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refillable packaging
Refill and reuse to reduce costs
Paul Gander, Packaging News, 01 September 2007
When Whole Foods Market started selling cereal, olive oil and wine in unbranded, refillable packs on 6 June, UK consumers got their first cross-category opportunity to prove they were interested in reusing the packaging they bought and whether the pack designs were good enough to encourage this.
However, the ease of use and branding potential of packaging is something FMCG companies are unwilling to sacrifice by introducing generic, refillable packs like those used by Whole Foods, says Dr Vicky Lofthouse, lecturer in the Design and Technology department of Loughborough University. She is currently managing a two-year, £140,000-plus project on Refillable Packaging Systems funded by Defra, which is intended to develop a refillable concept for Boots Botanics bodywash by the end of this year.
Since January 2006, Lofthouse has been asking consumers what they know about refillable packaging, running creative workshops to determine how they would like to see these packs designed and looking at the potential barriers to adoption.
When she first began working on the project Lofthouse says there didn¡¯t appear to be a market for refills. ¡°The use of refillable packaging has long been cited as a possible solution to the [environmental] problem. However, in the past, attempts to extend the use of refillables beyond a few traditional areas have met with little success,¡± says Lofthouse in the paper she wrote at the start of the project, Refillable Packaging Systems: Design Considerations.
She gives an example of where a poorly designed system meant the packs were rarely refilled; in the 1990s The Body Shop encouraged its buyers to return cleaned bottles to the shop to have them refilled with more of the same product, saying ¡°Once is not enough¡±. In reality, consumers proved that using the pack once was often all they could manage.
Either they wanted to buy more product before they completely finished the first bottle, forgot to bring the bottle with them when they travelled to the shop, or they felt the financial reward for using the packs again was so small that it wasn¡¯t worth it. Lofthouse sums up why it didn¡¯t work: ¡°The key contributors to this failure appear to have been high levels of inconvenience and low incentive levels.¡±
Consumer demands
It¡¯s debatable if the public is more open to using refillable packs in today¡¯s climate of recycling bins and lightweight packs.
¡°From the couple of focus groups we¡¯ve conducted so far, my feeling is that, so long as it is presented in the right way, yes, consumers do ¡®get¡¯ refills,¡± says Lofthouse. ¡°Clear communication on the label is critical.¡±
These studies threw up some other considerations, she says: ¡°Consumers were very concerned that labels would wash off. As soon as the label goes tatty they would throw it out, they said.¡±
As the list of consumer demands on refillable packs expanded, a brain-storming session with potential customers and designers threw up the basis of a refillable system. Guy Robinson from London-based Sprout Design contributed some ideas. He says: ¡°With the Botanics range we were thinking that it was an opportunity to simplify the ingredients contained in the products and we were coming up with solutions that were about mixing and matching the ingredients yourself.¡±
Concentrated refills quickly came to the fore, and seemed to offer transport-cost savings as well, says Robinson. Another bonus of refillable packaging, he says, is ¡°if the packaging is meant to be refillable and reusable, brand owners might have a bit more opportunity to put investment into that packaging.¡±
Lofthouse identified 16 different types of refillable pack at the start of her research and says: ¡°It¡¯s not one size fits all. Different systems need to be designed for different products.¡±
Whole Foods¡¯ approach of allowing customers to refill packs from dispensers in store, says Lofthouse, would have created ¡°a logistical nightmare¡± for Boots, but it may work better to encourage consumers to buy a concentrated, smaller refill pack that can be decanted into the original pack and mixed with water.
Among the other 15 refill formats, some have inspired refillable packs that are already on sale.
Ecover opted for the refill-in-store approach when it decided its rigid plastic packs should last longer than one trip from the supermarket to the sink. ¡°Ecover do not produce refill pouches because the materials used for these is more damaging to the environment and is not as eco-friendly as the plastic used in our standard bottles,¡± says a spokesperson for the firm on its choice of type of refillable solution.
And if refilling doesn¡¯t happen, Ecover bottles are made from recyclable polyethylene with caps made from polypropylene.
Ecover identified another benefit that should sell refillable packaging to more brand owners. If the consumer can use the pack again and again, the materials for duplicate packs that would do the same job can be saved and the energy required to transport them to shops cut out.
Procter & Gamble opted for refills packed in lighter flexible plastic for its Olay Daily Facials cleansing wipes, which are initially packed in a high-quality plastic pot designed to be reused.
The dispensing pack for P&G¡¯s Kandoo toilet wipes is similarly designed to be bought once. A spokesperson for the firm says ¡°parents understand that they buy one tub and then buy refills. It makes more sense and is more cost-effective.¡±
The tub design was created to be user-friendly for children so it¡¯s easygrip, a child-friendly size, there¡¯s a simple, push-button opening and a lid that springs up to resemble a toilet seat. There has evidently been considerable investment in the design and this is recouped by selling the dispensing tub for a price of around £2.99, compared to £1.99 for a pack of wipes only.
Financial incentive
Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged, a firm that sells dry goods at markets in London, chose plain, see-through, resealable plastic bags to sell her goods. She already refills Ecover cleaning products from 25-litre drums on her stalls, but she chose flexible plastic packs from Flexico that could be used 20 or more times to pack the rest of her goods. She will also decant products into customers¡¯ own packs brought from home.
¡°We give them a financial benefit and they are quite happy to take it,¡± she says. ¡°It¡¯s meant to be attractive, fresh, clean and easy. It¡¯s as convenient as a supermarket, it¡¯s just that you are doing something environmental at the same time.¡±
It¡¯s proving a success, she says, and is averaging a 60% return rate after the business was launched in October 2006. To jog customers¡¯ minds about her market stalls, she finds that labels printed with her company logo can also be used to communicate the weight and content details she needs.
It just goes to show there is more than just sustainability points to be won from refillable packs. In designing them, Lofthouse says it is vital that they add value to a product. ¡°When I think of all the refills that we identified on the market, I doubt that they had been thought of because of sustainability. I would think they had been thought of for marketing and promotional reasons,¡± she says.
The reason any are a success, Lofthouse says, is that the whole refillable packaging system has been designed to consider all risks, barriers and potential failures and accommodate solutions to any problems into the designs.
She says that refillable packaging doesn¡¯t suit all products and that the difficultly of designing a system that works can be off-putting. ¡°I think, to get it right, it is more complicated than taking another approach to sustainable packaging.
¡°With lightweighting, you can stick the facts into a software programme and work out what is the minimum amount of material you can get away with. Creating a refillable pack is about redesigning the whole system.¡±
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