Refills Could Be The Answer To Beauty’s Plastic Problem – But There’s A Catch

Photo courtesy of Montamonta.
The beauty industry has a plastic problem. From shampoo and conditioner bottles to sheet masks and mascara tubes, the global cosmetics industry contributes significantly to plastic pollution and the statistics are a cause for concern.
Zero Waste Week recently concluded that we manufacture an enormous 120 billion units of packaging every year, a lot of which isn't recyclable. But we aren't ignoring the facts. According to, 68% of people feel guilty for not buying eco-friendly cosmetics and the industry is slowly responding. Brilliant new brands like We Are Paradoxx are choosing aluminium packaging, which can be recycled on an infinite loop. Many Lush products, including its burgeoning makeup collection, are now entirely plastic packaging-free, while Tropic has introduced compostable pouches to house its Mineral Foundation.
Entire websites dedicated to shopping eco-friendly beauty are also springing up. SUSTbeauty very recently launched with sustainable, environmentally friendly brands like Ere Perez, MONTAMONTA and Neighbourhood Botanicals. A host of companies are joining forces with waste management company TerraCycle, too. The Body Shop in particular has introduced recycle bins in various stores so that customers can return their empties instead of throwing them away.
Aside from compostable and easily recyclable credentials, you might have spotted the trend for 'refillable' packaging. The concept is simple: When you've used the product, you are encouraged to take or send the packaging back to the store or brand you bought it from and receive a top-up, often at a reduced price. While the aforementioned alternatives are, of course, much better than single-use plastic, it’s arguably even more beneficial for the environment if you can avoid waste altogether by refilling bottles and compacts.
Thankfully, there are a number of brands taking part. You may already know about Kjaer Weis' Instagrammable silver compacts with room for product pods, Le Labo's scheme with Liberty, where you can refill your signature scent with 20% off, Hourglass' refillable lipstick bullets and Surratt's eyeliner cartridges. Interestingly though, it seems that not many of us are sold. Further research by found that despite a strong feeling of eco-guilt, only 21% of people have bought refillable beauty products.
One reason could be the price point. As it stands, the majority of brands offering refillable systems are high end and mainly available in luxury department stores. This isn't entirely accessible, says Chanel, 26. "I looked into refillable schemes because I'm a makeup addict and get through so many products, but I found that I couldn't afford much. At first, I tried to see it as an investment. One of the blush compacts I researched would set me back around £50 and the refills would be cheaper from then on, at around £30. That said, I shop for the majority of my makeup on the high street when I can and pay something like £5.99 for blush. Even though I know the packaging isn't very environmentally friendly, it's what I can afford at the end of the day."
That's the catch-22. We want eco-friendly beauty routines but high price tags put us off. In addition, refillable schemes are often quite exclusive and involve picking up refill pods at select department stores. This is potentially easy if you live in places like London, but not so for many others who live outside major cities. Some brands offer refill schemes via post, but often postage costs must be covered by the individual. Not only is money an issue here, convenience is, too. "Having an eco-friendly beauty routine is important to me," says Ayse, 32, who has previously sent back products via post to be refilled. "I think this is a good service but I have to admit, it's a bit of a hassle for me and I always have to pay for postage. If this service was available on the high street for certain popular brands, I could literally just pop in on my lunch break and it would be so much easier. It's disappointing that more brands, especially affordable ones, don't offer this service or make it simple for loyal customers."
Research by NPD Group recently found that the high street remains a firm favourite among British shoppers in regard to beauty, with high street stores still accounting for 80% of prestige beauty sales in 2018 compared to online retailers. This begs the question: Why aren't refill stations readily available on the high street, where the majority of beauty lovers are spending their money? Surely this is where the biggest difference can be made.
A handful of high street brands are pioneering refillable beauty, although they are still quite under the radar. As well as housing products in post-consumer plastic, beauty editor-approved high street haircare brand Faith In Nature (available at Boots and Holland & Barrett) provides refill stations up and down the country where consumers can replenish shampoo, conditioner and more. Products start at just £2.75.
While the service is incredibly popular among consumers, Faith In Nature's head of marketing Hannah Whittaker mentions that there are clearly still some execution challenges when it comes to refillable schemes, which could be why they are still so few and far between. "Inconsistency on guidance in the refills area could also be the reason why more brands aren’t following suit," she says. "However, we've seen such a phenomenal reaction to our refill stations. We started out with the feeling that our consumers who love our products should have the opportunity to reduce their plastic usage. This feeling was widely recognised and the refill scheme quickly became more a part of our core business." As leaders in the field, Hannah says that the brand's aim is not to pursue perfection in terms of how packaging looks or feels, but to stay true to the ethical heart of the brand and answer the demands of its audience. "Offering refills continues to be the perfect way for us to do this," she adds.
In an exciting move towards sustainability, high street beauty giant Olay has recently announced that it will be testing its refillable Olay Regenerist Whip moisturiser (coming soon to the UK), as the brand has a commitment to making more of its packages recyclable or reusable. Consumers can purchase the refillable Olay Regenerist Whip package, which contains one full jar of Olay Regenerist Whip and one refill, to be placed inside the jar once empty. "The package will be sold and shipped in a container made of 100% recycled paper and will not contain an outer carton in order to reduce the use of paperboard," Olay told R29.
Anitra Marsh, associate director of brand communications, global skin and personal care brands at P&G, who leads the global sustainability task force for those categories, adds: "We are conscious of the plastic waste accumulating in our oceans and landfills, and we aim to make more of our Olay packaging recyclable or reusable. Our refill pods are a starting point on this journey. Over time, if we moved a significant portion of Olay Regenerist moisturiser jars to a refillable offering, say five million jars’ worth, then that would save over 1,000,000 lb of plastic. We still have a lot to learn about whether consumers enjoy using a refillable form, and this pilot will help us understand more about that." The trial has already kicked off in the US, and has proved popular. "During a three-month pilot in the US, we sold the Olay Regenerist Whip in limited edition pink jar with refill pod on in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We sold out of our supply in about 28 days, and this became the #2 bestseller on in October. We are thrilled that consumers purchased the limited edition Olay Regenerist Whip with refill pod in the US and hope to see a positive response in the UK as well."
Also on the high street and available at Superdrug, beauty blogger-approved makeup brand Revolution offers refillable palettes for everything from eyeshadow and blush to highlighter and bronzer, starting at £4. And with MAC Cosmetics stores continuing to pop up on high streets up and down the country, it pays to know that the brand also sells refill pans for various powder products in a selection of different shades – and at a lower price than those in a compact. The Body Shop also recently launched a refill shower gel station in their Bond Street store and are looking to expand next year. The initial refill bottle is £6 (£1 more than the usual shower gel) but you can then refill the bottle for just £4 the next time you are in store, saving £1 for every refill. 
While small steps are being taken, it's important to note that real change isn’t solely in the hands of the consumer. The responsibility also lies with brands and the government to really make a difference in tackling beauty waste. If investing in refillable schemes long-term is viable for you, then that's great. But if the current services don’t suit your budget or lifestyle, buying into brands which use either aluminium, glass or recyclable and biodegradable packaging is a good place to start. You can read more about the best, simple ways to make your beauty routine more eco-friendly here.

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