In 2020, we announced our largest in-store refill trial in Europe, in Asda’s sustainability store in Leeds. Since the launch, we’ve been able to review our progress as the appetite for refillable products increases and consumers look to reduce their plastic consumption.
With the Asda trial proving popular with shoppers, we’re expanding our refillable packaging trials across the UK. This includes our first-ever ‘return on the go’ pilot where shoppers looking for a quicker grab-and-go purchase can pick up a pre-filled stainless steel bottle from the shelf and return it in-store once used, where they are collected to be cleaned and refilled.
The bottles, which are pre-filled with some of our best-known UK brands – including Persil, Simple, Radox and Alberto Balsam – will be available in selected Asda and Co-op stores by the end of the year. They will be placed in-aisle to see if integrating refillable products into usual shopping habits will increase uptake.
In addition, we will continue to test ‘refill on the go’, where consumers can purchase and refill reusable stainless steel bottles using a standalone refill machine.
These new test-and-learn trials will be the first of their kind at this scale in the UK. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of the likelihood and habits of consumers using refillable and reusable packaging. They will evaluate different refill models, store formats and in-store locations, as well as different shopper experiences that could enable long-term use of refillable products.
“To tackle plastic pollution with the speed and urgency needed, we must create scalable solutions which make it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices,” says Unilever UK & Ireland EVP & General Manager, Sebastian Munden.
“We believe refills could be a game-changer in our ambitions to halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025; however, unlocking the full potential of the reuse economy requires a shift in mindset of how people shop. We are testing different refill models on a large scale in order to continue to build our understanding of how to enable this change most effectively.”
Expanded trial informed by encouraging insights
Uptake of our refill trial in the Asda store in Leeds exceeded our expectations, with weekly purchases of Persil from the refill zone reaching a third higher than the equivalent single use pack.
Insights from this trial and from our own research have informed the expanded trial. For example, 94% of consumers in the UK are more likely to invest in refills versus buying new products in-store if they are available and 89% are likely to buy a product because its packaging can be reused. Over a third revealed they are likely to use the refill stations in the future due to their value for money.
Other refill trials around the world
Australia (1 of 3)
In Australia, we have partnered with supermarket giant Coles to bring consumers their first-ever in-store laundry liquid refillery. The installation – where shoppers can refill old bottles of Omo and Surf – seeks to save 20 plastic bottles each week. There’s also an added incentive of saving money, since using the refillery costs less compared to regular Surf and Omo bottles. Survey results show that 100% of consumers say they would switch from their current laundry brand to using the refillery.
Mexico (2 of 3)
At the end of 2019, we set up refill stations in ten Walmart stores, allowing consumers to fill up reusable aluminium bottles with Sedal shampoo rather than buying the product in the usual plastic bottles. This was the first time one of our Beauty & Personal Care brands has conducted a reuse–refill trial in Mexico, and the reaction from consumers was extremely positive. While consumers pay for the reusable bottle in the first instance, every time they refill it, the product is cheaper than if the equivalent amount was purchased in a plastic bottle.
Pakistan (3 of 3)
We launched a refill station at the Carrefour supermarket in Karachi, Pakistan, where shoppers can fill up on Sunsilk shampoo. The station offers a discount to anyone who brings an empty shampoo bottle with them. In return, they are provided with a reusable bottle, customised with their name printed on it.
The wider refill-reuse picture
The projects above are just some of the refill–-reuse programmes we’ve been testing around the world, introducing consumers and customers to a new way of choosing, using and reusing packaging.
They illustrate some of our work in this space, but are not exhaustive. For instance, another area we’re trialling is one where consumers reuse their packaging by refilling at home, say, with a concentrated version of a product diluted with water.
A good example of this is our Cif ecorefills. Since Cif launched these ultra-concentrated refills for its Power & Shine spray bottles in 2019, the brand has saved over 170 tonnes of plastic.
Cif ecorefills are now on sale across ten markets in Europe, Canada and Australia. The refills require 75% less plastic than ordinary packs, and are fully recyclable once wrappers have been removed. By diluting at home, 97% less water is transported, resulting in 80% fewer trucks needed to transport the product.
We’ve learnt that when it comes to refill–reuse, it’s definitely not a case of one-size-fits-all. Different consumers have different needs and wants, which depend on a host of factors. Where they live. How they shop. What they buy. Likewise, different product categories work better on-the-go than at home, and vice versa.
Success depends on tailoring solutions accordingly, removing barriers to entry and keeping systems as simple as possible. To support the growth of these new formats, we need to work with consumers, customers, other businesses and governments to create the systems that allow these models to prosper.
How the brand is leading the beauty ‘refillution’ with a stainless-steel pack that’s built to last
We plan to debut the bottles in Brazil by early 2022 for our OMO brand and are also piloting the technology to create paper-based hair care bottles
We’re working hard to tackle plastic packaging waste, particularly through partnerships and collaborations that drive change beyond our own operations. Here are just a few updates from our initiatives.