Andy Capper

Sustainable Packaging Design: Refills and systems


Refills present the single biggest opportunity to significantly reduce waste packaging and its overall carbon footprint. Research from The LCA Centre says that buying a refill instead of a complete product saves 70 per cent CO2, 65% energy and 45% water.

So why aren’t more brands and consumers adopting these systems?

People want to make more environmentally responsible purchases, but often convenience and price take priority. Paying the same for less convenience will always be a hard sell for consumers. If we want to see a mass shift in behaviour, the design and usability elements of the complete system are critical to the success of the product.

We have been designing refill concepts for years, which are usually rejected for a more conventional bottle; so what are the barriers preventing brands from using them? Well, it transpires, there are a number of things: retail shelving, filling lines, costs of designing the system, price point, product performance, convenience, usability, mess when changing refills and simple desirability.

These are all critical practical points that need solving, but the huge benefits in sustainability gains are putting refills back on brands’ agendas.

And it’s not just the packaging eco-system that needs to innovate. Highly concentrated products which are diluted by the consumer allow refill packages to be even more minimal, further reducing the carbon footprint in the supply chain.

A lot of refill solutions start life with more niche premium brands that can offer the products at a higher price point. If we can begin by getting consumers to build rituals and adopt these in high value categories like beauty and cosmetics where brands have more margin and where premium aesthetics and better experiences are essential, can it filter down to our everyday behaviours and products?

Zero Waste Week reported that over 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the cosmetics industry. Very little of this is recycled due to mixed materials which are hard to clean and separate. Pumps and other dispensing parts aren’t recyclable, and small plastic or glass containers are hard to clean and separate for recycling. Some brands are trying to shift consumers into refills but often they aren’t as sustainable as the idea first seems.

Refillable Cosmetics

Guerlain Noir G claims to be the first refillable mascara and offers the consumer the added value of a premium durable case with integrated mirror. The refill still includes a disposable wand, full black plastic case and lid. Are we only paying lip service to sustainability if the refill comes with almost as much material and complexity as the primary?

What if they used a washable wand that wasn’t disposed of after each refill? Or significantly reduced the plastic weight of the refill? Simply switching to a clear plastic refill would allow it to be recycled, with the durable case hiding the product within.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Lush naked lipstick, a refill solution with no packaging at all. A wax wrap encases the lipstick refill with a tear strip to carefully unwrap it without the consumer having to touch and ruin the fresh lipstick when reloading. It’s also been designed to fit into any lipstick case not only the Lush refill.

Cleaner cleaning brands

Unilever is helping to lead the way for other mass brands to make the switch to refills. Domestical cleaning brand Cif offers one of the first concentrated refill systems spotted on our supermarket shelves. The consumer is required to add the refill to an old spray bottle already filled with water and shake. Made with 75% less plastic, if successful, it will help remove 1.5million plastic bottles from UK supermarkets. This concentrated format means 97% less water is transported with 87% less trucks on the road.

This nicely illustrates the tension between cost, brand and consumer hassle. It requires more steps from the consumer, whilst being retailed at a similar price to the standard Cif spray bottle.

Will this become the norm?

Unilever’s Compress deodorant cans, (which use 50% less propellant, 25% less aluminium and last just as long) failed to become the mainstream, as consumers struggled with the value perception, which in turn didn’t encourage other brands to follow suit, despite Unilever making the technology open source. There are clear parallels here.   

Redressing the refillables ecosystem

One company that has created a refill platform for some of the biggest mass brands is Loop. This system involves durable packaging being delivered, used, returned and refilled. Rather than the consumer having to invest in the durable part, the durable packaging is owned by the brand and they simply pay a deposit.

By integrating the delivery and cleaning system into the service, you are removing the barrier of consumers remembering to take refill jars to stores and having to carry bulk refills back. It takes five ‘Loop cycles’ of fill-and-reuse to be better from an environmental standpoint than disposable packaging. It has also allowed brands to realise the functional and aesthetic innovation opportunities created by using refillables. Desirability and better performance are essential to gaining loyalty.

The double-walled steel Häagen-Dazs container elevates the experience, keeping the ice cream in optimal condition during transport and consumption. Once opened the ice cream melts more quickly at the top. Gone are both the spoon bending solidity of a new pack and the soggy, deformed cardboard as we get to the last of the ice cream.   

However, though Loop is offering ‘everyday brands’, it is still only in a few major cities and at a very premium price point; that means accessibility is limited to all but the most metropolitan affluent. Will Loop catch on beyond a small niche of sustainable consumers?  This is yet to be seen.

Whilst COVID has sped up the transition from store to digital shopping, this system still feels like a prototype. It’s moving consumers in the right direction, but we need to get them to understand the benefits at shelf as part of their regular shop. If we can’t convert the everyday value shoppers, then we will never gain sustainability benefits at a scale that has a tangible positive impact.


Brands have always attracted consumers with how products look, and this has never been more important in encouraging the adoption of sustainable systems like refills. Consumers will only change their behaviour if they are compelled to try this in those brief decision-making seconds whilst standing in front of the shelf. If anything about the system is confusing to understand or looks like it might be more involved or messy, the barriers will immediately go up. The same goes for the price point relative to what they’re used to purchasing. Consumers shop with their eyes, hearts and wallets.

By offering a reusable element, brands are able to elevate their existing aesthetics with the ‘keeper’ element whilst making a sustainability statement through minimising the amount of single use packaging. Refills can also offer a more bespoke experience allowing consumers to trial and experiment with different fragrances, products and formulations. Businesses can drive brand loyalty with subscription models and in return consumers benefit from the convenience of automatic reordering.

We know this model can work. Moving from a basic disposable razor to a highly desirable system, with improved performance of both the consumable and durable element, Gillette has encouraged generations of men and women to pay in some cases x50 more for a closer shave.

A study from the  Ellen MacArthur Foundation  revealed that converting 20% of all plastic packaging into reuse models represents a $10 billion opportunity. All brands today need a future thinking mindset to realise the opportunities that a circular economy refill model offers and accept the initial investment to help make future cost savings, open up customisation/personalisation opportunities, build brand loyalty and create superior designs with increased usability benefits for consumers. The beauty industry will be one of the hardest to solve and one that has the most work to do.

Ways to solve the challenges presented by refills:

Design the system, not just the packaging

Test early and often

Design out the functional usage issues

Make it easy to understand that it is easy to use

Pass on some of the savings to consumers

Consider the longer term – lock the consumer into a system and get on going brand loyalty and repeat purchase

Echo Visual Example: Luna365

We have explored a new design solution to a beauty product that’s yet to have the ‘sustainable’ treatment – liquid foundation. We already know that pumps aren’t recyclable and when it comes to the glass bottles (which are technically recyclable), they are also notoriously difficult to wash out and any remaining residue can contaminate a recycling batch. However, the most important issue with glass is its hidden environmental cost. Both its weight and bulk mean that it is inefficient to transport, resulting in an increased carbon  footprint.

Luna365, a sustainable refill solution for liquid foundation explores the future of cosmetics with a circular DTC service that is both sustainable and encourages beauty lovers to experiment with makeup – the sustainable Nespresso pod of the makeup world!

The infinitely recyclable aluminium pods come in two sizes to fit with the consumers usage to avoid any wasted product. The reusable/interchangeable cap is made from 100% recycled plastic and allows for easy change over between products. The cap is easy to clean and dishwasher safe.

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