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Refillmania

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

When Phillip Kalli joined the cleaning product business that had been set up by his dad – ‘a wonderful man and a cool dude’ – it would be fair to say he brought his own script.

‘I really wanted to create something good’, he tells us, ‘rather than delivering x% growth each year for the rest of my life.’

Before joining the company over a decade ago, Phill worked for a music magazine and went on to manage a band. ‘We signed to EMI, made a record and toured’, he says; ‘creating refillable and eco cleaning, laundry and personal care products was the logical next step, right?’

While not exactly the career path most trodden, Phill soon discovered that creating an independent business was ‘a lot like doing a band’: ‘It’s all about getting folks to believe in your ideas’, he explains.

An antidote to single use

On joining the family company, Phill was given the freedom to try to reconfigure the business around an uncompromising refill model. ‘I had the idea to make a bunch of intuitively refillable and eco-responsible home products that looked cooler than anything I could find out there’, he tells us. ‘The products would be supplied plastic free and ready to fill – with no compromises and no unnecessary waste.’

‘Intuitively refillable’ is an interesting concept, and one that goes to the heart of the business. The first bottles were printed in Shropshire, in a shed that specialised in small runs of craft beer.

‘When I held one in my hand for the first time, it felt like something good’, Phill remembers. ‘The black monochrome helped give the bottles a purpose, a permanence and a simple kind of cool all of their own. We wanted to make refill intuitive – for everyone. The antithesis of the noisy, colourful single-use plastic that floods shelves, cupboards and sinks everywhere.’

Nothing quite like Fill existed then, even ‘eco’ brands persisted with single-use plastic – and some still do. Phill hoped that the design would encourage people to keep something they would normally throw away, without thinking twice.

Refills made easy

Fill has gone further than most by ensuring its glass bottles are screen-printed with all the necessary product information and CLP labelling, to minimise any risks associated with refilling products into food containers or random empty vessels.

Bottles can be returned to any of Fill’s stockists for a refill, while the bag-in-box liners (5l/10l) can be returned to the factory via Freepost, where they’ll be washed and refilled. ‘They don’t get thrown away’, Phill explains; ‘they don’t get sent for recycling. They get refilled.’

Refilling from bulk in returnable 200l drums goes against the way that most supermarkets have always chosen to supply cleaning and laundry products – or any products, in fact.

‘We’re so glad to see that this is starting to change’, Phill tells us. ‘Better still, we’ve seen that the folks who visit shops like Better Food get the idea, too – all we have to do is wheel the 200l drums into position. Each one will fill 400 500ml bottles!’

These returnable drums are perfect for closed-loop supply at scale, as over time they eliminate huge volumes of single-use plastic waste. ‘We pick them up secondhand from a big soft drinks manufacturer’, Phill reveals. ‘We wash them out and stencil them by hand with environmentally. friendly industrial (EFI) ink, and when they’re empty we get a message to pick them up and take them back to our factory in Northamptonshire, where we wash them, refill them and send them out on the road again.’

Chemistry at its core

Fill’s bestsellers are Laundry Liquid, Wash Up, Hand Soap and Hair Wash; ‘they sell well because they work great, they look cool and they’re genuinely nice to use’, Phill says.

Alongside the cleaning products is a Raw range – ‘a kind of toolkit, or artist’s palette’ – including everyday essentials like rose water, cleaning vinegar, citric acid and bicarbonate of soda.

Customers can mix Fill with Raw products to make all kinds of solutions – from sink unblockers to oven cleaners. A set of simple guides on the Fill website offers great tips and inspiration for DIY cleaning hacks.

Phill’s dad is a PhD formulation chemist, which lends Fill formulations a credibility that Phill is keen to preserve. ‘We’ve spent a lot of time getting accreditations to demonstrate our credibility, integrity and responsibility’, Phill tells us. ‘As a team with modern, responsible chemistry at its core, we want to avoid any greenwashing.’

Phill hopes to have some kind of low-key Willy Wonka tours ready for next spring; ‘It’s not a pretty factory’, he confesses, ‘but we are doing what we say we do. Customers can see through all the bullshit nowadays. I know I can. I joke sometimes that we might be the slowest-growing refill brand in the UK, but I think there’s something good to be said for that. We aren’t setting out to be an overnight sensation – refill is not a passing fad.’

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