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Across the UK, food refill concepts are being trialled and tested, and growing demand could help bolster progress. In fact, a survey of more than 2,000 consumers by Which? found that 75% were open to buying refillable products, but only a third had seen them on sale. Three in 10, meanwhile, said difficulty finding refillable products was the main reason they had not purchased any in the last year.
Which? is urging retailers and manufacturers to do more to cater to demand for refillable products after finding that the packaging of 12 popular refillable personal care and home cleaning products did not have labels indicating they could be refilled.
Catherine Conway, founder and director of Unpackaged, which works with businesses to design and implement zero-waste solutions, says refill stations offer an opportunity for retailers. “Independent retailers will always be able to offer a different, more personalised offer due to the nature of their businesses, so there is plenty of opportunity for everyone to offer refills to their customers.”
She cited another poll by Opinium that showed between 65% and 80% of adults, depending on age, would shop from a refill station if it was offered. “This is across all ages and incomes, so it’s a massive business opportunity that all retailers should be looking at.”
A lack of availability and changes to shopping behaviour are typically what prevent consumers from using refill stations, but when it comes to learning to shop differently, Catherine says consumers “soon get used to it”. The major hurdle is then ensuring more refill stations are available.
In France, legislation was announced in early April as part of an environmental bill to cut plastic waste that would require supermarkets to devote a fifth of their shelves to refill stations. Retailers have resisted the bill, according to The Times, but in the UK there is growing evidence that consumers and retailers alike want to cut plastic packaging waste.
New ‘refill or return’ labels are being introduced by OPRL, the On-Pack Recycling Label, with the backing of major supermarkets and suppliers to help customers understand which products can be refilled.
The labels include versions which say: refill at home, refill in store, or return to refill. “The growth of refillable packaging is an exciting development as brands and retailers strive to reduce the impact of single-use packaging,” said Jane Bevis, chair of OPRL. “Just as the move to greater recycling and recyclability led to the need for our original labels, we’re certain that the major shift in consumer behaviour needed to make refill systems successful has to be underpinned by clear and consistent labelling, which consumers can put their trust in.”
Catherine believes increased regulation and legislation are on the cards in the UK, too. “There is a lot of movement within Government to reset the balance between the businesses that profit from putting damaging single-use plastic packaging on the market, and local authorities who have to pay to clean it up (which is actually you and me through our council tax!),” she said.
“There are many policy levers that can be used to change this situation – we certainly expect increased regulation and legislation to be part of it. This is why retailers (large and small) should be on the front foot, and future-proofing their businesses against incoming changes.”
Independents can get involved by buying food, cleaning and personal care products in bulk and installing their own refill systems. “By offering refills in the first place, and then making the in-store (or online) customer journey as simple and intuitive as possible with the right product range, good equipment and attractive signage,” Catherine said retailers can help move towards a more sustainable shopping system.
Educating members of staff will also be an important way to make shoppers who are new to refills feel comfortable. “Retailers should really invest in training staff well to be able to help customers – once they get the hang of it, they’ll come back for more as refills are excellent repeat business,” she added.
In the near future, Catherine expects to see the continued adoption of refill concepts in retail. “There will be refill options available for many different types of products (food and non food) across many different types of stores, as well as food to go offers.” And retailers will be key to turning this vision into a reality.
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