Ep. 10: Unpacking Refill and Reuse Packaging with Catherine Conway of GoUnpackaged

Keith speaks to Catherine Conway, Director and Reuse Lead for GoUnpackaged, one of the UK’s leading consultancies specializing in reuse and refill packaging. Catherine has been working in the reuse refill space since 2006. We discuss her work with the Refill Coalition, which is a group of UK-based retailers working together to develop a standardized, but also modular and adaptable approach to reusable and refillable packaging. We also talk about some of the drivers and barriers as it relates to reuse/refill and some of the pending legislation in Europe and beyond. 

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The Refill Coalition’s dry grocery refill station at Aldi

Images courtesy of GoUnpackaged


Keith Anderson: Welcome to Decarbonizing Commerce, where we explore what’s new, interesting, and actionable at the intersection of climate innovation and commerce. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and together we’ll meet entrepreneurs and innovators reinventing retail, e commerce, and consumer products through the lenses of low carbon and commercial viability.

Hello, and welcome back to the Decarbonizing Commerce podcast. I’m your host, Keith Anderson, and today’s guest, Catherine Conway, is Director and Reuse Lead for GoUnpackaged, one of the UK’s leading consultancies specializing in reuse and refill packaging. Catherine has been working in the reuse refill space since 2006.

So, certainly one of the most experienced and tenured people working in the space. She and GoUnpackaged caught my attention because of the work they’re doing with the Refill Coalition, which is a group of UK based retailers that are working together to develop a standardized, but also modular and adaptable approach to reusable and refillable packaging.

And in our conversation, we certainly get into that initiative, but talk about some of the drivers and barriers as it relates to reuse, refill. And even some of the pending legislation in Europe and beyond. I think reusable and refillable packaging is a topic that we’re going to continue to talk about and learn about together.

And I’m really delighted to have kicked the conversation off with Catherine Conway of GoUnpackaged.

Hi, Catherine. Great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us on the show.

Catherine Conway: Hi, thanks for having me.

Keith Anderson: Well, I’d love to start by asking a bit about your background and how you ended up doing what you’re doing now. So maybe you can tell us a bit about GoUnpackaged and your path there.

Catherine Conway: Happy to. So GoUnpackaged, we are a specialist consultancy in the UK, focusing on the transition to reusable packaging. And we do this through sort of three different ways. So we kind of dream up solutions. So we actually dream up reusable packaging systems and get them into reality. We do consultancies to any type of business or brand that wants to do something within the world of moving from single use to reusable packaging.

And then we do lots of policy and research work as well. So helping NGOs, government trying to sort of understand what the regulatory framework needs to be for reuse to thrive. So those are sort of the three kind of elements of our work. I have been doing it for 17 years, so I now have two co directors who work with me, but 17 years ago I set up the first modern zero waste store, because I had this, well, I used to go and refill things in lots of different shops, so I would go to somewhere and refill my olive oil and somewhere to refill my washing up liquid, and I just remember standing there going, why isn’t there one shop where everything is refillable?

So I took, you know, I’m not saying I ever invented the concept of selling things loose, but I took the solution of selling things without packaging and married it to an environmental narrative of, we’ve all got too much single use packaging and we need to make a change and sort of put the two things together.

And that’s how the original unpackaged shop was born. And we went through market stalls, shops, and then I started working with Planet Organic. So we’ve got concessions within Planet Organic, who are a chain of 12 organic supermarkets in London. And I guess that was the first foray from having an independent shop and trying to do it all myself to becoming a consultancy where we’ve got, so my colleague, Helen is an innovation expert.

My colleague, Rob is a supply chain, expert, and I’m a reuse expert. So between the three of us, we can actually have a lot more impact than we could when I was just running my little shop.

Keith Anderson: Well, it’s exciting and am I correct that this year there’s been a bit of an evolution of, of the consultancy?

Catherine Conway: Yes, so the brand, so we used to be called Just Unpackaged, and we have evolved to GoUnpackaged, which I’m still getting used to saying, obviously, after 17 years of saying unpackaged. But yes, I think it reflects, it reflects who we are, it reflects the three of us and our partnership, and it reflects what we want to do in the world, which is to work on these sort of much bigger, bigger impact, cross supply chain projects, because if everybody, you know, our clients keep trying to do little individual reuse trials.

We’re never going to get to system change. So the refill coalition project, which I can talk about later is the sort of best example of that, where we’ve got a load of retailers to work together, a load of equipment suppliers to work together on a big, global logistics brand. And together they have all worked to get, to create a standardized, solution for bulk.

And it’s those kinds of projects that we really want to work on as a team, because that’s where we can have the most impact.

Keith Anderson: I, I’d love for us to go deeper, about the refill coalition and, and maybe as a set up to that, a bit about why those kinds of value chain and cross industry efforts to collaborate and standardize things. It’s so important, just as an observer, and, you know, certainly, an observer over a shorter timescale than you’ve been working in the space, it’s clear there’s been a lot of, what I would characterize as experiments and pilots, and there’s also a lot of brands in certain categories, you know, particularly in cleaning and personal care, I think some of the, refill at home models seem to have gotten some promising adoption, but, the, the prevailing attitude among the multinational retailers and brands seems to be without infrastructure and standardization for this to scale in either brick and mortar retail or e commerce, the economics are not favorable . So, what would you tell us about some of those barriers and what are you optimistic about in some of these cross industry initiatives, especially the one that you’re driving?

Catherine Conway: Okay. Lots of things to tell you. So I think the first of when we talk about just for the benefit of your listeners, when we talk about reuse, when I talk about it, I’m talking about it in its widest sense. So you use some of the language in, in our industry at the minute. So there’s, there’s really sort of four different reuse and refill models.

So there’s refill at home, which as you’ve mentioned, which is something like a pouch. So getting something like head and shoulder shampoo in a pouch that you then put into a bottle at home. There’s refill in store, which is you bringing a container down to some sort of bulk bin and filling it up in a store.

Then there’s return to home, which is a bit like the loop model, which is the company maintains ownership of the packaging and you either pay a deposit or, or some sort of a way of having access of it, and then you return it, and then there’s return on the go, which is, you know, you might pick a reusable coffee cup, I’ll put a McDonald’s and return it to a Burger King, the dream.

So those are the sort of four different, models. So I’m just going to pick on the, I’m going to pick on refill at home for a minute, just because you say that brands have got a lot of adoption and they have, but the problem with most of the refill at home models is, they are still based on single use.

So they have really, you know, usually switched from a rigid plastic bottle into a multi laminate pouch that is totally, you know, and the rigid plastic bottle was probably a mono material and very easy to recycle, and the multi laminate pouch is absolutely not. And they’re pretending that it’s a, a reusable model.

So, there’s an argument that you’ve got to take consumers on a journey, so I think a refill at home model using a single use pouch could be seen as a way of taking a consumer on a journey, but I would caution that it is not the end result of a, of a properly reusable system where, you know, the same bottle is being reused over and over again.

So, as you say, there’s lots and lots and lots of pilots going on. And I think whilst I would love it to be different because I’m the eternal optimist and I think we should all be going further and faster and, you know, I always want more than I’m ever going to get in this space. I think everyone probably did have to start with pilots and experiments because everyone sort of went, Oh God, we’ve got a problem.

We need to do something with reusables. There wasn’t sort of big systems that they could buy into. It wasn’t the, you know, like the World Economic Forum or, you know, Consumer Goods Forum or any of these people were coming along going, Hey, here’s the scheme. Just come into the scheme and you’ll be able to have access to reusable.

Nobody had anything. So I think it was. Incumbent on brands and retailers to set things up themselves. And I think the real value of setting things up themselves is they started getting learnings from it. And also they put them out there so consumers could see them. So a lot of these trials have a very nice front end for the consumer to see, and a bit of a hacked backend because, you know, you can’t suddenly change a whole automated supply chain, just for one trial and that’s fine.

It’s, it’s, it’s not about saying that that has to be perfect back of house. But it makes them really inefficient, and therefore the problem is it becomes this sort of slightly self reinforcing circle that they do a trial, the trial is designed inefficiently because it’s effectively a hacked version of what it could be, and then that you can’t build a commercial case around it, so it’s almost seen like the trial or the pilot has failed, when in actual fact it wasn’t designed for scale.

However It is very hard if they said, okay, great, so how do we design for scale? Well, that’s the chicken and the egg, because the thing we need to get to is a shared infrastructure of washing and logistics in the same way that we have a shared infrastructure for recycling. So, you know, Tesco, all use the same recycling trucks and same recycling company.

They don’t each have their own recycling service, which is sort of what we’re doing with reuse at the minute. So we know what we need to get to, which is a shared infrastructure, but that doesn’t exist yet, so the setting it up is also going to cost money, so we’re in this real catch 22 at the minute, where I think lots of retailers and brands have realized that they can’t keep doing these small experiments, and they want to do bigger things.

But there aren’t that many projects for them to get involved with, although they’re starting to happen. So the Consumer Goods Forum are doing something in Canada. We’re doing the Refill Coalition in the UK. EMF has just done a big piece of modeling in France. So there are these, the UK’s doing something with milk.

Like there’s lots of these kind of collaborative projects that I think you’re now, I think this is the next wave of reuse is going to be cross industry collaborative projects. So, what that means in practice is, so for, let’s take Refill Coalition, for example, is we, you know, I went from having a zero waste shop where I personally sat and cleaned out all of these dispensers by hand to keep them clean and hygienic.

And when we started doing those kind of projects with big supermarkets, we almost had to do it the same way. And I could see from the off when we first, when we first started working with Waitrose on the, on the big refill project that lots of other retailers then sort of copied on the back of. And I remember saying to them, we don’t want to have your staff manually washing these hoppers in store because your, like supermarkets, you know, their, their staffing structure just isn’t set up for it.

And they said, yep, we get that. But right now we want to get it out there. We want to test the consumer reaction to it. So that’s how we’re going to start. So that we started like that. And then this is sort of what we do at Going Packaged. We thought, right, well, what is the solution? If there was a solution, what would it be?

So the solution is taking the hopper that in your, in your listener’s mind’s eye, they can probably see, which is some sort of, you know, plastic dispenser with a handle in a store that you come along and dispense products out of. And what we’ve done is effectively split that in two. So the main bulk of the hopper almost becomes like a beer keg.

So a standardized vessel that can go around the supply chain that anybody can use. And then the front, the nice dispenser is a bit like the fancy beer tap that stays in the pub and has the nice branding on it and everybody knows what they’re buying from. So that’s what we did, which sounds so incredibly simple and is so incredibly hard not only to create but then to sort of birth into the industry.

So we’ve had various retail members of our coalition over the last three years. And our current members are Aldi, who are leading on this in store piece, and then Ocado, which I can talk about in a minute, who are leading on a sort of smaller version of it. So we call it mini bulk, but it’s actually a returnable, so it’ll come pre filled from, from the Ocado warehouse.

So Aldi has launched, in October, initial results are really favorable, so they’re hitting some of their targets with some of the products already. Most importantly, there’s been zero downtime, so the equipment has worked 100 percent of the time, which is never a given when you’re installing these kind of new systems.

And it seems to be, popular with both staff and customers. You know, because you are asking staff to do different things than just putting things on shelves and collapsing cardboard boxes into a baler. So, so yeah, so that’s what the Refill Coalition is. And what sits at the heart of it is how do you get four or five competitive businesses to work together to create a change, because this idea of changing from single use to reuse, this system change, is not a first mover advantage, you know, if only one retailer does it, they don’t win anything, they just win a load of costs, but if they can work with their competitors and work with the supply chain, then actually that’s how we can drive up volume and drive down costs and try and bring this in for the same price or cheaper than the single use equivalent.

Keith Anderson: Yeah, that, that point in particular seems to be thematic of almost all the postmortems that I’ve read, and I think it’s consistent with so many sustainability initiatives. The behavioral change element of all this is pretty hard if the expectation is people are going to have to pay more for not even necessarily something that’s not as effective or as positive an experience.

Just changing it all, is, is a hurdle. So I think, at least getting to parity, if not creating an incentive is something I’ve seen many retailers start to emphasize.

Catherine Conway: Yeah, and it, it can and it should be better, so I’ll give you an example from my colleague Rob who does the supply chain modelling.

So if you think of a cardboard box with 12 bottles in it. And you think of the shape of the necks of those bottles. You’re transporting about 20 percent air in every cardboard box.

If you were to suddenly redesign that with, you know, our vessels that are designed to cube out on a pallet load, then the idea is on every, say, every pallet load, you could transport 20 percent more stock. Now then you’re taking 20 percent of your transport costs out, you’re taking 20 percent of your, CO2 emissions out, and then at scale, you should be able to pass that saving on to your consumer.

So I think it’s when we compare, you know, lots of people talk about reuse and they say, Oh, but you know, it’s going to cost loads more money because you’ve got washing and cleaning and extra logistics. And yeah, yes you do, but let’s not forget that there is waste. Both in terms of sort of financial, environmental, and operational in the current supply chain.

The linear supply chain in many ways is amazing and is also not perfect. So the shift to reusable packaging is a huge opportunity to redesign some of these things. You know, I found out that most lorries, you can’t double stack pallets on them because the cardboard all collapses. Now what would happen if we could actually double stack rows of pallets on every lorry?

You know, we would, we would massively reduce our freight emissions. So, so I think there’s a huge opportunity.

And I think it’s certainly our job as consultants working with our clients to make them aware of where those opportunities might lie beyond this kind of just a sustainability play, which is the, oh God, we know we should be doing something about plastics.

And, and our customers are writing to our customer service emails saying, can you do something? There are actually huge potential efficiencies, that can be gained by redesigning some of this stuff.

Keith Anderson: Well, and, and you’ve brought me back to the earlier conversation about the refill at home model because, what I had in mind when I mentioned it were some of the concentrated products that, to your point, you know, so much of the product in personal care and cleaning is basically shipping water or water and air around the country, if not the globe.

And so, I, I see the same sort of, multinational examples that are in, flexible plastic, but are still liquid. And I, I don’t view that as the end game on any level. How do you think about the relationship between product formulation and product form and packaging, as part of the overall, evolution that might unlock, more, more economic benefits?

Catherine Conway: I think one of the things I’ve learned over doing this work is I am amazed at how many people design a product without ever really thinking about what packaging it’s going in and what’s going to happen to that packaging at its end of life. You know, I spend a lot of time at packaging conferences and nobody talks about it or is thinking about it, which to me has always been fascinating, and that’s because of the way the regulatory economics is set up that nobody pays for, so we call them the negative externalities of packaging waste.

So that’s the cost of disposal. Whether it’s recycling, burning it, exporting it. So we’ve got a huge problem in the UK that we export so much of our plastic waste to other countries who have even less capable infrastructure to do things with them. And then we dutifully record that all as recycled, just because someone’s ticked a box saying, yes, it’ll be recycled in its end country.

So that’s an absolute, sham that needs to be stopped. But yeah, I’m, I’m sort of, I, I love the ingenuity of packaging and packaging designers, the message I take to those conferences is, is that people like me don’t think it’s the end of packaging, it’s just we’ve got to now redesign packaging to make it fit for purpose in a world with a growing population and dwindling resources.

And the fact that we have quite frankly, in the West, got away with shipping our waste to other countries so we don’t have to deal with it, or look at it, or know about it. So I think if we can start being transparent about what’s really happening with waste, what’s really happening, you know, we know that most plastics are not actually being recycled.

You know, we’ve got this huge challenge that we don’t want people to stop recycling, but everybody feels like they’re doing the right thing when they’re filling their recycling bins with all of this waste. And so much of it is flexible plastics. It’s just impossible to recycle. There’s no market for it at the minute.

And then, yeah, so much of it is exported. So reusable packaging has a double hill to climb at the minute in terms of the commercials, because you’ve sort of got the commercials against this very efficient linear supply chain that we’ve engineered over the last 50, 60 years, but then you’ve also got this sort of end of life, sort of lack of well, it’s now called extended producer responsibility, that there has been a lack of EPR on brands and retailers who are selling this stuff.

So traditionally in the UK, brands and retailers have paid 10 percent of the cost of waste disposal of all of the packaging. And we pay 90 percent of it. We as consumers pay 90 percent of it through our council tax and how that gets paid for. So government, the direction of travel around the world is, is that governments are no longer prepared to pay for that. And there is this, trend within all regulation, wherever you are, which is coming towards what they call a polluter pays framework, which is, if you create this stuff, you will ultimately be responsible for its disposal. Now, I think the more that we can change that EPR, Extended Producer Responsibility framework, Then that will start to make the economics of reuse work, because if we make it more expensive in the same, you know, in the way that we are at the minute in the UK with the plastics tax, you know, we make it more expensive to put quote unquote bad packaging on the market, by which I mean single use packaging that is unrecyclable or isn’t recycled, then that should start to tip the the balance in favor of reuse.

But we urgently need that and it’s being forever delayed in the UK by the government.

Keith Anderson: Fair enough. I love the example or the analogy you gave a few minutes ago of the beer tab and it leads me to, in my mind, almost comparing and contrasting some of the retail attributes of the status quo approach to, packaging and merchandising product. At the point of decision, that is, you know, what P&G once called the first moment of truth, and what I sense is, a big part of the resistance among some brand marketers to a departure from the conventional, you know, glossy, single use packaging that you see at many retail displays.

So, what I’m thinking about is, okay, if I were a brand marketer, fast forwarding 10 or 15 years, and we had ended up in a world where if reuse isn’t the dominant approach, it’s at least mainstream and a significant percentage of the way people buy. How have we approached some of those considerations about, brand differentiation and, and attracting, engaging, and converting shoppers in the retail environment, how does it change the dynamic in a category?

Does it impact the amount of selection or choice that we’re able to offer? Does it lead to concentration of sales to the brands that are willing and able to provide a refillable option and, raise the barrier of entry for those that, choose not to play? I, I know that’s a lot embedded in a single prompt, but, you know, I’m just thinking a lot about if I were a category manager or a brand marketer or a shopper marketer and everything that you’re hoping happens, happens, how does my job change?

Catherine Conway: Got to get more creative, that’s how your job changes. It’s a really good and important point. I think there’s some truths in it and there’s some, excuses that are made for brands to not have to go down this route. So I think, I think brands have a job on their hands in general. Because since the pandemic, there’s, there’s been lots of rationalizations of shelves, you know, retailers not having such big spaces, not wanting so many different options on, on shelf.

There’s that. There’s the growth of the, the Lidls and Aldis doing their own brand. And there’s the growth of own brand in general. So I think that, that brands, I think it’s coming up to a moment of truth. They call it the moment of truth. I think there’s a moment of truth of really sort of what brands are and how they fit in this world moving forwards.

Because I think traditionally they have commanded a large premium. And I don’t know how interested shoppers are when they’re facing a cost of living crisis. In paying such a premium for what they’re starting to perceive as quite a similar product. So I think all of this fits into the general anxiety that brands have got at the minute in general.

I think lots of things for, how brands can and should engage with reuse. I think we have to remember that there is so much standardized single use packaging in the market. You know, whether it’s 33 centilitre bottles, whether it’s aluminium food cans, whether it’s beer cans, you know, brands are very capable of using standardised shapes, like a tin can that’s filled with soup, or a standard jar that has pickles in it or something, you know, they’re very capable of using that and personalizing it enough to feel that, that their brand is, is, actively promoted.

So I think the idea that if we move to some sort of world of standardized packaging for reuse to succeed, which we have to, standardization is an absolute key to making reuse scalable. Then I think there is a huge scope. of products that already exist in standardised packaging that could just literally be labelled, you know, it’s all about the labelling and the colours and the marketing that goes around it.

Now then, the question is, is what do you do with your brands that do have distinctive bottles, you know, the Coca Cola bottle,

but Coke is doing very well in terms of what they’re doing in Latin America. They’ve standardised across their brands, so they’ve got a standardised bottle that works for, I’m gonna pull brands out of, you know, I don’t know if they’re all, but you know, like Fanta, Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero.

So they’ve managed to do some standardization within their own business, which is, you know, the size that they are is, is a huge step forward. So I think if you standardize reusable packaging and you get to what we need to, which is this super infrastructure to service it then you’ll suddenly find you have packaging suppliers that can supply reusable packaging, you’ll have people that can wash the standardized packaging and you’ll have logisticians that can move it around. And that will enable your smaller players to have the same kind of access in the same way that I can go and get something filled into a flexible bag in the same way that, you know, a muesli company can go and do that. It’s just going to cost me more because I’m smaller. So I don’t think we need to think that only the big brands will, will sort of win in that scenario. But I do think that brands are going to have to consider what their position is and the type of businesses that they want to be, given this direction of travel and how much that it It can keep costing them because EPR is going to happen, whether, you know, they’re all lobbying against it.

Now that might delay it by a few years, but governments don’t have any money. They especially don’t have money. You know, they don’t have money for social care and old people, let alone trying to deal with packaging waste. So EPR is happening. And I think forward thinking brands are the ones that are thinking, what could my brand portfolio look like if I achieved what needs to be, which is sort of 30 to 40 percent reuse.

But this is, this is slightly the hilarious thing about it that’s, if it wasn’t hilarious, I would cry, but all the other way around, is the fact that even when we’re talking about reuse targets, no one’s even mentioned higher than 50 percent yet. I mean, maybe they have in terms of transit packaging or B2B packaging, but you know, we’re still talking about a scenario in 2030, 2040, where we’re sub 50 percent reusable.

So if I was a brand and looking at my packaging, I’d be like, right, well, we’ve got a load of products that are already in standardized packaging. CAMs and what have you, well let’s convert those ones to a new standbys pack and then we’ll deal with the really complicated personalized brand shapes afterwards.

So I think there’s a lot of excuses that are going on because people don’t want to change and this is where I would say that legislation in favor of reuse, and there’s many different ways it could be done, is actually the key enabler to this. So I think those, there are lots of people who are lobbying very heavily in Europe at the minute against any reuse targets at all because they’re seeing it as a blocker and red tape for business, and it’s a hugely pushed by the paper packaging industry as well, who I think don’t see a role for themselves as much in reusable packaging, and I understand the risk, but, you know, they’re creating this narrative that somehow we’re going to displace, you know, all of these industries that already exist, you know, even in a scenario that you had a 40 percent reuse reusable packaging in, in, in major brands portfolios, you’d still have 60 percent single use so you’d still have an entire need for the single use packaging industry, the recycling industry, you know, we’ve got to work out how everyone’s going to coexist.

So yeah, so I have some sympathy with brands of the complexity of what this transition is going to look like, but I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy of those that are really lobbying against it very heavily in a way that’s bringing such an amount of negativity towards reuse, when we know it is the only solution.

You know, so we know we have to reduce resource consumption. All right, we live on a planet with finite resources and growing populations. We simply don’t have the resources. And we need to reduce the pollution arising from it. Now to do that, you’ve got two options. You either stop selling it, which none of them want to do.

Or you shift a huge amount of it into reusable packaging and treat it like an asset that you really design well. And that’s where the opportunities for brands come up. Brands know how to sell us a lot of things that we don’t need. They do that extremely well. So they could be putting that creativity working with their packaging designers to really make this stuff attractive, like you could be telling stories of how your products are made. You could be, you know, all of this extra stuff that, that consumers now love, where they can engage with products through QR codes or, or websites, or, you know, even like whatever AI is going to bring to this.

It’s like, you could be creating this huge, compelling relationship between your customers and your brand through reusable packaging because it’s something that you can invest in, as a long term asset. And that’s my message to, to brands is that’s the way you should be thinking about it rather than just thinking that this is a drag on things.

You just can’t keep doing business as they’ve already always done it. We’re beyond that point.

Keith Anderson: Hey folks, this is the part of the show where we say thank you and see you soon to the general audience, plus and higher tier members of Decarbonize.co, stay tuned for the rest of the episode.

Thanks for listening. I’m Keith Anderson, the executive producer and host of Decarbonizing Commerce. Sonic Futures handles audio, music, and video production. If you enjoyed the show, we’d really appreciate it if you took a moment to subscribe and leave a review or share it with a colleague. For the full episode and more member exclusive insight and analysis, join the Decarbonizing Commerce community at Decarbonize. co. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you on the next episode of Decarbonizing Commerce.

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