. You get your palette, you put in your powder and your blush, and you go.”
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how user-friendly and how sustainable our packaging is if people aren’t actually reusing it. Then, it kind of defeats the purpose.”
Retailers contend there’s more to it than putting together an outfit. Michelle Connelly, director of merchandising and planning for Credo, says the clean beauty retailer is open to refillable packaging as long as it can be effectively implemented in stores, but points out execution and cost issues prevent the proliferation of refills on shelves. Credo current carries refills from two brands: Kjaer Weis and Alima Pure.
“Because we carry over 2,000 stockkeeping units from over 120 brands, we aren’t easily able to have refills in bulk or to take a lot of space in the store to explain to customers how to refill a product,” says Connelly. For Credo’s customers primarily shopping for product efficacy and safety, she adds that the sustainable element of refillable packaging is a “nice to have” and not a “driving force” for purchases.
To brands weighing refills, Connelly proffers the following advice: “Think how the refills will execute in a retail environment and how scalable that will be. I think that Credo, like other retailers, is definitely interested in seeing brands make moves towards more sustainability in packaging. However, any time the way that inventory is managed is different for one brand out of the many others that a retailer might work with, there will be execution challenges…Be sure to have a well-thought-out strategy for how you will educate and implement the refillable strategy.”
Kjaer Weis has been able to toe the line well, becoming something of the gold or, literally, silver standard in refillable packaging. The brand houses its products in eye-catching silver cases designed by Marc Atlan, a former art director at Comme des Garçon, Helmut Lang and Yves Saint Laurent. “Our mantra is, ‘if it’s silver, you keep it,’” says founder Kirsten Kjaer Weis. “It goes throughout the entire line. We’ve been able to do that up until now, and I really plan on continuing that because it’s core to the DNA of the brand.”
The refill business hasn’t always been easy for Kjaer Weis. There’s a learning curve for the brand’s customers and retail partners, and it has constantly emphasized its replenishable capacities. “In the beginning, absolutely, it was a little bit more sort of a hesitation in terms of, how does this work, will customers really be interested, will they buy into it, will they remember, etc.,” says Kjaer Weis. “But I also think the fact that refills come in a lower price point is an incentive in and of itself. You actually start paying quite a bit less once you start refilling.”
Kjaer Weis refills typically sell for about 30% less than initial products. The brand’s refillable initiative has gone over best at green beauty retailers like Credo, CAP Beauty and The Detox Market, says Kjaer Weis, noting, “I do think it’s really getting easier for us to sell in more traditional luxury stores as well.”
“Credo, like other retailers, is definitely interested in seeing brands make moves towards more sustainability in packaging. However, any time the way that inventory is managed is different for one brand out of the many others that a retailer might work with, there will be execution challenges.”
The brand is available at Barneys and Neiman Marcus, and Kjaer Weis hasn’t experienced pushback with regards to her packaging from either, which she surmises may be due to its products being small. Kjaer Weis says, “In terms of physical volume, the refills are very slim and not very big, so having them in drawers underneath the counter has never been a concern coming our way from the retailers.”
This year, Kjaer Weis is planning to expand into skincare with oils, cleansers and toners that will feature refillable components. The brand will be one of only a handful in the category to do so. The girth of skincare products, and active ingredients in moisturizers and serums have made skincare refills harder than color cosmetics refills.
A category that’s had a comparably trouble-free time with refills is fragrance. John Molloy, co-founder Memo International, owner of fragrance brands Hermetica, Memo Paris and Floraiku, provides refills across the three brands. “The more we talk about it and customers start talking about it and expecting it from us, the sooner it will become second nature to buy refill products,” he says. “Several perfumers are also now offering refills. It is a category in beauty that could have a big role to play in reducing waste.”
Ben Krigler, the fifth-generation perfumer behind fragrance house Krigler, offers refills on Allegra scented candles. The candles burn for 200 hours, come in a handmade glass vase and sell for $1,250. Refills are priced at about half that amount, and customers have the option to switch scents.
“The reason why we make refillable candles is because the jars are pieces of art and are costly,” says Krigler. “It would make no sense to have a scented candle that price if one of the advantages wouldn’t be to have it refilled.”
At $195 for a 3.4-ounce bottle, a Hermetica fragrance costs a fraction of the price of a Krigler candle, but the beauty and price of the bottle remain compelling reasons for refills. “The aesthetic of Hermetica’s signature emerald green bottle is important to the image of the brand, so we do want customers to enjoy the experience of buying that first Hermetica product and being drawn into the Hermetica visual universe,” says Molloy. “Bottles are more expensive [than refills]. Therefore, it is a win-win for both the customer and, for, us if they move to refills.”
“Several perfumers are also now offering refills. It is a category in beauty that could have a big role to play in reducing waste.”
Hermetica launched in the fall at Bloomingdale’s in the U.S., and Molloy says the retailer has been receptive to the brand’s refill program. He relays that early consumer feedback has been positive. Molloy comments, “It’s great to see customers really engaging with us on issues of sustainability.”
Despite Reynolds’ retail setbacks with Elate, she’s standing her refillable ground and argues that, every time she says no when someone asks her to compromise her packaging, she’s helping convince stores to change their ways. It’s a tactic LPK’s Edwards senses could work in the long run. “My belief is that brands actually need to listen to their retailers and even their consumers a little less, and demonstrate a point of view more,” she says. “They will follow suit.”
- Refillable packaging options are mounting as consumers’ interest in sustainability grows. Beauty brands incorporating refills include Myro, Zodica Perfumery, Elate Cosmetics, Hermetica, Krigler and Kjaer Weis.
- Brands and retailers have to inform consumers about refills, which can be a hurdle to adoption. They have to invest time and energy into education to raise awareness of refills and teach customers how to use them.
- Retailers have shied away from refills because they can take up valuable store space while not being as productive on a sales basis as typical beauty merchandise.
- Fragrance might be the first beauty category that makes a serious push into refillable territory. Perfume and candle packaging is often incredibly beautiful, and customers want to save it. Additionally, the expensive price points of fine fragrance products make it compelling to purchasing comparably cheaper refills.