Last year, when Hèrmes announced it was launching its first foray into beauty with a beyond chic lipstick collection, the news of its packaging garnered almost, if not more, attention than the actual makeup itself. That’s because the stylish cylinders—designed by the fashion house’s fashion and jewelry creative director Pierre Hardy—were not only one of the chicest items to ever grace a makeup counter, they also happened to be refillable. The idea was that the lipstick tube was an iconic item, meant to be collected and cherished as one would a piece of jewelry or purse.
Dior, another heritage luxury house, has also been experimenting with refillable models. First, back in 2007, with its L’Or de Vie skincare collection and most recently with the newly relaunched Rouge Dior refillable lipstick. Next month, the brand is also launching a refillable version of its Sauvage Eau de Toilette. It'll be available as a 300ml pour-out bottle made from 100% recyclable aluminum that can be used to refill both the full-size fragrance bottle and the travel version. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the beauty industry's major players are experiencing a green revolution.
When you think about sustainable and eco-conscious beauty, the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t luxury beauty brands. Prestige companies like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent aren’t exactly known for a minimalistic approach to beauty, after all. When you’re paying a premium price for a product, you expect the experience to be very upmarket. "The word ‘luxury’ comes from the Latin word luxus that relates to a notion of excess, splendor, or abundance," Dior’s Environmental & Scientific Communications Director Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis notes. "Starting from this, one could indeed think that is not completely aligned with concepts of sustainability that tend to tilt the other way to rhyme more with frugality and minimalism."
However excess, which in decades past was something to aspire to as a symbol of privilege and success, has in recent years started to seem quite unfavorable. With over 10 million tons of plastic waste ending up in U.S. landfills each year, consciously choosing products that unnecessarily contribute to this ecological crisis is seen as both callous and selfish. And many consumers are letting brands know exactly how they feel about that.
"We realized that consumers are relying on brands to be responsible and expect them to innovate around products that have less impact on the environment," YSL Beauty’s Scientific Director Caroline Negre says. "In continuing this momentum, we believe that it is our responsibility to help the consumer understand and act in a responsible way without compromising on product premiumness or efficacy." The brand’s answer to the siren call for sustainability was its Pure Shots skincare range of highly concentrated range of serums and treatments in refillable pods.
"The Dior consumer is changing," Mauvais-Jarvis adds. "On top of new younger consumers, the older existing generations are influenced by the younger ones. The children lecture their parents, and so it’s quite necessary to bring reassurance on sustainability issues on all of our products."
But, heritage fashion houses aren’t the only ones mixing luxury and sustainability. Many indie (or formerly indie) brands popularized the concept of mixing premium price points with environmentally friendly practices. Hourglass Cosmetics' ridiculously chic Confessions refillable lipsticks—which launched in 2017 right on the heels of the company’s acquisition by Unilever— are a prime example. The sleek gold packaging makes it feel almost criminal to throw away, something Janes did by design as a way to ensure customers would instinctively want to hold on to them. "Providing our customers with a timeless piece they would want to use again and again encouraged them to purchase refills, which is much more conscious and cost-effective over time,” Hourglass Cosmetics founder Carisa Janes explains. "We have actually offered refillable products since we first launched in 2004. We’ve always wanted to give our customers that option—to offer them beautiful packaging that will stand the test of time—and hoped that by offering it, they would begin to appreciate it as well." If you view a refillable item as a collectible, rather than sacrificing in the name of environmental responsibility, it becomes much easier for a certain customer to accept the concept of refills as an upscale habit.
Brands like Tata Harper, which already has a reputation as being eco-friendly, are exploring more ways to practice sustainability. Last year, the brand dabbled in refillable packaging with the launch of its Water-Lock Moisturizer. "Recycling is a great option in the world of sustainability, but can be unreliable," founder Tata Harper says. "With infrastructure availability and collection requirements varying from country to country, state to state, and even city to city, the reality is that only about 13% of packaging is ever properly recycled and repurposed. Keeping this in mind, we wanted to explore the concepts of reducing and reusing by producing Water-Lock Moisturizer in a refillable jar and preventing additional trash from entering the waste stream." Harper estimates that the refill system prevents 11 jars from winding up in a landfill each year.
Over the last few years, we've also seen new brands prioritize sustainability from the start by adopting the refillable model for all of their products. Such was the case with buzzy science brand Noble Panacea. The brand's skincare offerings come in tiny one-dose sachets made out of 100 percent recyclable material and are housed in a futuristic refillable coffret made of renewable starch-based materials. "Our skincare products and formulations provide unparalleled efficacy due to the vanguard scientific technology, the Organic Molecular Vessel, which protects, preserves, delivers, and releases active ingredients at an optimized rate,” CEO Celine Talabaza says. "The Active Daily Dose packaging is more than a single-use sachet. It preserves the purity and the integrity of the extremely sophisticated formula until the moment of application when the full potency of each active ingredient is unleashed into the skin at the optimal moment in the most effective sequence."
While 30 single-serve sachets might seem more wasteful than one single-use bottle, the brand estimates a 50ml serum bottle is actually creating 14 to 15 times more waste than the single-dose packets, which are also fully recyclable via a partnership with Terracycle. "As part of our Responsible Beauty value, we strive to make the integration of sustainable beauty rituals effortless for the consumer," Talabaza says. "Together with TerraCycle, we are streamlining the recycling process, making it easier for consumers across the country to partake in the recycling process. Every order purchased now comes with a prepaid TerraCycle envelope. The consumer simply fills up the envelope with empty Active Daily Doses and drops it off at the nearest FedEx location. By simplifying the process, we hope to encourage our consumers to recycle their doses responsibly yet with minimal effort.
Challenges still exist in the refill space, as Harper notes, some formulas and consistencies don’t lend themselves well to the reusable format, and keeping the refills airtight for hygienic purposes can be challenging from a packaging design standpoint. But, it’s clear that it’s a concept that’s catching on, both with luxury brands and their clientele. "The reality is that beauty packaging can definitely be used longer," Harper says. "Think about all of your pumps, caps, and jars. It’s not like these are disintegrating after a month or two of using it. We feel strongly that the future is in reusing your packaging, which is even better than recycling."
For many, the transition to refillable packaging has also changed the perception of what luxury means in today’s world. As Mauvais-Jarvis puts it, “Luxury is also about quality, craftsmanship, and savoir-faire—making qualitative beautiful objects made to last and that can be refilled."