Four insights to create a successful refillable packaging platform

Executive Director & Partner

Increasing awareness of the severe environmental hazards caused by plastic packaging waste is generating growing interest in finding alternatives such as refillable packaging.

It comes at a time when more and more brands, businesses, and designers are exploring a range of sustainability solutions that will not only help the planet but also appeal to consumers.

With some 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the oceans every year, many companies are concerned about end-of-life materials and packaging and the damage they can cause. This is especially important in the consumer packaged goods sector, as well as for cosmetics, beverages, and household care. Luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermes, for example, now offer refillable beauty options, while furniture giant IKEA has pledged to phase out all plastic from consumer packaging by 2028. As we consider new approaches to packaging and other aspects of product design that impact the environment, here is what to keep in mind.

At Smart Design, we work with many clients on strategies that balance environmental concerns and consumer adaptation, aiming for a circular economy with environmentally responsible products that consumers will find easy to understand and use and integrate into their behavior and routines.

Discussing the specific topic of refillable packaging with Kati Chitrakorn for a recent article in Vogue Business, I pointed out that many users struggle to adopt new behaviors when companies add environmentally friendly features. Instead of switching to refillables, for instance, they end up sticking with traditional disposable packaging that ends up in landfills: Some 95 percent of cosmetics packaging is still thrown away, according to the British Beauty Council

...many users struggle to adopt new behaviors when companies add environmentally friendly features...

Compensate consumers

Demand for refillable packaging is largely driven by corporate sustainability and environmental goals rather than the usual starting point for human-centered design solutions: consumer need. It’s coming from the C-suite, or the boards of multinational packaged goods companies, or large retailers, and possibly from government mandates. While demand can originate with consumers, in this case only a small percentage of consumers are simply eager to change, which means companies have to work harder to get them on board.

One way to achieve this is to offset the greater effort involved with refillables, such as having to add water to wash out a reusable bottle, with a better functional or emotional experience. It is important to “compensate” consumers for that extra work and added steps these systems usually require, and to clearly explain cost savings and environmental benefits. 

For example, our work on Etude House’s Mini Two Match Lipstick brings together elements of personalization and fun to a refillable platform. The product allows for two small lipstick colors to be stored in a refillable pack along with a fun magnet detail; these can be easily stored and swapped as seasons and trends change. In other words, brands must deliver more delight to consumers or at least reduce friction in refillable packaging.

Consumer Packaging Perceptions


Perceptions of sustainability: Four insights for brands

We interviewed 300 green-leaning people about the pros and cons of different materials and packaging solutions.
Consumer Packaging Perceptions


Perceptions of sustainability: Four insights for brands

We interviewed 300 green-leaning people about the pros and cons of different materials and packaging solutions.

Look in the obvious places

Removing water and using concentrates instead in refillables, for example, requires smaller packaging with less material and weight, and is easier and more cost-effective to transport. After all, water is in products ranging from moisturizing lotion to dish soap and sports drinks. Shipping water around the world not only is wasteful—it has a larger footprint than packaging—but it also causes complex logistical problems. 

This was one aspect of the novel design solution we found for the Gatorade Gx Pods and Bottle system, which removes water while adding portability and personalization.

Inform consumers

Equally important is educating consumers about eco-friendly product changes that essentially amount to creating a new archetype or category. Refillables are a good example: current versions of such packaging are known to be rather fiddly and entail several steps to use, including washing and reusing the bottle. This might lead to consumer confusion and concerns about hygiene. 

It’s best to use e-commerce platforms to reach consumers. While traditional, mass in-person retail is constrained by aisles and limited shelf space to communicate with users, platforms deliver more consistent and engaging messages via video and media rich content. They can also set the stage for subscription models that make refillable systems pay off for both consumers and businesses.  

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Don’t expect consumers to move quickly to products that seem different. A slow start to user acceptance doesn’t mean a design is flawed; it simply takes time for newness to catch on and behaviors to change. Like many new products entering the market, Gatorade’s Gx pods gained momentum slowly as consumers came to understand the product.

Just look at such innovations as iPods or Nespresso’s coffee capsules, which took time to reach a point of scale where they became successful. Solutions such as refillable packaging are likely to follow a similar path to widespread consumer adaptation and acceptance—and all the while contribute to a better environment.

About Tucker Fort, Executive Director & Partner

Tucker is a pioneering voice in the design industry. He has a strong track record of creating market-defining experiences that leverage emerging technologies to meet evolving consumer trends. He is passionate about the intersection of innovation, design, and business. At Smart Design, Tucker oversees the design and technology capabilities and is the sector lead in CPG, Consumer Goods, and IoT. A guest lecturer at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Columbia Business School, Tucker is also a frequent contributor to Vogue Business, Fast Company, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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