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Editor's pick product sustainability

Sustainable packaging: The refill market opportunity everyone is missing

UK supermarket Waitrose recently announced a trial in one of its stores for refillable products. 46 items in total, including detergent, washing-up liquid, cereal, pasta and more, are being tested – inviting consumers to bring in their own containers for replenishment rather than buying yet more plastic packaging. 

According to Greenpeace, the top 10 UK supermarkets produce 810,000 tons of throwaway or single-use packaging every year. The initiative at Waitrose therefore also sees all produce involved offered at up to 15% cheaper, incentivizing shoppers to do this and buy more sustainably as a result. 

The first thing it brought to mind for me, is why doesn’t this already exist? 

As a consumer, it’s increasingly frustrating to run out of shampoo, detergent, cleaning products, even moisturizer, and have no option but to throw the bottles or containers away (or in some instances put them out in the recycling in the vain hope their second life becomes a reality). I, for one, would love to be able to take all of such items with me next time I pop in store and top them up again instead. And don’t get me started on miniature travel items. 

I’ve talked to dozens of other people about this subject however, and the responses have always hung somewhere between a concerted yes on wanting to do it and a feeling that it takes a lot of effort to actually carry it out. 

Consumers are lazy, we know that. 

Yet many of us now take our ‘Bags-for-Life’ with us every time we shop – popping them in the back of the car or in our handbags when we’re out and about so we don’t get caught without one and need to purchase a new plastic disposable carrier instead. 

The barrier for these refill uptakes should not be that much bigger. It’s an achievable consumer behavior shift. 

The scheme to reduce plastic bag usage in the UK is evidence. It has seen over 15 billion being saved from going into landfill since it was introduced nearly four years ago. That stat is particularly significant when you think about the fact these items can take around 500 years to breakdown. It’s the same for plastic bottles. 

What’s more, since then, we as consumers have been increasingly exposed to numbers like the 28,000 tons of single-use plastic disposed into our oceans every day. Or that by 2050, there’s expected to be more plastic in the sea than fish. Whether verified in their entirety or otherwise, such insights have spurred us into action beyond just reducing plastic bags – resulting in adopting various other habits including reusable drinks bottles, keep cups, paper rather than plastic straws and more.

The fact supermarkets like Waitrose – and others – are exploring the opportunity (or necessity) here to look at such shifts within food and household goods packaging more broadly, seems a natural one as a result. 

The other way to look at it is through the emerging brands and startups stepping into the space. 

Loop is a new initiative from waste management company, TerraCycle, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, for instance. It is being supported and trialled by major businesses including Unilever and Procter & Gamble. It enables shoppers to purchase regular goods in new durable packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused. This is not about the consumer refilling it themselves, but the company doing it on their behalf.  

Eco-friendly household product brand, Ecover, by comparison, which is owned by SC Johnson, has introduced bottles that can be used more than 50 times directly by consumers. It has refill stations across the UK for products including washing up liquid, hand soap, laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaners. The company calls the initiative a “Refillution” and says it’s been experiencing higher demand than ever before over the past year. It is one of the companies trialling with Waitrose. 

Other examples are being experimented within the beauty and cosmetics market, which accounts for around 120 billion units of packaging each year, according to retailer Lush. 

Lush itself is constantly innovating so as to introduce products that come without any packaging at all, but also has things like a zero-waste lipstick that it announced at the end of 2018. These are refills that can be placed into any other lipstick container the consumer already has at home, or bought with a recycled case from Lush to be used over and over again. 

British health and beauty retailer Boots meanwhile, recently opened a new wellness concept store in London that includes refillable skincare products from eco brand Beauty Kitchen.

And skincare brand Olay has just announced it will trial a sale of refill pods for its Regenerist Whip moisturizer from October 2019. Those pods fit into existing jars, saving consumers from needing to get a new one each time they run out of the product. The team estimates one million lbs of plastic saved if five million jars worth are refilled instead. The pods themselves are also recyclable. 

The Olay test will run for three months with the aim of then evaluating learnings to inform future packaging. “It’s really important for us to get it right because only then can we bring this concept to market at scale,” said Anitra Marsh, associate director of sustainability and brand communications for skin and personal care at Olay’s parent company, P&G.

And test and learn is clearly the stage we are at here. There are inevitably many barriers for adoption in a broader sense beyond assumed consumer apathy. The logistics of pulling many of these initiatives off are notable, but so too are concerns around things like hygiene, which is particularly pertinent when it comes to skincare or beauty – hence the pods from Olay rather than a mass refill station that is more possible with the cleaning products of Ecover. 

Much of this was noted in a report by WRAP over 10 years ago – highlighting other things like contamination of product, no easy mechanism of transferring the ‘use by’ date on the packs, the stackability of bulk refills in store or at home, and more. Arguably, all of that still stands, which is why there hasn’t been huge uptake in this space, and is what makes this such an interesting discussion. 

All roads point to huge opportunity and need for evolution, and yet so little has actually yet happened. Frankly, disruption here is needed, and as with successful movements linked to sustainability and the circular economy in other sectors (the resell market, the sharing economy and more), there is a growing business case to do so as a result. 

Right now, brands are largely jumping on a marketing opportunity and benefitting from the halo effect that surrounds reducing single-use plastic consumption. In doing so, there’s a dodge of responsibility occuring. 

Which brings us to a need for regulation in this space to force companies to adhere (something that is being looked at more broadly in the UK for single-use plastic, as this legislation dates back to 1997). It wasn’t until this came in for plastic bags that it actually made a difference to the landscape. The ability for change to really happen often needs a good shove in the right direction. 

That coupled with innovation is what will move this space forward. Our company, Current Global, is one built on solving challenges, and strictly speaking there’s very little here that doesn’t have a solution in front of it waiting to happen. 

The question then is who is going to be the first to truly do it, and at scale, in terms of grabbing the enormous market opportunity it presents. Now is the time.

How are you thinking about new packaging solutions? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.

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data Editor's pick Retail technology

From relevancy to regulation: Why SXSW 2019 was the year of the individual ?

There was undeniably a continued focus on culture at SXSW this year, as what was once the behemoth tech festival aligned itself with broader societal shifts as well as the consumer itself.

Author Brene Brown set the tone by opening the first day of the event with a discussion on empathy and the simple notion of belonging and connection in a digital age. Now, this as a concept isn’t new for SXSW – it was our top takeaway from 2018 off the back of rising concerns around the ethics of artificial intelligence. But this year, it wasn’t said in the context of how we should build technology to behave, but instead really on how we as individuals can live better lives.

On the simplest end of the scale, that of course meant experiences – evidenced by the brand activations that continued to pop up around the city of Austin. Offering opportunities for people to have a great time, isn’t going anywhere. But on top of that was everything from politicians fighting for what society deserves through to an increased focus on wellness.

Underpinning all of it? How we create greater than ever relevancy for individuals in a way that is both fair and meaningful.

Smart wellness
Current Global's co-founder and CEO Liz Bacelar and Calm founder Michael Acton Smith
Current Global’s co-founder and CEO Liz Bacelar and Calm founder Michael Acton Smith

It’s easy to say wellness was a trend at this year’s festival – its presence was felt more than ever, from the huge volume of cannabis-related programming (60 sessions to be precise) to the second year of the wellness expo, which featured everything from breathwork 101 to a conversation on Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. There were also activations including the Real Self House, which offered free consultations with medical doctors and complementary treatments such as lasers and injectables.

Our Innovation Mansion also heavily focused on wellness, with speakers including Calm founder Michael Acton Smith, Dirty Lemon, Recess and Under Armour all playing a role. Where these conversations proved particularly interesting, was in the way connectivity played a role. This wasn’t so much about wearables, nor about that “quantified self” trend from years gone past – rather it was around how technology is more passively enabling me to find out more about myself to then achieve better results.

One key example was in L’Oréal’s announcement of its partnership with microbial genomics company, uBiome, which the Current Global’s Liz Bacelar explored with Guive Balooch, VP of L’Oréal’s technology incubator, on the SXSW main stage. This is about deepening its research into the skin’s bacterial ecosystem in order to develop more personalized skincare solutions for individuals. The end goal is quite literally prescribing products based on exactly what the science of our own bodies tell us we need. “When it comes to skincare, people often audition product after product to determine what works for their unique skin. At L’Oréal, our goal is to advance scientific research and leverage new technologies to change this relationship, by allowing deeper levels of personalization.”

Meanwhile, futurist Amy Webb dedicated a good portion of her trends talk to biometrics, not just for identification scanning, but predicting behaviors. “These are systems that take all biodata and are constantly learning from it in some way, she explained, referencing Pivot Yoga’s connected yoga pants, which monitor poses and correct users’ form while syncing the data to an app. It’s the first time behavioral biometrics made it into her trend report, she noted. She related such a trend to “Persistent Recognition Systems”, which are algorithms that use our unique features, like bone structure, posture, or facial expressions to recognize not only who we are, but our frame of mind in real-time and make personalized suggestions as a result.

In doing so, consumers often end up giving out more information than they realize, Webb added. At Walmart, a smart shopping cart could measure your temperature, heart rate, and grip strength. If the cart senses you’re angry, it can send a representative to help you out. Walmart is reportedly using this data to create a baseline of biometric information about individual users to drive better customer service.

Personalization
Atlantic Pacific for Amazon Fashion

Optimizing data about individuals is the million dollar question for brands. We hear this at every trade show, conference, festival and exhibition we go to around the world. We hear it from every client. How do I better get to know my customer? And how do I then ensure relevancy for them in order to drive my conversions upwards?

SXSW was no different. Amazon Fashion’s CTO, Tony Bacos, said relevancy is his number one goal. “We’re focused on helping connect people to the products that we know are going to delight them. Not just in their individual taste and style but in their bodies,” he explained. By that he meant thinking about how to drive personalized discovery when the challenge is the huge scale of Amazon’s catalog, and then how to solve fit and sizing issues. With the latter he referenced machine learning in order to map sizing from one brand to the next as well as understand the role consumer preference and buying history play. Virtual try-on, where users can visualize themselves in items, will play a role for Amazon in the future, he hinted.

“No one has nailed these things in fashion yet – both the opportunity to create better and personalized experiences online and to solve the fit challenge,” he said. “That’s why it’s an exciting category.”

Kerry Liu, CEO of artificial intelligence software company, Rubikloud, agreed the future of retail really is about relevancy, and about using AI behind the scenes to facilitate it. In the words of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, it’s about using tech to “quietly but meaningfully improve core operations”, he said. But more than that, it’s about optimizing decision making, which increasingly humans alone cannot do.

Walmart CTO Jeremy King, said it’s about efficiency, which ultimately means giving humans the tools to make better use of their time. As Marie Gulin Merle, CMO of Calvin Klein, reminded everyone: “Fashion is an emotional business; you still need people to shake the hearts of the consumers.”

Data regulation
Dennis Crowley from Foursquare

With a focus on data, of course comes conversation around privacy and increasingly, regulation. When the programming suggestions were submitted to SXSW last summer for inclusion in this year’s content line-up, top of mind were two major subjects within this: the GDPR regulations in Europe, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal with Facebook. Cue such continued debate come March.

Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor and one-time advisor to Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, spoke about the importance around regulation. “Users and society have not had a chance to debate whether companies should gather information and profit from people’s financial transactions, health data, or location,” he noted. An avid critic of Facebook today, he nonetheless understands the problem is endemic to a world where the most profitable business model is tracking people, using data to predict their behavior, and steering them toward the companies’ desired outcomes.

One company keeping a close eye on regulation is Foursquare, whose co-founder Dennis Crowley explained the company’s evolution from hyperlocal advertising to a business-to-business data play. “Now, Foursquare offers a base map of the world,” he said. But it refuses to sell data on individual customers in the process.

For Facebook, by comparison, the pressure around data privacy continues to heat up. Just before SXSW, Zuckerberg announced the platform will shift its focus away from public posts to encrypted, ephemeral communications on its trio of messaging apps. To McNamee, this supposed commitment to encryption and privacy reads like a stunt. “They’re not getting out of the tracking business. My problem with Facebook is not whether it’s end-to end-encrypted. It’s what are they doing with the tracking, what are they doing to invade my private spaces. I don’t want them buying my credit card history. I do not want them doing business with health and wellness apps to get all that data. I do not want them buying my location data from my cellular carrier.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren also took to the SXSW stage to address her tech regulatory proposal, announced the day before. This seeks to undo massive tech mergers that exist and introduce legislation that would prohibit marketplace owners from developing products for sale on their own platforms. “Amazon has a platform to sell you a coffee maker, but that company also sucks out an incredible amount of information about every buyer and seller. Then they can make a decision to go start a competing coffee making-selling outfit, and drive out of business everyone else in that space,” she said. McNamee revealed he’s now advising Warren as a presidential candidate for 2020, on her data regulation agenda.

For global brands, the role of data privacy is only going to continue apace. Regulation looks inevitable in the US, as it has been in Europe. The question is, how to balance that pressing consumer demand for personalization with the protection they equally expect.

Additional reporting by Larissa Gomes.

How are you thinking about innovation? We’re all about finding you the perfect partners to do so. The Current Global is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.

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data Editor's pick Podcast

Facebook’s data scandal: Amnesty International on the future of regulation

Amnesty International's Sherif Elsayed-Ali - Facebook
Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali

According to Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali, brand transparency and regulation are key in light of the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica news, which saw over 87 million individual user accounts improperly shared.

Speaking on the latest episode of TheCurrent Innovators, which was guest hosted by Rosanna Falconer at a live FashMash Pioneers event in London, Elsayed-Ali, the human rights organization’s director of global issues and research, said data protection and privacy have never been more pertinent topics.

Listen here: Apple Podcasts | Android | Google Play | Stitcher | RSS

“In the atmosphere we are in, where this is this kind of diminishing trust in technology, creating transparency adds to the trust that people will have in any company or brand in a way that can be very positive… There’s something about empowering people, empowering consumers, to be able to say ‘I know what’s happening to my data, I know how it’s used, and I know how it’s protected’,” he explains.

For that to happen, there needs to be regulations in place for brands however, he added. By building a basic framework of minimum requirements, it will level the playing field, which is essential.

The advent of GDPR in Europe – the General Data Protection Regulation proposed by the European Commission and due to kickstart in May 2018 – will help facilitate this, he notes, explaining exactly what it means for marketers within the fashion and retail industries still looking to drive microtargeting and increasingly personalized campaigns.

Consent is a crucial focus he said, but so is removing lengthy jargon that makes it difficult for users to understand what they’re signing up for.

During the episode, Elsayed-Ali, who established Amnesty’s technology and human rights program, also talks to what artificial intelligence means for the future of the fashion industry – exploring the role of automation in manufacturing for instance, and just when we can expect this to become a reality. “We’re not talking decades, we’re talking just years,” he notes.

Catch up with all of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by TheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.