We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.Richard Slater, Chief R&D Officer, Unilever
Reuse. Refill. Rethink. Our progress towards a packaging revolution
We’ve been working on simple, sustainable solutions that will help millions of people cut plastic consumption for good. Here’s what we’ve learnt so far.
The need for an absolute reduction in plastic use is abundantly clear. A recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ – ‘’ – found that ocean-bound plastic is set to triple by 2040 unless radical action is taken.
But solutions do exist. The same report found this amount can be reduced by 80% if major transformational change takes place. So, at Unilever, we’re taking action. In 2019, we pledged that by 2025 we would halve the use of virgin plastic in our packaging and remove more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic entirely.
Our starting point has to be design. We’re reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources. We’re aiming to ensure that all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 – and we’re working at an unprecedented speed and intensity to make progress. One solution is refillable, reusable formats, and we’re exploring how to bring those to consumers around the world.
As Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater explains: “To tackle the root causes of plastic waste we need to think differently about packaging. We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.
“By adopting a ‘test, learn and refine’ mentality, we’ve developed innovative solutions that will help people cut their use of plastic for good,” Richard adds.
New products. New packs. New models.
We’ve appointed dedicated teams to accelerate our work on reusable, refillable formats and we’re investing in pilot programmes all over the world to test their viability. We’ve been learning along the way and refining various models to find out what works for consumers – and for us as a business.
Our partners at the have outlined four models for refillable and reusable consumer products that we agree have very strong potential. All four approaches are informing the pilot projects we are running. We’re also exploring business-to-business models through Unilever Food Solutions which provides products for the hospitality sector.
- Refill at home: where consumers reuse their packaging by refilling at home, for example with a concentrated version that is diluted with water
- Refill on the go: where shoppers refill their containers through dispensing systems in stores
- Return from home: where consumers can arrange for packaging to be collected from their home and refilled
- Return on the go: where consumers return packaging at a drop-off point, and it is collected and refilled by manufacturers
- Business-to-business refills and returns: where hospitality sector businesses can order large refills for professional kitchens
By making refill and reuse formats widely available, accessible, and affordable, we hope to use our scale and reach to drive lasting change. But we can’t do this alone. There’s strength in numbers, and for this to really make an impact, we need shoppers, retailers and governments to see the benefits.
That’s why, for the first time, we’re sharing what we’ve learnt.
Here are some of the initiatives we’ve been working on.
Lessons from our refill-reuse pilots (8 items)
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution
The case studies above highlight 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. Additional projects include in-store refills in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and France. We’ve also introduced vending machine refills in Sri Lanka, and a number of pilot refill projects in employee stores at Unilever offices around the world.
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.
Our projects have highlighted some clear findings. Here are a few of them.
Nine insights from our work so far…
1. We must offer more than sustainability
The projects that we’ve seen grow the fastest have been those where we have been able to communicate a very clear value proposition to consumers.
In many cases that’s not just related to sustainability – it’s about price and convenience too.
Additional set-up costs to establish refill points or a return/reuse infrastructure are to be expected, but the benefits are reduced logistics and packaging costs.
2. Digital can drive a difference
Digital solutions, such as apps or online subscriptions, offer huge potential when it comes to refills, making it easy for consumers to order top-ups of the products they need.
Not only is e-commerce a fast-growing channel for Unilever as a whole, but it also provides invaluable insights and data which can help shape and support our relationship with consumers.
3. In-store refills need amplifying
Despite Covid-19 restrictions and physical distancing rules, in-store refill stations can work well when the consumer journey is properly supported.
Our in-store pilots have shown that refill stations alone will not deliver results. They need to be amplified and promoted with clear, engaging communications and shoppers may need assistance from in-store staff.
Communicating the benefits of refilling to consumers who are used to conventional purchasing options presents a challenge – but it’s absolutely vital. Even consumers who are predisposed to more sustainable choices may not fully understand the environmental and economic advantages that come with refilling. We believe that widespread public communications campaigns are needed to clarify the benefits of refills – alongside smaller-scale campaigns for specific refill or reuse solutions.
4. Repeatability is required
For reusable packaging to take off, consumers need to keep coming back and topping up their products repeatedly.
Our Algramo partnership, highlighted in the case studies above, shows that the business model relied on a proposition and process that encouraged consumers to return their empty packs, and made it simple for them to do so.
5. This needs an agile, entrepreneurial approach
The people behind our brands have embraced entrepreneurial thinking to great effect, taking projects from idea to pilot in a short space of time.
We have appointed teams who are focused on reuse-refill projects, and established dedicated ‘disruptor’ teams, staffed with employees who bring new skills and expertise to Unilever, many coming from the start-up sector.
6. Our absolute plastics reduction goal is key
Our corporate commitment to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we use by 100,000 tonnes has been integral to our reuse and refill partnerships.
It provides a clear vision for our employees and our partners on the work to be done, and sparks the innovations needed to deliver the goal.
7. We must collaborate to change the system
We need to work with consumers, customers, other businesses and governments to create the systems that allow these models to prosper.
Our pilots have shown that when we can partner with those that share our vision – for example, with retailers that also wish to reduce plastic use – we can bring projects to scale more quickly.
8. Government policy can make a big impact
Government policy, including setting standards and providing incentives for refilling and reusing packaging, can create the right enabling environment for these models to flourish.
The nascent nature of refill models means that regulatory guidelines and public policies can be vague, and we’ve come across challenges with this in several of our pilots. We expect this to change and we look forward to working with policymakers to help shape a clear way forward.
9. We must be bold with innovation
It’s taken a bold approach to innovation to get to this stage of our refill-reuse journey. We’ve had to entirely rethink our approach to packaging design, learning as we go. We’ve found out vital learnings that need to be integrated in future innovation, such as the importance of clear bottles when consumers refill at home with a concentrate, so they can see the unique formulation working.
We’re learning from every insight, improving and evolving our plans.
So, what’s next for Unilever?
The refill and reuse approach is in its early days. We’re all still learning. But experimenting in real-world conditions has given us a lengthy list of insights – and an even lengthier to-do list. Now we want to build momentum and do everything in our power to help bring about a refill-reuse revolution.
Sharing what we’ve learnt is a start, and we hope it will be useful. But global change needs a whole system behind it. We know we can’t do this alone, it requires buy-in from retailers, manufacturers, delivery services, civil society organisations and, of course, consumers. We also see a critical role for governments, especially in helping promote innovation and encouraging investment. We’ll keep collaborating to help make this happen.
Our experiments will also continue. We can see that by keeping things simple, with concentrated refills for example or digital solutions to re-order supplies, we can make changes easier for consumers to adopt, and improve the likelihood of making new habits last.
We have appointed dedicated in-house teams to build expertise, test different approaches and scale up successful pilots. And we’ll keep learning along the way and refining our successes.
We’re rethinking plastic. Will you?