Unpackaged Philosophy for Natural Cosmetics Distribution
3/24/2023 Start-ups Sustainability Retail Article

Unpackaged Philosophy for Natural Cosmetics Distribution

Sustainable and conscious consumption, without the feeling of abandonment: the start-up WITHOUTme offers refillable natural cosmetics, but needs drugstores and food retailers as cooperation partners for distribution.

The start-up WITHOUT.me offers refillable care products. "The start-up WITHOUT.me offers refillable care products."

Herbal Dream is a 2-in-1 gel for hair and body care, without silicones, parabens, and microplastics. The product is environmentally friendly, the packaging solution should be too –- that's why WITHOUTme relies on an offer that follows the philosophy of unpackaged stores: the product is filled into a stainless steel bottle at the initial purchase, which then can be used and refilled again and again. 
Currently, the range includes a bottle for a filling of 340 grams and a smaller variant for a 220-gram filling. The filled bottle costs the consumer around 25 euros for the first purchase, with the gel costing 10 euros and the stainless steel bottle 15 euros. This is not a discounter price, WITHOUTme founder Steffanie Rainer is aware: “With WITHOUTme, we naturally have a premium product in the upper price segment of grocery retail. Depending on the brand partner and brand price structure, the material of the bottle can vary.” The reusable bottle could also be offered at a lower price; mono-material plastics, glass, or aluminum are conceivable. A deposit solution is also possible. 

Uncomplicated refilling at retail stores

Rainer founded her company in 2021 while on parental leave. She had the vision of enabling uncomplicated refilling in the retail trade and thus making it easier for consumers to decide in favor of a more sustainable product. The foundations were then laid with the development of a refill machine geared entirely to the customer, the backbone of which is in turn an established stainless steel returnable keg system from the beverage industry.
The start-up founder presented her concept on the TV show “Die Höhle der Löwen” (the German version of “Shark Tank”) in August 2022. The goal was to get 100,000 euros in exchange for 15 percent of her company shares. But no one from the round of investors took the bait; the sales problem seemed too big for the potential backers. 

That is probably the biggest hurdle: The sales concept stands and falls with the willingness of the retailers to cooperate. A station with a refill machine is about one meter wide and 60 centimeters deep, occupies a so-called gondola space in the retail store, but can also stand on its own. Electricity and WLAN are required for operation. Customers can fill their bottles here, and the vending machine then issues a receipt with a barcode, which is used to pay for the refill at  checkout. 

Five refilling stations and a web store

There are currently five refill stations, and online shipping is also possible. The refill bags for 340 grams that can be ordered online are made of mono-material polypropylene and are 100 percent recyclable.  

But stationary still beats online: “The ease, the accessibility in everyday life and the zero-waste solution through stationary refilling are perceived as an advantage by consumers,” says the founder –- the refill frequency at the stations is higher than in the online store. 
This is where Steffanie Rainer comes in: the founder is currently in talks with large retail and drugstore chains to make the vision of recyclable packaging possible across the board in practice. Especially regarding sustainability, she sees good opportunities: “Our fully automated solution and remote service is especially attractive for stores that are busy.”

And how do the goods get to the retailers? “In terms of logistics, we attach ourselves to the existing structures of wholesalers,” Rainer explains. “Refill drums are delivered via the central warehouses. A logistical handling of individual returnable bottles would also take this route.” 

The start of a systemic change

If the young company founder has her way, the vending machine for the skin and hair care product is just the beginning of a major systemic change in packaging: “We don't want to limit circular use to our own product, but make it available to everyone.” That way, she says, a modular concept would be developed that would offer each manufacturer the opportunity to practically circularize individual packaging. “We are about to launch the first pilot. The refill stations are our base and our first proof of concept,” Rainer says. The spin-off will be featured at www.WeAreReo.com.