Tom Domen (Ecover): "Customers are increasingly receptive to refillable packaging"

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A company like Ecover has not much to learn when it comes to sustainability. From its foundation in 1980, the goal has been to produce sustainable and eco-friendly cleaning and laundry products. But Tom Domen, globally responsible for long-term innovation at Ecover, is not resting on his laurels. "There is always room for improvement," he says.


Packaging is the spearhead

"Us, too, we still have a way to go to become even more sustainable," Domen explains. However, Ecover has quite a few credentials. Since its origins in 1992, under the wings of investment fund Skagen, the company has become the global market leader for environmentally friendly household products.


Exactly one decade ago, Ecover pioneered a fully recyclable bottle made from cane sugar. Three years later, the company introduced packaging made partly from recycled plastic waste taken out of the ocean. And packaging remains to be the spearhead of Domen's ongoing sustainability strategy. Or more specifically: reducing the amount of packaging.


Ecover is experimenting with a system of refillable bottles in supermarkets. In Belgium, they are trialling this concept in cooperation with Delhaize. "Reuse is our number one priority," says Domen. "We try to reduce the use of plastic as much as possible. We want to reduce single-use as much as possible."


Ease of use

Of course, a system involving bulk packaging in-store with customers bringing their proper bottles is nothing new. But Domen acknowledges that the concept had to be taken out of the "green niche". "The principle has existed in health food stores for some time, but was often characterised by clumsy manual refill systems that led to inevitable spillage." 


Ecover's solution: a refill machine that should increase the ease of use in the store. And it seems to work. "With each in-store trial, we notice an overwhelmingly positive response from our consumers. People are more and more open to the idea," says Domen. Although, he acknowledges that there are still challenges. "There are still the occasional spills, one of the machines occasionally fails, and it is also a learning curve for the staff who regularly have to replace the bulk packaging."


The competition is watching

Does Domen see a future where Ecover only sells its detergents through such a system? "That would be fantastic, of course. But we will probably evolve towards a hybrid model. One idea is a so-called 'loop', a closed circuit where customers can return their used bottles in the same way we already know for empty bottles of beer."


Whether this is the new model for the entire industry, Domen cannot estimate at this stage. "But something is surely moving in the industry. When we did our first trial of this system in the UK, in a supermarket in Oxford, we noticed that the competition also stopped by to take a look and take pictures of the refill stations."


RetailDetail Sustainability Congress

On 1 April, RetailDetail is organising its Sustainability Congress. This congress puts retailers who take the step from negative ecological footprints to 'positive handshakes' in the spotlight: scalable, sustainable initiatives that bring us closer to a circular economy. Moderated by Stefaan Vandist, Ine Stultjens (Auping), Caroline Gastaud (IKEA), and Lander Desmedt (HNST) will reveal how they are going to achieve this. You can order tickets for the livestream through this link