Aishwarya Ramesh

HUL’s ‘Smart Fill’ machine takes on refill pouches, zero waste stores…

… But how likely will it change consumer behaviour? Will the eco-friendly ‘woke’ citizen go the extra mile?

After years of relying on refill pouches, ‘kirana’ stores and zero waste businesses, consumers finally have a more eco-friendly alternative to buying Hindustan Unilever (HUL) products. HUL has launched an initiative, called a ‘Smart Fill’ machine. It is an in-store vending model for its home care products, and its aim is to reuse, reduce and recycle plastic.

HUL is attempting to incentivise the use of this machine and reusable bottles by offering a discount. If the consumers bring in their own bottle, they are offered a Rs 30 discount. If they choose to purchase a ‘Smart Fill’ bottle (which can be subsequently reused), then they will get a Rs 15 discount.

The consumers can avail these benefits on flagship (HUL) brands like Surf Excel liquid for Top Load and Front Load washing machines; Comfort Fabric Conditioner and Vim Dishwash Liquid Gel. HUL will also ensure that 100 per cent of the company’s plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Damodar Mall, CEO, grocery retail at Reliance Retail, said, “Reuse and recycle is a natural instinct in Indian families. A unique feature of most urban neighbourhoods is a micro-entrepreneur shop that buys household material for recycling. These societal habits must find their modern expressions, too. HUL refillery is one such smart effort. Our shoppers at Smart Superstore are already loving it. We are looking forward to taking the refillery idea to many more urban centres, along with the HUL team.

The HUL refill machine
The HUL refill machine

In many parts of the world, zero waste stores are a phenomenon that rely on exactly this working model. Some such stores in India include Ecoindian in Chennai, Pune-based Adrish, Ecospora in Goa, For Earth’s Sake and many more.

How will this initiative fare, as compared to the refill pack method of avoiding plastic waste? We spoke to experts to find out. Edited excerpts below -

Ajeeta Bharadwaj, chief strategy officer – Wondrlab India (ex-strategy head, Leo Burnett, and ex-EVP planning, Wunderman Thompson)

Every initiative is as good as the context it operates in. If HUL had introduced ‘Smart Fill’ machines a decade ago, it might have had to work a lot harder. Today, consumer mindsets towards sustainability have been changing, and plastic waste is fairly high on that list.

A recent Mintel India Study quoted two interesting findings. The first was that ~72 per cent Indian consumers said that they were aware and concerned about the use of single-use plastic. Furthermore, 79 per cent said that they had very little information on how to reduce plastic waste. So there is a forced gap between intention and action.

Ajeeta Bharadwaj
Ajeeta Bharadwaj

What the Smart Fill machines do, is that they give people an option to actually act on their good intentions. Not all people will choose to exercise this option. Especially among the evolved consumer segments that some of these brands are catering to, there will be those who will want to be a part of this initiative for the good that it can set in motion.

If you compare the Smart Fill machine to refill pouches then the latter is definitely more convenient. You can stock them more easily, you can refill when you want and from the comfort of your home instead of having to step out to a refill station.

All refill pouches have been built on value - but end of the day, refill pouches are like a half step towards solving plastic waste. Refill machines work harder towards the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle goal because they eliminate a part of plastic usage. So in a way, it comes to the classic clash between good for me vs. good for the Earth.

I think a lot will depend on how the Smart Fill initiative is seeded in culture. And on how it can be made more accessible. With all the good intentions in the world, we live busy lives and it’s just far easier to change behaviour when you don’t have to go out of the way to do it.

Roshnee Desai, founder and creative director at design agency LOCAL

In India, the sachet and refill packets worked really well; so the concept of the refill machine would work well too. The thing is, this initiative as a whole needs to be promoted more. The machines also have to have their due maintenance done to make sure that the products inside it don’t go bad.

The refill machine might be slightly better for the environment than the refill sachet pack since the refill pack is also made of plastic, as is its tiny lid. It might be initially hard to bring that habit about among consumers, but it’s not impossible. Consumers can be prompted to bring the cans to get them refilled.

Roshnee Desai
Roshnee Desai

It’s a good initiative, but I would question the timing of it – considering that COVID is not over yet. In the face of changing lockdown restrictions, it makes sense to try this out as a pilot project. Let’s see how the project does, going forward.

Ashutosh Karkhanis, Creative Head and Managing Partner, Open Strategy and Design

HUL’s Smart Fill initiative is a comprehensive, innovative solution that goes a long way in the reduction of plastic waste. Consumer awareness towards sustainability, especially environmental impact, is at an all-time high today. By building optimal consumer awareness around the initiative, there is a significant success potential by shifting consumer behaviour.

As the initiative evolves from the metros to the hinterlands, it can gain mainstream implementation incrementally. It has a stronger chance of success in tier 2 and tier 3 cities where refilling is a much more familiar concept to consumers than one would think. From refilling water cans to reusing plastic containers for storage of food etc., consumers are already accustomed to the concept of refill.

Ashutosh Karkhanis
Ashutosh Karkhanis

The refill package was amongst the initial few steps by FMCG players for the reduction of plastic waste, while refill machines are a progression over the refill package. In the near future, both refill pouches and machines can work well in tandem with the other. However in the long term, refill machines can be the preferred option since it’s an even more sustainable and cost-effective option in comparison with refill pouches.

Overall, we are excited to see which direction this initiative takes, given its disruptive concept. From a branding point of view, it would be interesting to see how the Smart Fill machines can become another consumer touchpoint for the brand to effectively and meaningfully engage with consumers, and aid towards the ever-increasing sustainable lifestyle.