The refillable revolution: why there’s no more room for waste

With two-thirds of people saying that tackling waste is a key issue, why are businesses not yet laser-focused on innovating solutions to minimize waste or generate value from its use?
22 November 2023
The refillable revolution: why there’s no more room for waste
Emily Simons

Innovation Lead, Global Sustainable Transformation Practice

Trezelene Chan

Head of Sustainable Transformation Practice, Singapore

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As our world keeps piling up with unwanted materials and landfill mountains soar, we find ourselves drowning in rubbish. Physically there is no more room for waste; yet, by 2050, worldwide waste generation is expected to increase by around 70%. Emotionally, consumers have no more headspace for the devastating environmental and social impacts of waste – Kantar’s Sustainability Sector Index (SSI) 2023 reveals around 52% report seeing or hearing false or misleading information about the sustainable actions of brands and half have bought less of, or stopped buying certain products or services, because of their negative social, or environmental impact. With two-thirds of people surveyed in the Sustainability Sector Index saying that tackling waste is a key issue, then why are businesses not yet laser-focused on innovating solutions to minimize waste or generate value from its use?

In fact, the gap between virtue signaling and action remains stubbornly high. Kantar’s Sustainability Sector Index reveals over two in five global shoppers are interested in buying refillable products (43%), yet just over one in five regularly do so (13%). It’s why, at Kantar, we explored the principles that will help resolve the great waste challenge and identified how businesses can help consumers move from single-use disposables to sustainable refillables in our thought leadership report: Designing for a Waste-Free Future. But, bringing this to life for brands is often no mean feat, as many that have walked this path have discovered to their cost. Radical internal systems changes are required, as is the ability to convince people to bridge the consumer Value-Action Gap between intent to behave sustainably and making this a reality.

However, wise businesses are planning and effecting significant change now. For example, UK grocery retailer Ocado successfully piloted a Digital Deposit Return Scheme. Ocado’s partnership with recycling technology firm Polytag and recycling app Bower allowed customers to claim monetary rewards for recycling milk bottles. Using the app, consumers could simply scan codes through their smartphones before placing the bottles in their home curbside recycling.

In the highly packaged, cosmetics and body care industry, Australian brand Aesop piloted its first product refill station for three of its best-selling body and skincare products to help shoppers lower their carbon footprint, and save money. Aesop is a strong performer among health and beauty retailers on the Kantar BrandZ Sustainability Index measure of environmental responsibility. Brands rating highly on that index grow brand value by 31 per cent year on year.

Refillables are a critical element for sustainable transformation in waste

To start, refillables present a burgeoning opportunity for businesses. At a macro level, schemes such as the Refill Coalition are championing packaging standardization to refill products, such as food goods in stores. Several large UK retailers including Aldi and Waitrose, who have committed to collaborating rather than competing on refilling goals, have signed up.

Brands are also innovating refillable pouches at breakneck speed; for example, Nestlé for coffee. Dove and Rollr both launched refillable deodorants to reduce their carbon footprint and move from single-use packaging. Singaporean sustainable food packaging company Tria made an award-winning pitch to Singapore Airport Terminal Services for serving meals in packaging made from sustainable plant materials. Its innovative ‘closed-loop catering solution’ ensures that its packaging goes through a process that turns it into electricity, which could power kitchens to make more meals and then package more food again.

New partnership business models are amplifying the pace of transformation

People want brands to adopt models more in line with circular economy principles – that means looking at areas such as refurbishment, repair, sharing and the use of alternative high-quality sustainable materials in production. Refillables are fast becoming one of the top agents of sustainable change in the war in waste.

In Indonesia, Reckitt partnered with start-up Siklus to drive refillables adoption through effective e-commerce and delivery systems, while Evian served up refillable bottles at Wimbledon. From Aldi’s ‘eco concept store’ to personal care refill ranges in Sainsbury and Tesco, the refillable revolution is right here, right now.

Refillable innovation is key to cracking the consumer Value-Action Gap

Brands and businesses must bring consumers with them on the path to a waste-free future by delivering products and services that are easy, meaningful and rewarding. While this sounds relatively simple, cracking refillables is still difficult. However, as the examples show, some brands have done it very successfully, such as Indian brand Godrej, which created the country’s first ready-to-mix body wash married with consumer-friendly pricing; a key unlock amidst a cost-of-living crisis. In our Sustainable Sector Index, 7 in 10 people said that products or services that are better for the environment or society, are often too expensive.

Godrej’s positioning delivers a solution to meet both environmental concerns and social challenges. They say that with this product, they are aiming to reduce plastic by 16% and have manufactured it with 16% plastic, 44% lower carbon emissions and diesel consumption; while transporting the small, light gel-based sachets leads to 44% less diesel consumption and the same in lower carbon emissions compared to transporting a regular bodywash. Plus, when we tested the ad copy, it rated very positively for its price point and ‘less plastic’ proposition.

The time to innovate is now

Refillable initiatives are a brilliant place to start to design products that bring as many people on the sustainability journey as possible. By not promoting a disposable product lifestyle, you have the power to reframe the narrative and change the norm. Waste touches many people and is a real white space to design for mass adoption, even if different segments need to be activated in different ways. Is your brand ready to embrace refillables and lead the way to a waste free future?

At Kantar, our Sustainable Transformation Practice partners with over 400 brands globally to resolve their sustainability challenges. We advise clients at different points of their sustainability journey underpinned by our industry-leading innovation solutions. Our team of sustainability and behavioral science experts can identify how you can win in the fight against waste. Email our Sustainable Transformation Practice to discuss how we can help your brands turn waste into an opportunity.

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