The Beauty Refill Revolution

Where does the beauty cabinet stand in the revolution?

words hannah cole photography supplied

Recycling programmes like TerraCycle are all well and good, but there is so much hassle involved. Being a sustainable, pro-recycling consumer requires optimum effort and a wealth of time. The onus is on us to show initiative, get those bottles clean, and drop off or send them to the appropriate facility. Washing tubes of moisturiser and sudsy shampoo bottles is far from being a fun Sunday afternoon activity. It’s not that we don’t care, but life happens. 

This is just one reason that sustainable aficionados are heralding in a new wave of refillable products. We’re au fait with buying pantry staples in bulk from the wholefoods store — oats, nuts, oil, spices — so even supermarket giants are hopping on board. Coles has started exploring sustainability in the Australian market, offering refills of body wash, shampoo, and laundry liquid in selected stores. Natural cleaning offerings like Koala Eco encourage bulk refill purchases, housed consciously in 100 per cent post-consumer recycled bottles. 

According to the LCA Centre (an external body that assesses the life cycle of packaging), choosing refills over new has drastic savings: 70 per cent of the CO2, 65 per cent of the energy, and 45 per cent of the water. Even with COVID’s setbacks and increased fears over germ-spreading, the future of sustainable refills is growing in steam. 

Where does the beauty cabinet stand in this revolution?

The logistics of beauty refills comes with its own set of problems. Many heralded skincare products contain active ingredients which must be kept fresh. Sanitation also poses an issue: it’s a far cry from using any old bottle for the kitchen cleaner. When it comes to the face, we need the best and the most hygienic. Even with these setbacks, brands and retailers are exploring new ways to package and refill — and ones that won’t take a day of errands to fulfill.  

The in-store refill centre has translated from the wholefoods department to the beauty. The Body Shop and Lush have navigated return-and-earn programmes for years, but Sydney-based Foile introduces the concept to the luxury market. 

The store, which launched in 2020, is undertaking the mission to offer uncomplicated, luxe beauty products with a sustainable bent. Shop from the Foile Classics range — a collection of gels, oils and clays — then purchase a refill pouch to fill ‘er up again at home. Refills are also available on selected products from other brands, which are stocked up in-store. It’s more pleasant for the environment and a wallet-friendly alternative, with refills coming out cheaper. 

As many experts say, the luxury market needs to lead the way in sustainability. It paints the movement as aspirational, desirable, and status-worthy. If these players can win the market, the mass will follow.  

For most brands, ‘sustainable’ or ‘recyclable’ packaging means weighty glass bottles, which are then tossed in the recycling bin post-consumption. As with the wine industry, glass is not the solution. It’s sturdier, heavier nature adds to shipping and carbon emissions, and the demand for recycled glass is low, given the affordability of creating new.

This idea is something the Danish-born, New York-based makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis considers with her namesake label. It’s all about long-lasting packaging with an alluring sense of organic and luxurious beauty. 

Instead, Kjaer Weis plays with different materials. The core offering arrives in a non-recyclable, specialty metal casing designed to exude elegance, last forever, and continually live in the beauty cabinet. We buy luxury not only for the quality but for the illustrious appeal of the packaging and the status symbol it holds. If it looks glamorous enough, we may even hold onto it for years to come, as with the entirely unuseful collection of shapely perfume bottles. Here, the luxe packaging serves a purpose. Refills are available across compacts, mascaras and lipsticks, which easily slot into place within the outer metal casing. 

Other notable brands are following this lead with easy at-home refills. Tata Harper offers recyclable moisturiser pots that click into the outer jar, and La Mer introduced powder foundation refills, among many others. 

Peggy Sue, an Australian natural beauty and skincare label, sends pouches of product to refill branded glass bottles at home. These pouches “contain 80 per cent less plastic than the lid of our glass bottles,” the label claims, and each delivery comes with a return envelope enclosed so the brand can appropriately repurpose the packaging. 

The innovation that gets me going is the idea of the capsule, though. Bolt Beauty offers skincare ‘drops’; each contains the right amount for one application. The casing is made from biodegradable seaweed (dissolvable in boiling water) and delivers in compostable refill packaging. Zero waste beauty is the core of the brand, and they also look damn cute with their pearlescent sheen. Buy a jar, then refill, with absolutely nothing to dispose of in the recycling bin. This is the future of beauty — both in practicality and sustainability. 

There is plenty of room to grow and a lot of work required to offset the packaging demons of the past. At least now, brands are taking it in their stride and investigating and experimenting; there are thoughtful developments to reduce waste in the beauty industry. Take a look at your cabinet — one bottle at a time — where can the adjustments be made?

bolt beauty

A Bolt Beauty skincare ‘drop’, contains the right amount for one application. The casing is made from biodegradable seaweed (dissolvable in boiling water) and delivers in compostable refill packaging.

Kjaer Weis refills are available across compacts, mascaras and lipsticks, which easily slot into place within the outer metal casing. 

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