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Unilever’s UK refill trial to be expanded

Unilever already launched a refill scheme in Indonesia in March 2020.

Unilever is extending its refillable packaging trials across the UK, increasing the number of outlets involved and piloting its first ‘return on the go’ refill trial where customers can purchase re-useable stainless-steel bottles and return them to the store.

Following the successful launch of its largest refill trial in Europe in Asda’s sustainability store in Leeds last year, Unilever is extending the scheme to seven Asda stores across the UK. It is also working with the Co-op retailer to test refills amongst convenience shoppers. Plans for more stores and trials will be announced later in the year.

The trials will focus on different refill models, store formats and in-store locations as well as testing the different shopper experiences. This includes a global first for Unilever with its ‘return on the go’ refillable products. Shoppers can pick up a pre-filled stainless-steel bottle from shelf and return it in-store once used, where they are collected to be cleaned and re-filled.

In addition, they will continue to test ‘refill on the go’, where customers fill re-useable stainless-steel bottles using a standalone refill station. Unilever partner Return•Refill•Repeat has designed the refillable and reusable stainless-steel and plastic free bottles to track the lifecycle of the bottle and number of times it is used.  

Sustainable choices

Sebastian Munden, Unilever UK & Ireland general manager, says the company is committed to creating scalable solutions which make it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices. ‘We believe refills could be a game-changer in our ambitions to halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025, however unlocking the full potential of the reuse economy would require a significant shift in how people shop. Using our well-known and trusted brands and working closely with retailers, we are testing different refill models on a large scale in order to continue to build our understanding of how to bring about a significant change most effectively.’

Jo-Anne Chidley, co-founder of Return•Refill•Repeat, adds, ‘Our goal is to democratise the circular economy, using cradle-to-cradle design, to work with businesses like Unilever to give consumers access to more sustainable products.
‘By designing packaging to be circular and smart alongside advanced refill and return stations, we are making it accessible for consumers to reduce their plastic consumption, track their impact, and change their behaviour from one of consuming packaging to reusing it.’

Expectations exceeded

Unilever says uptake during the refill trial in Leeds last year exceeded expectations with weekly purchases of Persil from the refill zone reaching a third higher than the equivalent single use pack. Other insights include: 

  • 94% of consumers in the UK are more likely to invest in refills rather than buying new products in store if available and 89% are likely to buy a product because its packaging can be reused
  • Almost a fifth of shoppers wanted a sealed product option (18%) and to be able to return empty bottles to store (16%). A quarter (25%) would be interested in a loyalty or reward scheme
  • Nearly a third revealed value for money offered by the refill stations was a key reason for being likely to purchase in the future

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