Every year, Aussie households use and throw away almost a billion single-use plastic bottles. Only about 12 per cent gets recycled. So we are sending about 800 million single-use plastic bottles to landfill every year. We are trying to make that zero.
IR: How will the process work for your customers?
MS: In your first order, you get set of what we call Forever Bottles made from the 6000 kilograms of plastic waste that we pulled out of the ocean in Jakarta. You keep those bottles and refill them over and over and over again.
Also in your first box, you get a set of refillable pouches that made from recycled materials diverted from landfill. As far as we know, we are the only company in the world that has worked out how to do that so far.
You empty the contents of the refill pouch into the forever bottle, and then you send the refill pouch back to us. We then clean and sanitise the pouch, refill it and send it back out again.
IR: How does Zero Co differ from other retailers that offer reusable containers?
MS: In Australia, there’s actually nobody else genuinely doing reusable refills in a scalable and convenient way. I’m not going to name names, but there are a
lot of people pretending to do what we do, but nobody really is. No-one is offering a full range of products that are cost-competitive with the big-name brands that genuinely have a refill and return model.
There are people out there offering a pouch that they’re calling a refill, but that pouch doesn’t actually get re-used; they’ve swapped a single-use plastic bottle for a single-use plastic pouch.
IR: Do you think more people are becoming conscious about the environment and their responsibilities?
MS: Yes! One of the great things is that there’s no debate that plastic is a problem. There’s nobody out there campaigning to make more plastic and get more plastic in the ocean. We all realise we need to stop doing it.
IR: Tell me more about your products.
MS: We make a range of 10 personal care and home cleaning products. They are all environmentally friendly, they are plant-based formulas, they don’t include any nasty stuff, and they are palm oil-free. And best of all, they work as well as, if not better than, the big-name supermarket brands.
IR: There are a lot of sustainable brands out there, but not many are particularly design-friendly or attractive. Why do you think that seems to be a challenge for some retailers?
MS: From my perspective, I like pretty things. If you go to a supermarket, all the cleaning and personal care products are stored in the last few aisles, and they’re really unsexy. Just because they’re cleaning products, it doesn’t mean they have to be ugly!
It’s a bit of a Trojan horse. People might buy Zero Co products because they are awesome and beautiful, but then as a result of that, we are cleaning up the ocean, and we are solving the single-use plastic problem. It’s a double whammy.
Lauren Hickson, founder
Inside Retail: What is Refillery?
Lauren Hickson: Refillery is about offering a solution so that consumers can refill their own bottles with our cleaning products, rather than having to buy a new bottle every time.
Our casks are a bit different from competitors in the market. We have recently launched a new cardboard cask that has a refillable bladder inside. The bladder gets sent back to us and gets put back into the loop. We have a 10-litre cask for retailers, and we are developing a five-litre version for at-home use.
In retail, we see a lot of plastic in bulk refillable products. They are helping consumers refill, but they are still plastic, and those big drums can’t easily be recycled since they’re a commercial product. It’s just more expensive for manufacturers to refill.
Some other brands are offering refills in stores, but you still need to offer a plastic bottle so that you know how much volume a customer is buying. You’ve still got plastic bottles. It’s got to be easy for the customer and the retailer and it is hard to get around that without still falling into the trap of plastic for convenience side of things.
We don’t want to put a downer on what other people are doing because it is making a difference, but it’s just about getting people to change their mindset.
IR: How do you think consumer behaviour is changing around refillable products?
LH: Oh, it is changing for sure. I have been doing Refillery for about three years, and I can see a huge shift. I think people see the benefit. At the end of the day, it generally comes down to convenience. But I do think people are changing.
IR: Your products are also stocked in some bricks-and-mortar stores as well. How do they work?
LH: We have three stockists in Australia: two in New South Wales, one in South Australia and then we have our manufacturer, Clean Conscience, in Tasmania. Customers take their own refillable bottles to the store and just refill from the cask. They pay by weight.
We’d love to get into as many retailers as we can, but we want to align with retailers that share our values, rather than those that are just jumping on the refill bandwagon! It’s more about purpose over profit for us.
We’ve never planned to have our own store. I want to keep it simple. That’s partly why we only have three products even though we are always being asked to create more.
IR: Your liquid concentrate is designed to replace several other household cleaning products, why do you think there are so many different products on the market?
LH: I think we’ve just been conditioned to believe that we need lots of different products, but they almost all have the same ingredients and they are just packaged differently.
I think the idea comes from the brands themselves because there’s more opportunity to make money if you’ve got a product for each room in the house.
IR: Does the responsibility lie with the retailer or the consumer?
LH: It lies with the consumer. What the consumer wants, the retailer will give them. Brands usually follow the money trail. The power is with the people.
IR: What are the plans for the future of Refillery?
LH: Aside from expanding into more stores, we are also keen to supply eco-friendly small businesses with their cleaning solution. They tend not to consider what they are using for cleaning; it’s a low priority, but we are trying to get those people to change their habits.
Generally speaking, people want to do the right thing, but it’s about making it more accessible.
Pablo Kraus, managing director
Inside Retail: You’ve recently partnered with Coles Local to include Ecostore refill stations in stores. How do your refill stations work?
Pablo Kraus: The refill station concept is a relatively simple process, encouraging consumers to reduce their plastic consumption by refilling and re-using their bottles.
The process in the Chatswood Coles Local store trial is simple. Consumers choose a small or large bottle, apply the matching product stickers, fill the bottle with the selected product and then take it to the cash register for payment. Once they finish using the product at home, they rinse, dry and return the bottle to refill on their next shopping trip at Coles Local.
IR: Can you describe the process of building a relationship with Coles?
PR: Coles Local and Ecostore are both committed to sustainability. Coles’ mission is to be Australia’s most sustainable supermarket, so it is increasingly on the lookout for new ideas to help it on this journey. We’ve led the refill model in New Zealand and now have more than 80 refill stations throughout the country. We were eager to trial a larger scale in a supermarket in Australia. This project enabled both parties to partner on launching Ecostore’s first refill station in an Australian supermarket.
IR: How would you describe the way consumer behaviour has changed when it comes to reusable products?
PR: Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in demand for more sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives across our industry. According to the In Good Company report, at least 47 per cent of New Zealanders say they care about sustainability when choosing a brand/product to purchase.
We knew the number of people becoming conscious of their environmental waste footprint was increasing. The fast take-up of our refill stations has shown us that consumers have been moved to act, and that refill stations are the way of the future. We have had overwhelming feedback by customers embracing the existing refill stations.
IR: How is the business currently faring in Asia?
PR: We’re experiencing increasing Chinese demand for our environmentally friendly body care products. Consumers are really thinking about making sure they’ve got clean hands, clean clothes and antibacterial [products].
In August this year, we launched refill stations in Natural Lawson convenience stores in Japan. Convenience is a huge channel in Japan — there are more than 50,000 [convenience stores] across the country. Ecostore partnered with Natural Lawson to bring a compact five-litre self-service refill station to life in stores, complete with a colour touch-screen display, which prints the full product ingredients on each sticker.
IR: Tell me about the latest partnership you did with the New Zealand Government.
PR: Refills is one way that we help consumers reduce the amount of plastic packaging they consume. We’re also stepping up and taking responsibility for our plastic waste through our new Plastic Return Programme, which encourages customers to return their bottles to one of our 100 collection points in New Zealand.
We will collect, process and remake our bottles in New Zealand, effectively using our bottles over and over again, in the country’s first comprehensive closed-loop system for home, body and baby products.
The programme is helped through the support from the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund. We are committed to taking it nationwide, so we are funding the remainder of the programme.