Refill and reuse projects generate plenty of media hype, and significant investment from major brand owners and retailers, but consumer uptake remains comparatively low. Could a solution to this issue be staring us in the face? In this article, David Knies, an innovation and growth strategy expert at PA Consulting, and Matt Millington, a design strategy expert at PA Consulting, argue that making packaging designs more beautiful could significantly boost consumer buy-in.


Consumers are still grappling with sustainable packaging: a recent survey of 4,000 consumers found that nearly four in five (78%) fail to choose products with reusable and refillable packaging, despite a similar number (80%) believing we must all play a part in reducing plastics.

Simply extolling the virtues of adopting earth-friendly behaviours is not enough – brands must find a way to break down the barriers that are preventing consumer engagement. Whether there is a perceived value perception associated with refill and reuse products, or just sheer confusion over multiple messages causing purchase paralysis, it is essentially a design problem that needs to be addressed.

Designing beauty

Marrying design with behavioural economics is at the core of any successful refill and reuse packaging option. Human beings are creatures of habit and convenience. If a product that promises a more sustainable or ethical footprint begins to ask too much of consumers, such as requiring them to go back to a particular restaurant to return some packaging, they will likely abandon it in favour of something simpler.

Furthermore, if we are going to get consumers to really engage with sustainable behaviours, we need to create products and packaging that offer beauty, quality, and aspiration.

Sustainability alone is not a compelling enough selling point; it is often now expected as part and parcel of our purchases. The unifying factor which drives product adoption and behavioural change is desire. Irresistible products can change the game. Beauty is a strategic design tool for behavioural change.

When considering the appeal of refill and reuse packaging, designers therefore need to master how to capture the desire of a consumer – going from wanting a product to needing it. And a key way of achieving this is through beautiful and appealing design.

Lessons from the Stanley cup

The Stanley cup is a good example of how a reusable product has become a must-have item. Reusable coffee cups have been on the market since as early as 2007. The global reusable water bottle market – that the Stanley cup arguably sits in – was valued at $8.64bn in 2021 and grew to $8.92bn in 2022. So what has made this one so special in the eyes of consumers?

The real ingenuity behind its brand success lies in its limited-edition ranges and commercial partnerships (both of which perpetuated the Stanley cup is an object of desire) and social media strategy (which contributed to its appeal as a lifestyle brand and item).

Aesthetically different to competitors on the market (at least, when it was first launched), the Stanley cup signified a person’s taste, principles and even status. Sustainability was never the leading message, but its appeal as a lifestyle or statement piece became so powerful that it was the purported cause of customer fights in stores.

You can also measure the success of the Stanley cup in both its refill premise and its design by the fact that there are now many ‘dupes’ on the market. This, in itself, is a strong signifier that it’s the aesthetic appeal rather than just the sustainable aspect of the cup that’s drawing people in.

Consumer priorities

PA Consulting’s recent Brand Impact Index supports this idea. The Index surveyed 7,000 consumers on their attitudes towards 320 leading brands across household, personal care, food, wellness, and other sectors. It found that consumers want brands to make a difference in their lives first, and then to the world at large.

Success lies in meeting the needs of the individual consumer – getting the product, service, and experience spot on – before broadening out to positively impact wider society and the planet. The research uncovered that 84% of consumers expect brands to do more than just make money, and 80% expect brands to demonstrate their commitment to people and profits. But crucially, consumers don’t want this to be at the expense of other factors, such as convenience, reliability, aesthetics, or quality.

Cross-sector learning

Designers therefore need to ask themselves: what can we learn from the success of the Stanley cup and other must-have refillable and reuse packaging options to make sustainable packaging ‘cool’, or position reuse as a status activity? For inspiration, brands should be willing to think outside of their box and look to other sectors for lessons that can be applied to their own product lines.

For example, the refillable deodorant market was valued globally at $1.8bn earlier this year. Among the most prominent players in this field currently are Fussy, which offers a sleek, refillable design with limited edition colours, and Wild, which also uses limited edition graphics, unique scents and anti-toxic ingredients to distinguish their place in the market.

These direct-to-consumer brands lean into the refillable aspect of the products, but have also found alternative ways to appeal to consumers through sleek packaging and other USPs. The challenge that the Stanley cup, Wild and Fussy have managed to overcome is leading with what makes their product unique and appealing, as opposed to focussing only on the sustainability credentials.

The task for designers across all sectors is to create aesthetically pleasing refill and reuse options that will encourage a change in our behaviour, drawing consumers in rather than simply making them feel bad for less sustainable behaviours.

Brands need to focus on generating desire through design that will ultimately impact behaviours for a cleaner environment. The prejudice around refill and reuse products hasn’t quite been designed out yet, but if we focus on making reuse beautiful and desirable, that change will happen sooner.

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