Refillable packaging fills a need, but is it sustainable?

Consumers say it’s important for products to be packaged in environmentally friendly materials
VP, CSR & Sustainability; Executive Director, Center for Retail Sustainability

Some U.S. consumers, in some parts of the country, might notice well-known brands experimenting with refillable packaging. Retailers are exploring these kinds of sustainability-focused approaches to meet their corporate sustainability goals. They are also responding to consumer interest in more sustainable offerings.

One recent survey reported 70% of consumers self-identify as environmentally aware and 66% state that it is important to buy products packaged in more environmentally friendly materials. The same survey showed that 74% of consumers are interested in buying products in refillable packaging.

At The Body Shop, consumers can purchase a reusable metal bottle and have store employees fill the bottle with select shampoo and body wash products. After using the product at home, consumers rinse the container and bring it back to the store where employees refill it at a discount.

Sustainability in retail

Learn more about the ways retailers are incorporating sustainable practices into their operations.

Kroger-owned Fred Meyer grocery stores in and around Portland, Ore., sell more than 20 products in refillable and reusable containers. With select products, the purchase price includes a durable container designed and labeled for reuse. When consumers finish an item, they return the empty container to the store at a kiosk where the cost of the packaging is refunded. Containers are professionally cleaned and sanitized, sent back to the product manufacturers, refilled with product and returned to store shelves for the next customer. Products include well-known brands like Pantene, Clorox, Nature’s Path, Cascade and Seventh Generation.

Pet lovers shopping at Petco might have seen Kibble Refill Stations dispensing pet food or kitty litter scoop stations. Both provide consumers with containers they can bring back to the store again and again to refill. It allows consumers to meet their furry family members’ basic needs without any packaging to throw away.

Walgreens is piloting an at-home delivery service with products packaged in reusable containers delivered to consumers in a reusable tote bag. The service includes products ranging from Haagen-Dazs ice cream to a variety of personal care and cleaning products from companies like Pantene, Tide, Clorox and Dove. When the containers are empty, consumers place the empty containers in the tote and ship them back to Walgreens. The packages are cleaned and sterilized and returned to manufacturers for reuse.

Walmart is exploring ways to make a similar approach even easier with an offer to deliver products in reusable containers to consumers’ garages or kitchens. Other brands like Beautycounter, Credo Beauty and Fenty Beauty sell cosmetic refills that consumers use to replace product in existing packaging from the brands.

Retailers and suppliers are also exploring other packaging innovations. They are partnering to provide concentrated products that consumers dilute at home. The traditional packaging for many liquid laundry, bathroom or general-purpose cleaning products contain mostly water. There are environmental and cost savings by removing the amount of water that is shipped across the country and focusing instead on packaging and shipping only the concentrated cleaning ingredients. Consumers buy the concentrated product and then add the right amount of water.

Dove body wash products, for example, are now available in concentrates. The concentrates are packaged with a “too beautiful to throw away” refillable, reusable bottle. Consumers only need to buy the concentrate once they own the bottle. This approach avoids large volumes of packaging waste.

While consumer demand for refillable packaging appears overwhelming, actual consumer behavior does not mirror what consumers claim in surveys — 20% of consumers who buy coffee claim to use a reusable coffee cup “almost always,” while data reported from a well-known global coffee chain suggests that the number is closer to 2.2%.

The difference between what consumers claim in surveys and what their purchasing behavior demonstrates, known as the “say-do gap,” is very challenging for retailers. Launching a full-scale reusable packaging program is incredibly complex and requires significant investment from retailers and suppliers. Retailers are hesitant to make needed investment without some assurance that consumers will respond positively to the changes. No solution is sustainable if consumers reject the approach.

Some companies like Bulk Barn, with more than 200 stores across Canada, are attracting customers interested in bringing and refilling their own containers. There are also local U.S. “refill stores” and bulk shopping stores that cater to sustainability-minded consumers dedicated to reducing their packaging waste. Most U.S. consumers, however, are not likely to embrace reusable packaging until it is widely available, affordable and convenient. Retailers are racing to find ways to make that possible.

Related content

Laying the foundation for modern resale with ThredUp
A woman shopping.
Retail Gets Real episode 354: ThredUp co-founder and CEO James Reinhart on the outlook for the secondhand industry.
Read more
5 takeaways from NRF’s inaugural Big Show Asia Pacific
NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay at Big Show APAC 2024.
Asia Pacific is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets with limitless opportunities to expand stores and production.
Read more
Retail Circularity: An Action Guide for Retailers
circular economy icons
NRF and Deloitte collaborated to develop a guide for retailers on emerging circular business models.
Read more