The year is 2097, and your great-great grandchild has hover-boarded to their local Sephora for a new lipstick, having just run out of Charlotte Tilbury's Pillow Talk (hey, we told you the rosy-beige hue was timeless).
It's turned to summer, and today, your descendent is looking for something brighter and bolder — they select Dior's Rouge 999, a fire-engine red. After making their purchase, they recycle the empty Charlotte Tilbury cartridge and pop in the new one from Dior — because your great-great grandchild owns a universal lipstick tube in which they can easily swap in shades from any brand.
In the year 2022, we're a long way off from a world in which, to eliminate excess waste, beauty product packaging has been standardized across the board — and using refills is not the exception, but the norm.
Just about two years ago, there was a sudden uptick in beauty brands launching refillable products. (This new wave of pre-existing brands is not to be confused with brands — like Kjaer Weis and Surratt — that baked refill-ability into their lines from inception.) In the time since, it feels like hardly a day has gone by without another beauty company — be it a drugstore behemoth like Dove or a major luxury player like Chanel — announcing that something in their lineup is “now refillable!”
The idea was, and is, that after purchasing the initial vessel and finishing the formula within, one can simply purchase a refill for a product — often in the form of a less-packaging-intensive pod, pouch, or cartridge — instead of another full-size jar, bottle, or tube.
In the marketing of said refills, some brands tout cost savings (refills typically cost less than the original products), others convenience — but pretty much all of them point to the fact that utilizing refills generates less waste than rebuying the primary packaging over and over again.
And here's the good news: that's true. The bad news? It's not nearly that simple.
Like recyclability, refillability is great in theory — but not always in practice. Just as certain materials are able to be recycled, certain packaging designs are able to be refilled. The question on both counts, though, is: will they be? (Here's your daily reminder that only 9 percent of all plastic waste ever produced has actually been turned into something that we were then able to use again — as in, recycled.)
"Consumer adoption is always going to be your barrier," says Julie Corbett, founder of packaging design firm Ecologic Brands at Jabil, a manufacturing company. And there are barriers within that barrier: for example, getting used to ordering refills of your favorite products online if they're not stocked at retail — or even simply making peace with the fact that a refill won't likely have the same curb appeal as the original product (say goodbye to gold-flecked designs and embossed logos).
Plus, consumers have to accept the reality that some refills are clunky to use: cartridges that wobble inside a jar instead of clicking into place, or liquid-filled pouches that easily spill during transfer. “There's nothing worse from an environmental standpoint than manufacturing this durable [reusable vessel] and the consumer uses it one or two times, and then they say, ‘Forget it,'" says Olga Kachook, director of bioeconomy and reuse initiatives at GreenBlue, a nonprofit that fosters innovation in sustainable materials. In those cases, refillability can be worse than the alternative because refillable products often require more packaging than disposable ones. So if you throw them away after just a handful of uses? Well, you just generated extra waste.
Yet even if all beauty product refills were readily available, aesthetically pleasing, and totally seamless, there's still one towering barrier that calls into question the very need for them in the first place: Do consumers actually want to use the same formulas over and over (and over) again?
With new brands and products being churned out at an increasingly rapid rate, the answer, perhaps today more than ever, is probably no. Sure, some beauty categories naturally inspire more loyalty than others — say, a fragrance you love and have come back to for years. And it may make more sense for a moisturizer to be refillable than, say, an eyeshadow. (But, again, only if it's a moisturizer that you know you are a loyal to.) "Refills aren't the right thing for every [product]," says Kachook. "There's so much experimentation [in beauty] and maybe not enough brand loyalty in some cases to justify the refill."
And while the concept is so new that hard and fast data on exactly how many cycles of reuse would justify a refill — and in turn, result in markedly less waste in the long run — Kachook says it's likely around 50 to 100 times, depending on the product and refill mechanism. It begs the question: How many beauty products have you repurchased more than 50 times?
That's where the aforementioned industry-wide standardization could theoretically come in. If every moisturizer refill pod fit in the same universal jar, you could use Tata Harper's featherlight Water-Lock Moisturizer in the warmer months, slather on Caudalie's shea butter-infused Premier Cru Anti Aging Cream Moisturizer when the temps drop, and try out Glow Recipe's new Plum Plump Hyaluronic Cream in between — all without excessive packaging waste.
The same could be said for anytime you want to start incorporating a new ingredient into your routine or, like your future great-great grandchild, you feel moved to experiment with a new formula of lipstick. "Reusability and refillability has to give consumers flexibility," says Corbett of her vision for the future.
In the end, refillable packaging does have a place in the beauty and personal care industries — but right now, we don't have evidence that it's making a tangible difference in the health of our planet. That's why we at Allure have decided to expand our Sustainability Pledge and add "refillable" to the list of often misleading buzzwords (like "biodegradable") that we only use with careful qualification.
Of course, we'll continue to do our due diligence as new innovations are unveiled, and research proves the environmental benefits of refillable beauty products to be more than just theoretical (or the result of having to refill the same product more than 50 times). "This is a story you'll be writing about for many years," says Corbett. Consider our keyboards at the ready.
This article was originally published on Allure.