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Reusable packaging update

Giles Bolton
Giles Bolton
Responsible Sourcing Director

The fundamental purpose of our ‘4Rs’ strategy - to remove packaging where we can, reduce what we cannot, reuse more and make everything we do use recyclable - is to eliminate packaging waste as much as we can.

Eliminating waste is no mean feat. It requires effort, commitment, innovation and a commitment to try new things. Particularly when it comes to working out how to implement reusable packaging at scale against disruptive challenges such as Covid or the current economic environment.

Reusable packaging has long been considered an important part of the solution in the battle to eliminate waste, especially single use plastic. But, while the potential is huge – and we should all be excited about a solution where packaging can be used and reused in a circular system – the implementation challenge is equally significant.

But it’s a challenge we want to help tackle. It’s why we launched the UK’s largest ever reusable supermarket packaging trial with Loop in ten of our stores. We wanted to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what might be scalable in future. We also committed to share those learnings with industry as it has been clear from the start that reusability at scale has the best prospects if it adopted in common formats across the sector.

Our pilot reuse initiative with loop included both a year-long online shopping, and a nine month in-store trial which concludes next week. In both our online and in-store pilots, customers paid refundable deposits on each piece of reusable prefilled packaging. Once empty, the packaging was returned through a courier or instore collection point, before being cleaned, refilled and made available for the next customer.

We recognised that to make the pilot a valuable learning experience, it needed proper scale. That’s why it explored both online and instore shopping behaviours and included over 50 big brand products alongside 35 own-brand products.

We also worked hard to ensure the reusable shopping experience replicated the ease and simplicity of a normal supermarket shopping trip as far as possible. Prices were matched with the recyclable packaging equivalents for the duration of the instore trial.

We’re delighted to report that the pilot was positively received by customers who purchased more than 80,000 products over two years – and are very appreciative of those customers who engaged in it with us. Products in reusable packaging that proved most popular included big brands such as Coca-Cola and own label essentials such as granola, basmati rice and olive oil.

What’s clear from our trial is that a prefill model of reuse has strong potential and can be set up to offer customers the ease and convenience they expect. While it is very disruptive to usual ways of working, we’ve also seen it’s possible to adapt supply chains working in partnership with suppliers to maintain the quality and availability that customers rightly demand.

But there’s still much more to do. Specifically, work is needed to encourage a cultural and behavioural shift from customers. Reuse represents a radical change in the shopping experience and while customers support the environmental principle, industry, policymakers and supply chains will need to work hard and work collectively to support and incentivise customers to adopt new shopping behaviours, while ensuring they don’t come at a cost to shoppers.

The learnings report gives us a clear set of feedback to reflect on. We are ending the trial to reflect on that feedback and plan next phases of work. We will use our insights to work with stakeholders across the value chain to understand how we best help scale it in future.

We will also continue to press ahead with our wider packaging strategy with renewed ambition. As part of our 4Rs strategy, we aim to remove 5 billion single use plastic products by 2025. It’s a bold but achievable ambition and reuse will help us achieve it.

In the months ahead, customers will continue to see more single use plastic removed across categories and products. As we continue our efforts to remove what we can, we’ll explore how we can apply the learnings on reuse in our own business and share them with industry and stakeholders so that others can learn from them. The challenge and opportunity is too great to do anything else.

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