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Can Refillable Beauty Go Mainstream?

Chanel, Dries Van Noten and Target are debuting beauty products that are meant to be replenished, in a sign that the concept may be starting to catch on.
A refillable body wash dispenser from Plus.
A refillable body wash dispenser from Plus. (Plus)

Starting this week, shoppers browsing at Target will find a new body wash that differs from the standard lineup of bar soap and plastic bottles: A red and purple round plastic dispenser that resembles a toy and administers dried sheets that turn into soap when water is added.

The dispenser is the latest product from personal care startup Plus, which launched direct-to-consumer almost a year ago and is now entering Target.

Plus, founded by former marketing professional Cathryn Woodruff, along with Brian Bordainick and Julie Schott, who are also the co-founders of acne sticker brand Starface, aims for zero waste — even its paper packaging dissolves in water. But Woodruff told BoF it also wanted to tackle refillable beauty. To do so, it turned its small soap sheets into a roll, which shoppers can order at Target or on its website.

The startup’s presence in the big box retailer — a part of Target Zero, a new initiative from the retail company to carry more sustainable products — is just the latest sign of momentum for refillable beauty, products that can be reordered without a new container, thereby reducing waste.

Though it’s existed for years, refillable beauty hasn’t quite caught on with the masses. But now, there’s newfound interest in the concept, from the mass market, like at Target, to luxury. Dries Van Noten’s recently-launched first beauty collection will include refillable lipsticks and fragrances, while Chanel’s new clean beauty line, No.1, also has refillable lipsticks and moisturiser.

A number of startups focussed exclusively on refillable product have also popped up. There’s French beauty brand La Bouche Rouge, which just raised €10 million ($10.8 million) in funding last month, and Izzy, which refills customers’ mascara and lip gloss tubes. DTC brand Myro makes refillable soaps and deodorant and Loop, a service that works with stores like Walgreens, Boots and Ulta to sell food and grooming products in zero-waste packaging that can be refilled in stores.

2022, it seems, might be the year refillable beauty finally cracks the mainstream.

“If we’re ultimately going to shift mainstream behaviour, we need to be in the aisle–amidst that sea of plastic bottles at mass retail,” said Stephanie Shepherd, Plus’ chief impact officer and former chief operating officer for Kardashian West Brands.

Experts say the timing is right for refillable beauty to catch on — this past holiday season, searches for refillable fragrance spiked 431 percent, according to Nielsen. They note, however, that it won’t be so easy to convince shoppers to abandon old habits, or brands to adopt more challenging manufacturing practices.

“There needs to be a reasonable enough ask for [consumers] to do it in the first place because otherwise they won’t,” said Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director at Allure.

A Costly Investment

The beauty industry is plagued by its waste problem: About 120 billion units of beauty packaging are produced every year, according to waste management company TerraCycle, and about 70 percent of that ends up in landfills. Brands have endeavoured to find fixes: Packaging made from recycled materials or reverting to more easily-recyclable materials like aluminium.

But when it comes to an environmental impact, the goal is to produce fewer materials in general. With refillable beauty, shoppers can keep up with their grooming routines while creating less waste.

Creating eye-catching packaging, refillable or not, is also a time-consuming and costly process. It was for that reason that Dries Van Noten went the refillable route.

“It … only made sense to make [our bottles] be refillable,” said Ana Trias Arraut, the chief brand officer at Puig, Dries Van Noten’s parent company. “Why put time and money into developing bottles only to have them thrown away?”

Chanel's No.1 revitalizing cream is refillable.

But developing refillable beauty products brings on additional costs. Product containers need to be durable enough to withstand multiple refills. Brands also should consider developing their own special refill systems so that consumers won’t go and buy competitors’ refills.

“[It’s] an exercise in mechanical engineering,” said Meera Clark, a venture capitalist at Obvious Ventures, which has invested in refillable personal care startup Myro. “Development costs are expensive and constrain access, as few are eager to share their IP with competitors.”

Such costs are worth the investment in building consumer trust, said Arraut, as well as loyalty. Refillable beauty satisfies consumer desire for more sustainable products, while for brands, it locks consumers in for repeat purchases, added Clark.

“The model itself is expensive but it’s an investment in the long run,” Arraut added. “You need to think of what this will mean to the consumer, and what will it mean for your future.”

Some brands’ refillables are just product in larger bottles, which can be poured into the original container, like Love Beauty and Planet, Target’s first refillable brand. But many consumers want to see more sweeping changes to curb waste.

“Refillable can become a meaningless marketing term,” said Bailly. “Positive impact on the planet is not about whether something can be refilled but whether it will be —again and again and again.”

Woodruff said the Plus development team purposely developed its soap to be water-free, and its refill, a lightweight roll of dehydrated sheets, so that it would contend with the impacts of shipping.

“The whole point of reducing Co2 emission in shipping is to not be shipping out plastic bottles,” Woodruff said. “It should weigh less.”

Lowering the Barriers to Entry

Plus will be sold on shelves right next to personal care giants like Dove and Olay, but Woodruff knows it will be difficult to compete with big brands, particularly because consumers have years-long habits of buying their products.

Dries Van Noten's debut beauty collection includes a line of refillable perfumes.

“Refillable beauty brands … struggle to engage consumers, as [shoppers tend to] race down the aisle, eager to move on with their day,” said Clark.

With its launch in Target, Woodruff said Plus decided to change its pricing structure, from $16.50 for 16 sheets to ten sheets for $6.99. The dispenser with one roll of body wash sheets will cost $14.99, and a refill roll will cost $10.99.

“A piece to changing mainstream behaviour is pricing,” said Woodruff. “If people are going to make a sustainable choice, it can’t be incredibly more expensive than what’s around them. The product needs to be more accessible.”

Similar price points will help level the playing field for refillable beauty brands, but companies must also make sure the barriers to entry are low. Bailly recommended brands introduce refillable programs that have easy, fast shipping instructions.

“Consumers want to want to be sustainable, but there isn’t a lot that they’re able to take on if it’s not convenient,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Plus co-founder Brian Bordainick is married to Rachel Strugatz, a BoF contributor. She was not involved in the production of this story.

Further Reading

The luxury beauty brand has entered a new phase of growth over the pandemic, almost doubling sales to reach €119 million and launching cosmetics. With a skincare debut on the horizon, can the niche fragrance label turn itself into a true beauty powerhouse?

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