Don’t Call Refillable Beauty Products “Sustainable” | Report

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.) 

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