Refill and reuse: cosmetics meets the packaging challenge

Stéphanie Gendron

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Refill and reuse: cosmetics meets the packaging challenge

STELLA's packaging was designed around the refill. ©Stella McCartney

Brands including Amalthéa, Cozie, and Stella McCartney are multiplying initiatives to reuse cosmetic packaging. But between regulatory, logistics, and usage constraints, a number of challenges remain. We take a look at the key factors for success.

"Eighty percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the early stages of design," affirms Camille Rialland, Senior Global Marketing Manager for STELLA—Stella McCartney’s vegan cosmetics brand that launched in September 2022—at a conference held in Paris at Edition Spéciale by Luxe Pack 2023. "From the outset, we took an eco-design approach with the Mu agency to limit our environmental impact as much as possible," she explains. Their goal was to roll out the "re-use" system in the luxury sector. "The packaging was designed around the refill. We even made it the star of the show as it’s visible through the glass bottle," she says. The design was inspired by the fountain pen, with the idea being to simply change the cartridge (the refill), without changing the pen (the bottle) or the nib (the pump).

There is one problem, however. "There is no 100% recyclable, airless pump on the market today. It’s not a single-material pump," says Rialland. So, with the support of LVMH, the brand has developed a cleaning guide for users in order to avoid micro-bacterial contamination. They recommend using alcohol.

STELLA's reusable pump kit integrates recycled ocean-bound plastic feedstock sourced from Plastic Bank. ©Stella McCartney

Hygiene & reuse: solutions that go hand in hand

Maryll Beaux addressed the issue of hygiene back in 2018 when she launched Amalthéa, a brand of refillable organic skincare. "We clean, sterilize, and refill the bottles in our laboratory on rue des Gravilliers in Paris, and then send them back by mail," explains the founder. "Our solution reduces CO2 emissions by more than 90% over five years."

After developing an initial product line for the general public, the brand is now tackling the luxury hotel market. "In 5-star hotels, the bathroom amenities are thrown away each day, whether or not the customer uses them," says the entrepreneur. "Our solution is safe, traceable, and extremely simple to use, because it just requires changing a bottle," she explains. There are no labels; instead, each container is silk-screened and personalized with the hotel’s colors. "For security purposes, we developed a custom-made wall bracket, designed by a craftsperson in Ile-de-France," explains Beaux. "We can do things locally, well, and at competitive prices." Collection will be carried out by bicycle courier for smaller Parisian establishments, or by transporter for larger hotels.

Amalthéa only sells refillable organic skincare products - ©Amalthéa

Cozie, a French brand specializing in organic, refillable, and returnable glass cosmetics, offers its customers two options to encourage reuse: a deposit system that asks customers to return their bottles; or a bulk system that allows customers to fill their bottles in-store and choose the quantity they want. "They’re both zero-waste systems," explained Cozie co-founder Arnaud Lancelot in October 2022, at Luxe Pack Monaco. (Lancelot announced in June 2023 that he was selling the company.) The bottles are washed at high temperature before being disinfected and refilled at an ESAT (French associations that employ handicapped persons). Since then, the brand has helped other companies develop closed loop systems.

Moving in the same direction

"Each year, the beauty industry produces 155 billion items of packaging," according to Euromonitor. "Two-thirds of that is plastic," said Patrick Bousquel, Aptar’s EMEA Beauty Marketing Director, at the Make Up in Paris trade show on June 15, 2023. "We have a collective responsibility and the stakes are high." Lancelot agrees: "It has to be a global movement; the entire cosmetics industry has to move towards reusable solutions." In France, the Fébéa (Fédération des entreprises de la beauté - Federation of Beauty Companies) has established the Plastic Act action plan. Its objectives include reusing 20% of packaging by 2025 through the generalization of 100% recyclable refills and pilot programs for deposit systems. “The cosmetics sector alone releases 53,000 tons of plastic packaging on the market every year (5% of all household packaging). Our ambition is to reduce the quantities used by 15% by 2025," explained Elodie Fisicaro, head of sustainable development at Fébéa, at Make Up in Paris 2023.

As for manufacturers, they’re getting organized. Aptar developed Gaïa back in 2021: an airless system with a refill that is inserted through the bottom of a transparent outer casing. When the refill needs to be replaced, the pump, integrated into the external shell, can be detached and reused again. Made from PP/PE, the refill—which could also be made from glass—is 100% recyclable. The solution is ISO 17516 certified and complies with microbiological risk requirements.

Aptar has developed the refill system Gaïa - ©Aptar

Reusable cosmetics solutions still face significant obstacles

In addition to hygiene-related regulatory constraints—and the very definition of container cleanliness, as well as the related responsibilities—there are other challenges restricting the development of reusable cosmetics solutions. Traceability is one. "In the event of contamination, we need to be able to trace the product and its batch number," explains Fisicaro. Product characteristics must also be taken into account. "A skincare product is going to be more vulnerable than a perfume with an alcoholic base, while the texture can generate technical problems linked to product flow," she says. And then there are new logistics processes to be put in place, particularly for returns, and constraints at points of sale. "The bulk machines are quite large, and two references are required: one for the initial product and one for the refill," adds Fisicaro.

Economic incentives and desirability: key levers for growth

On the consumer side, eco-responsibility and hygiene are simply not enough. Economic incentives are key to conversion. "It has to be a win-win situation for the customer," says Beaux. At Almathéa, once a bottle has been purchased, consumers will pay €7.50 less for the 30ml format and €15 less for the 100ml format. At STELLA, the refill is sold for 20% less than the packaged product. The result: "Some customers only buy the refill, which is lighter," says Rialland.

Another major factor is desirability—all the more so in luxury. There can be no compromises on design: committed brands opt for aesthetically pleasing bottles and refill solutions. "As long as you have a beautiful bottle in your bathroom and you’re going to save money by refilling it, why throw it away?" says Beaux.

Finally, there’s the functional aspect, which is essential if brands hope to see professionals and the general public adopt their products. "If we don’t make life easy for them, they won't use our products. Together, we have a real impact on the environment," continues Beaux.

There’s still a long way to go, but habits are gradually changing. According to NPD, sales of refills and refillable products in selective perfumeries in France rose by 50% , to €158m, between January and the end of October 2022, compared with the same period the previous year. However, a solid business model remains to be found. "For this to be ecologically and economically viable, we need regular and sufficient repurchase rates. But cosmetics is still a world of pleasure, with many brands and many channels, and it is so easy to switch products and try out new brands," says Fiscario. The solution lies in co-construction and mutualization. The message is out.

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