We all know plastic is problematic: sadly, the fact that eight million tonnes of it are dumped in our oceans every year will come as little surprise to most.
It’s also common knowledge that the beauty industry is one of the biggest offenders: from reams of superfluous cellophane to gilded boxes and those tiny skincare application spoons, our personal care products are heavy with extras (which, according to Zero Waste Europe, amounts to approximately 120 billion units each year).
However, recycling isn’t always as effortless as we think – or as brands would lead us to believe, rather. Dropping an empty lotion bottle in the recycling bin might feel like a swift and simple solution, but it isn’t actually as easy as that. In fact, only seven per cent of plastic waste currently makes it all the way through to become repurposed. It’s a shocking number, but the reality is that the recycling process is a minefield, fraught with stumbling blocks. We’re consuming too much for a strained system to process, confused by what can really be placed in the recycling bin and, on top of all this, some countries simply aren’t equipped with the correct facilities to process certain plastics.
But what if we could prevent our empty essentials from being thrown out altogether? It might not be a catch-all solution, but switching to refillable beauty products is certainly a stepping stone towards better sustainability. The concept started causing ripples a few years ago but, like most radical changes in our consumption, has taken time to hit the masses. (Remember the scepticism with which we approached reusable coffee cups?)
Once a nice but niche ideal, refillable beauty is now permeating the mainstream, with brands from Kérastase to Diptyque launching keep-forever products. So, will beauty refills finally become the new normal? When they’re as good-looking and as convenient as this, it certainly seems possible.
Of course, refillable products are nothing new – loyalists will know that brands such as Kjaer Weis and L’Occitane have been quietly producing them for years, and the latter has recently launched refill stations in six of its stores across the UK and Ireland.
Another appealing prospect is the idea of investing in incredible packaging– something too beautiful to simply throw away. Diptyque clearly knows this: its glass hand wash and body lotion jars are worthy of the most well-curated bathrooms, while the refillable pouches make them a sustainability status symbol too.
The fragrance revolution
Fragrance is another area where refills can shine: faceted glass flacons and keepsake bottles are practically made to be kept forever. Molton Brown, Frederic Malle, Le Labo and (Rihanna’s favourite) Kilian all already produce refills that decrease the waste involved, while Mugler is appealing to the eco-conscious Gen Z with supersized top-ups of its Aura scent, which can be decanted into your original bottle at home.
Taking things one step further is new brand Costa Brazil, founded by Francisco Costa as a love letter to the healing rituals of his native Brazil. The brand's signature scent, Aroma, features a refillable glass vial encased in sustainably sourced ash wood, and packaged simply using FSC-certified paper.
In the make-up realm, there's real opportunity to create sublime statement objects. La Bouche Rouge's paper-wrapped lipsticks slot neatly inside its hand-stitched leather cases, which are made using offcuts from Paris' tanneries. Valentino's wearable Go Clutch compact costs almost as much as a wallet, demanding to be topped up and treasured forever.
At the high-street end of the spectrum is, of course, The Body Shop, which is in the process of rolling out its refill stations across the country (an initiative the brand initially trialled back in the 1990s). These smart stations allow shoppers to purchase an aluminium bottle that can be filled and refilled with the brand’s shower gels and creams, with a 20 per cent saving to boot. Similarly, Space NK has made its own-brand line of bath and body products refillable via in-store stations across the country. (Take our word for it: the Rewild Body Wash is truly heavenly.)
Of course, changing a culture takes time and investment, meaning a lot of global brands are still lagging behind in the race for true sustainability. This has opened up the floor for agile, straight-to-consumer brands that speak to the eco-savvy Gen Z consumer, such as Fills, which sells hair and bodycare with a circular refill philosophy, and Beauty Kitchen, whose 'Return, Reuse, Refill’ concept covers everything from body wash to eye cream. Kankan offers natural shower gels in beer-style aluminium cans, which can be poured into a keepsake glass jar, while Micaela Nisbet has launched refill company On Repeat, which delivers product top-ups in 100 per cent compostable packaging. She's currently beta-testing with her own beauty brand, Neighbourhood Botanicals.
Jenni Middleton, director of beauty at trend forecasting agency WGSN suggests that Gen Z hold the key to shifting the way we consume beauty products. “Gen Z have environmental concerns hard woven into their worldview as they have grown up at a time when our impact on the planet is increasingly visible,” she says. This generation are clearly concerned with seeking out more sustainable options, with Middleton referring to them as “precyclers”, meaning they’ll happily bring their own containers and totes to a retail outlet if it means they can ditch the packaging waste. “As this value-driven generation use their voice and actions to influence, they will compel brands to offer options for recycling, re-using and refilling and they will bring about change.”
The skincare struggle
So far, so easy – but skincare is trickier. Here, issues of sanitisation abound – especially with facial creams and serums. Luxury skincare brand Noble Panacea offers an innovative solution: its active-packed formulas come individually sealed in recyclable sachets (which can be returned to Terracycle for free) tucked inside a keepsake bioplastic box.
Another brand that has invested the time (and money) to come up with a triumphant workaround is Tata Harper. Her first refillable skincare product, the Waterlock Moisturiser, side-steps any sanitisation issues by using replaceable pots of product that click into an airtight jar. More launches – including the cult Restorative Eye Cream – are to land in refillable format imminently. Suddenly, it all seems to make perfect sense.
But of course, this kind of innovation is not without its difficulties (not to mention financial implications). “All of our formulas are engineered with up to 72 active natural ingredients. When dealing with such highly concentrated formulas, you need to ensure ingredients are kept fresh. This can be tricky when creating a refillable system for skincare compared to bath and body refills because the system needs to avoid any sanitation or hygiene issues. Our easy three-step system was engineered so the formula remains secure in the pod while our customers refill their jar, and it's also air-tight after assembly,” says Harper.
Arnaud Meysselle, CEO of sustainability trailblazer REN Clean Skincare adds that “stability for highly active skincare ingredients can be a challenge and the need to ensure multiple ingredients remain safe from contamination is more challenging in facial products. Bath and body products often use natural essential oils which self-preserve by their nature, whereas face products generally don’t. Refilling therefore is more challenging with skincare and safety has to be paramount.”
Middleton agrees that sanitation is a key blocker to the success of refillable beauty. “Of course, hygiene is now more important to consumers than ever before - they want to be certain that their products will not develop bacteria or be contaminated if they re-use them, so that's where commercial cleaning schemes can really help with those fears, especially if consumers gain a financial incentive from refills.” Speaking of financial incentives, they can often be significant – an aspect that feels especially appealing now, on the edge of a looming recession. For example, La Mer's Luminous Lifting Cushion Compact Foundation refills are half the price of the original compact, whereas a Molton Brown fragrance can be refilled in-store for £35 less than a new bottle.
Of course, for refills to really take off, the concept must also be convenient. One promising initiative is Loop, which wants to promote a circular economy by helping brands to create zero-waste packaging. REN Clean Skincare and Molton Brown are among the first beauty brands to sign up, offering their best-selling products in glass bottles. Once you've finished your product, return it to a Loop drop-off point (in the UK, you'll find them at Tesco stores) and the brand will collect the empty bottle, sterilise and refill it, before placing it back on the shelf (with each bottle or jar lasting at-least ten cycles).
“REN Clean Skincare has been championing sustainability in the prestige beauty industry for years (we achieved our pledge to become a zero-waste brand by the end of 2021) and we always want to trial all the innovations that can help us in the fight to protect our planet. Loop is one of those: it’s simple, innovative and makes packaging durable rather than disposable, paving the way for a true ‘zero waste’ ecosystem,” says Meysselle.
“The pandemic has played its part in forcing consumers to rethink purchasing habits and consider what’s really important in life: our friends, families, the world we live in and how we leave that world for future generations," says Meysselle. "We're becoming considered in our purchases, choosing brands that care for our planet, and focus on being recycled, recyclable and reusable." Indeed, as the fashion and beauty worlds hit reset, perhaps now is the time for less to finally become more, and for the products we purchase to settle on our shelves for good.