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Refill instead of throwing away – the vision of the perfect circular economy

Refill instead of throwing away – that’s the idea behind the first refill station for NIVEA shower gels. The cross-functional team of Marta Suslow (Packaging Specialist), Caroline Zia (R&D Senior Engineer) and Maximilian Schulz (Junior Key Account Manager) worked for around six months on getting the station market ready and found a strong partner for the test run in the shape of the drugstore chain dm. Hilke asked the three for an interview and talked with them about how the project went and the special challenges involved.

You brought the first refill station for NIVEA shower gels to selected dm stores a few days ago. How did the idea for this project come about?

Caroline: The idea actually came up simultaneously in two different R&D areas. Here at Formula Development we based the idea on initial experience from a refill concept in India – the colleagues there offered NIVEA bottles to refill for the first time as part of an efficiency project. However, the approach was not accepted there by the consumers, since NIVEA in India is regarded as a premium brand. Nevertheless, our team at headquarters redrafted the idea and, as part of our sustainability efforts, placed the focus on reducing plastics. To this end, we examined the microbiological safety of this solution through a study under practical conditions.

Marta: At the same time, we also formulated the idea at our last Global Packaging R&D Summit. The summit is attended by all the packaging developers from the global Beiersdorf laboratories. The refill machine was the clear favorite there in the brainstorming on sustainable packaging concepts – my colleague Bernhard Felten and I took the concept idea away with us and then teamed up very soon with the Prototyping Shower laboratory.

How exactly does your refill concept work?

Marta: The procedure is very simple: Consumers take an empty plastic bottle from the station and fill it with the product of their choice – in other words, the NIVEA Creme Soft or the NIVEA Creme Sensitive shower gel. Payment is made using the printed label. To refill the bottle, the container is brought back to the store by the consumer. The plastic bottles can be refilled up to three times using the special barcode. After the third refill, the customer is then asked to hand in the old bottle at the checkout for hygiene reasons so that it can be recycled. In return, they will receive a new bottle and a first filling for free.

What are your aims with the project?

Max: We have the vision of the perfect circular economy. Acting in an environmentally-friendly manner is important to us, which is why we are working on offering and further developing sustainable packaging solutions. Everyone’s talking about refill concepts, but only a few brands offer appropriate solutions, especially in Germany. With the new refill station for NIVEA shower gels, we want to gather initial important experience together with our consumers, avoid packaging waste, and promote the idea of the circular economy.

Caroline: As Max already correctly pointed out, we want to promote sustainability on the market, but also gather experience, for example: What is the general acceptance among consumers, and where are there hurdles? And what other processes make sense? In addition, we want to carry out microbiological tests on the machine and the returned bottles during the pilot phase – and learn from the realistic experiences of the consumers.

In addition to the ‘NIVEA Haus’ in Berlin, you are cooperating for this project with three selected dm stores – two in Hamburg and one in Karlsruhe. Why have you brought dm on board?

Max: We have a strong partnership with dm and regularly exchange ideas on sustainability topics. It was important to us to have dm on our side especially when it’s about the actual implementation in stores. That already paid off during the preparation alone.

What surprised you the most during the project? And what challenges did you have to overcome?

Marta: Surprised would be the wrong word – what was especially positive were the very positive group dynamics and the speed at which we worked together as a team. We needed just four months from the initial idea to developing the prototype. The cross-functional collaboration and mutual support worked extremely well during this time. Everyone demonstrated the right attitude and a lot of passion, and worked together very fast, flexibly and with agility. We all approached the work very pragmatically, found the right way to tackle each task, and didn’t get carried away with perfection – right in line with “failing quickly and learning quickly”. That was the right strategy for us!

Max: That also applies to our cooperation with dm: Everything ran smoothly and we worked together very openly and results-oriented. Joint workshops gave us valuable insights. That meant we only needed six months from the initial presentation at dm to being market ready. It was just the coronavirus pandemic that upset our plans and made us have to postpone the start of our test phase from the end of March to August 2020. It wouldn’t have made sense for various reasons to adhere strictly to the timing during this difficult time. The results of the test phase wouldn’t have been conclusive. Quite apart from the fact that drugstores like dm have already been stretched to the limit, and the health of employees and consumers has top priority for us.

How did you proceed in developing the refill station? Did you develop the technology entirely on your own?

Marta: We wanted to market the idea quickly and, at the same time, focused on the issues of product safety, microbiology and user-friendliness. That also included opting to use existing bottles in the first step. Each modification or in-house development would have taken up too much time. The new refill machine is simple and intuitive to use and meets the strictest Beiersdorf safety standards, for example, through special pumps, contact-free filling and clearly defined cleaning cycles. We have currently restricted filling per packaging to three cycles – but in the practical test in the coming weeks we want to find out exactly how our system is used in reality, and what number of cycles is actually safely possible.

Do you think that this project will help further raise consumer awareness in relation to sustainability?

Caroline: The fact is that refill capability is not quite as simple as you first think. The crux of the matter is that there is no established system for recycling reusable cosmetic bottles. If we really want to make the leap to the circular economy, we then need to take the consumer with us on the path to a new, sustainable system and take account of their wishes. That means explaining the changes to them transparently and plausibly – and the resulting personal benefit has to be greater than the perceived effort.

Marta: Our current concept is ultimately a small link in a large chain. And such a concept can only succeed if we find a balance between a sustainable business model and a real reduction in material, water and CO2 throughout the entire life cycle. But that’s exactly what we’re aiming for!

What next after the test phase? And what other sustainability approaches are conceivable for you or already in the planning phase?

Caroline: In the first step, we will optimize the existing concept based on the experience gained. In the medium and long term, we will, for example, further develop the machine and possibly equip it with an interactive touchscreen. And, of course, the rollout to other countries is also planned. We see the concept as a start for offering consumers individual products in the future that match their own wishes right in the store. We still need to work out in detail what exactly that might look like. The fact is, however, that we not only want to become more sustainable with our measures, but also offer our consumers added value.

Max: I am certain that we will also implement good, sustainable ideas in the future, because we are already very well-positioned in this area. I expect the topics of CO2 and climate neutrality to be key drivers in the future.

Many thanks to the three of you for the very interesting interview and the insights.

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Hilke Cordes

About the editor: Hilke Cordes

After several years on the agency side, Hilke is now part of the team for Global NIVEA Brands PR & CSR communication at Beiersdorf and takes care of international NIVEA communications projects. She develops PR packages for global brands communication as well as guidelines in conjunction with NIVEA product launches and other brand topics.