According to the first figures presented by The NPD Group, consumers are discovering the practice of refilling and some of them have adopted it. Refillable fragrances currently account for 6% of sales in Europe, and refills for 1%. It is a modest share, but it still grew by 31% in 2022, compared to 2021.

The figures are roughly twice higher in France and twice lower in the US, which reflects a strong cultural and geographical trend variation. But overall, it does correspond to what consumers say about sustainability. They say they are ready to make an effort. There is clearly an appetite for refillable products, and the same goes for brands. This is only logical, because it is THE solution. The ultimate road to reconciling sustainable development and luxury”, explains Gérald Martines.

Reducing the environmental footprint

Of all the ecodesign approaches, refilling offers the best potential to reduce the environmental footprint of packaging. As a first approximation, it helps divide the footprint by the number of times a bottle is reused, and therefore appears to be much more efficient than recycling or lightweighting.

Recycling is essential, and we should definitely use it. But it only recovers 5 to 20% of the environmental impact of the product. Likewise, lightweighting can save a few dozen percent at best. On the contrary, if you refill a bottle, even just twice, you can reduce its impact by three. There is no way other than refill products to gain significant percentages of improvement”, he insists. “Looking in more detail, this practice offers several advantages in terms of reducing the environmental impact: raw material savings, reduced energy consumption, and therefore reduced CO2 emissions, and reduced waste generation”, he adds.

Obstacles to be removed

However, reality is quite complex. The first and main obstacle is related to the very foundation of consumer society, which encourages experimentation and hopping from one thing to another.

There are iconic perfumes with loyal enthusiasts which would be better if they were refillable, and niche brands are also created based on the logic of encouraging loyalty, but on the other end of the spectrum, there is also the hopping perfume, which corresponds to a use, a culture, a desire to experiment. Not all consumers are potential ’refillers’, so it is likely there will be market segmentation. I do not think refillable products will become widespread in the short term”, says Gérald Martines.

The second, more technical obstacle has to do with distribution. Indeed, the concept raises several logistical problems.

The most virtuous model is the fountain, because the more bottles you refill, the larger the footprint reduction. However, apart from the fact that it only makes sense in dense urban environments, how can several dozen fountains coexist in the same outlet? Clearly, this system cannot be generalised for now, given the number of existing brands. There is not enough space. Moreover, I think the system is not mature enough, there is still work to be done regarding convenience”, adds the specialist.

The individual refills offered to consumers pose a different kind of problem. They involve doubling the number of product units on the shelves, therefore space as well. It is a reality that distributors must understand.

We are in a period of experimentation. There is a balance to be found between fountains and individual refills, which have the advantage of being very easy to buy online. In addition, to be most advantageous, refills must contain a large volume, 150 ml or 200 ml, which corresponds to several refills – a real commitment for consumers”, he adds.

Ultimately, there is an impact on suppliers, and in particular on glass manufacturers who produce bottles, pumps, decorations and accessories. “They have the most to lose with this practice”, says Gérald Martines. “The generalisation of refills will have a strong impact on their production. If products are refilled five times, they sell five times less bottles, pumps, and caps, so it is a major loss. Right now, we are only at the beginning: refill sales represent about 1%. So, for now, it does not really make any difference, but it is something suppliers in the perfume industry will not be able to escape in four or five years,” he adds.

The practice is gaining market shares

To date, the market shares of refillable perfumes remain low, but they are growing rapidly, and launches featuring this solution are becoming more widespread. At the same time, refill sales are still not significant enough to confirm a trend and validate consumer support over time, but the progression is rapid too.

We are at the beginning of a possible change. It will take a year or two to see things take shape. It is difficult to determine how fast the market will change, and how this share will increase. In my opinion, refillable products could eventually account for a quarter of sales in Western countries, but we will have to adapt”, foresees Gérald Martines.