What’s next for refill?

25 March 2022, 08:06 AM
  • Zero-waste and refill shops across the country are suffering a drop in trade as hyper convenience takes over, but what does this mean for the fine food industry?
What’s next for refill?

With a climate crisis threatening our planet, a vast number of consumers have been aspiring to more sustainable lifestyles, and Kantar predicts that 62% of the British population will be ‘Eco Actives’ by 2030. This means that brands and retailers that currently underperform with Eco Actives face a big loss as this shift in the population increases.

Multiple factors at play
Low waste and refill shops are suffering on the other side of Covid, with many either facing closure or merely breaking even. Megan Adams, Re:Store Refill is one of those feeling the effects: “We have seen a decline in footfall and sales over the past few months and the reality is we can only just afford staff salaries at the moment so if this is a long-term trend, we won’t be able to survive.”

Megan continued: “There are so many factors at play at the moment; cost of living increases, increased demand from convenience offerings, increased expectations of ‘convenience’ post-pandemic, and unfortunately for some it was a ‘trend’ that has fallen off their radar. 

“It feels like there’s so much going on in the world that the climate crisis has taken a back seat, which is totally understandable, but we really need to get it back on the agenda because the issue hasn’t gone away. We’re still in a very precarious position and not enough action is being taken at government and industry levels, and this lack of action also influences what the public thinks is important, and what isn’t.

“The level of expectation on convenience that’s been created by the likes of Amazon and these new super-fast grocery apps are a false economy because someone always pays for it somewhere along the chain, whether that be poorly paid workers or products manufactured in unsafe conditions, not to mention the increase of vehicles on the roads.”

Sian Sutherland, chief changemaker at A Plastic Planet agreed that the consumers’ expectation of hyper convenience is the main issue facing the sector. “There are always pioneers in every new movement and those that embraced the zero-waste movement should be celebrated. But we all know that if we do not replace the current model of hyper-convenient retail with something that is even more 21st century, it will not become mainstream. Shoppers are busy, they never know when they are going to be popping into a store to replenish their consumables. We have to work with the reality of this rather than expect shoppers to make all the effort. 

“Until we create a new normal of refill at a huge scale, I don’t think it will happen fast enough. And to do this, we need governments to step up and be a catalyst for faster adoption. France is planning to mandate that all larger supermarkets dedicate 20% of their floor space to refill. This is exactly what we should be doing in the UK

“Once refill is ‘normalised’, once we create an exciting retail environment that rewards you for shopping in this way, once we recognise that pre-fill and DRS and other ways to ensure permanent packaging is possible, the refill revolution can properly scale.”

A zero-waste future
But Catherine Conway, founder and director of Unpackaged believes there is still a high agenda for sustainable living, and independent retailers should continue to invest in a zero-waste future. “I don’t think they have lost interest in zero waste lifestyles - plenty of zero waste business models are thriving in grocery, personal care and food to go. 

“But there is a very real crisis amongst bricks and mortar small zero-waste shops who are struggling (as small independent high street stores do when times are hard, we went through the same after the financial crisis) - this will be due to a combination of factors and these businesses deserve support from both customers, as well as local government as they’re often community businesses at the heart of their communities. 

“All the large retailers are investing in refill and reuse systems, especially as the technology develops, so I still think this is a long-term trend that is here to stay and will only grow in popularity. Coupled with the incoming regulatory changes (Plastics Tax, EPR etc.) the direction of travel is that single-use plastic packaging will become increasingly more expensive to put on the market, which will help shift supply chain, retailer and consumer behaviour towards reuse & refill. Businesses that invest now will reap the benefits, but it is a long road ahead.”

Sally Sneddon, commercial buying manager for Keelham Farm Shop agreed: “As disposable income is being squeezed, consumers are still looking to make ethical, sustainable choices through their grocery shopping. Consumers will be more demanding to ensure businesses are doing all they can to ensure zero waste is still on the agenda. The companies which are putting this high on their priorities list will be successful.”

It seems that instead of moving away from refill stations and low-waste living products, independent retailers should focus on making these options more convenient and easier to access. Although independents will never achieve hyper convenience, consumers are still dedicated to living more sustainably, and making that easier for them will attract more customers.

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