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11 November 2021

Reusables and Refill Stations: What “packaging free” means for national and private brands

The city of Glasgow has been playing host to the COP26 UN Climate Conference. Billed as “the world’s best last chance to get climate change under control”, the annual gathering of the UN Conference of the Parties, or COP for short, sees the 197 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) convene with climate experts and world leaders to discuss the practical steps the world must take to avoid the worst effects of climate change.


Its goals? To secure global net zero by 2050, keep the 1.5-degree global warming limit within reach, and encourage countries to set ambitious targets for reaching net zero and reducing their carbon emissions.


Businesses will play a huge part. Partnered with COP26 are companies the likes of Microsoft, Unilever, Sky, NatWest Group, Sainsbury’s and the National Grid, who may well use the summit to publicly demonstrate their desire to be change-leaders in the private sector.


The momentum of COP26 is likely to be significant. Younger generations are demanding change – and fast. If there’s one thing we know about young people, it’s their commitment to voting with their wallet. They buy from, champion, and defend the brands that align with their values and, as savvy consumers, they demand evidence of progress, not just promises.


Part of the legacy of COP26 will be to urge corporations to think radically about how they can adopt and adhere to new solutions and operations that bring real-world environmental benefits.


Businesses will be asked, by consumers and governments alike, to participate in paradigm shifts, to fund research into new technologies and materials, to communicate best practices across industry ecosystems, to serve as advocates for change, and to adopt the energy and waste reduction strategies shown to be effective by fellow businesses.


Reduce, reuse, refill


Branding and packaging agencies like ours have a clear remit: to serve as a sound packaging partner with efficient processes that advance projects swiftly and smoothly. But in today’s context it also means we must be supporters, enabling retailers to meet consumers’ sustainability demands. In short, it means being a supply chain ally.


A growing number of businesses are keen to transition to materials and packaging formats that mitigate negative environmental impacts. This could mean opting for non-toxic inks, resulting in an eco-friendlier VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) profile that reduces or eliminates emissions. Another potential solution is pack front and/or POS redesign that encourages customers to choose FSC-certified recycled card, rPET bottles or a refillable, reusable container.


From supermarkets like Aldi and Tesco to D2C beauty brands, retailers are running packaging return schemes and reusable packaging and refill stations. Their aim is to make it easy and convenient for consumers to live up to their own environmental values. Let’s compare three recent trials from UK supermarkets:

In September, Tesco joined forces with recycling company Loop to trial a reusable packaging system across 10 stores. With 88 name brand and private brand products, customers pay a refundable deposit, starting at £0.20, with the purchase of each product in the range. This is refunded via an app when the packaging is returned to an in-store collection point.

Aldi UK, which previously introduced reusable loose produce bags, trialled a packaging-free aisle this past spring at its Ulverston, Cumbria store, in an effort to gauge interest and participation in refillable options before rolling out the scheme in other Aldi locations.


Asda too has opened three refill stores across the UK, one of them in Glasgow. It is exploring whether dedicated zones at the back of the store prove more popular than “run-in” end-of-aisle stations.


Initiatives like these will provide valuable data on how products with refillable/reusable packaging can best be marketed to customers. They may also give useful insights on the needs of customers with disabilities, food allergies and special diets as they navigate refill stations, leading to better accessibility.


Retaining brand recognition

Just as customers forge new behaviours and routines, brands will have to forge new ways to express their branding and grow their footprint in the context of reusable packaging. Those that introduce reusable packaging will look to do so without compromising the brand recognition that single-use physical packaging would normally help to generate.

A packaging solution with longevity should reflect this quality from a design standpoint, with functional and ergonomic considerations that make it easy to handle and simple to open, while enabling hassle-free refilling at in-store stations.

It must be pleasing to the eye and “age gracefully”, but that’s far from all. Its appearance should also align with customers’ expectations of a new-era product; a discernible alternative to traditional packaging that represents a better choice for themselves, their pocket, and the planet.

Brands will also wish to fully explore how reusable packaging fits into a comprehensive omnichannel strategy. If retailers are refunding deposits on their packaging via an app, for example, how can the brand impressions and messaging be reinforced at this point in the customer journey? What will the data collected from the apps tell us about how consumers use their products and packaging today, and how can this data inform strategy in future? What heavy lifting will the POS need to do?


If COP26 and the tide of public opinion keep their momentum, eco-friendly solutions such as reusable packaging will likely win over growing numbers of consumers, with trials giving way to nationwide schemes and novelty eventually becoming routine.


COP26 is a major wake-up call for world leaders, they say. But for companies there also seems to be an implied call to action – that now, as always, planning for how your brand and your business will thrive in the next normal is time well spent.