Embracing aluminum containers, Uni wants to completely remove plastic packaging from your home

We’ve been hearing it for 30 years — reduce, re-use, recycle. Most personal care brands barely get caught in the third of those ecological safety nets, but Uni is picking a fight with the industry to change all that.

It’s a cursed misfortune that plastic is cheap and abundant — the financial cost of the material doesn’t reflect the ecological impact of that shampoo bottle. A third of plastics end up in oceans or landfills. When they do, they take 450 years or so to decompose. PET plastic is most abundant, and even as scientists are making enzymes that make it possible to reduce that 450-year life span to a matter of days, it would be a lot better if we could use less, refill our bottles or recycle things properly. Uni is taking a combination of those approaches, with a brand new line of at-home consumables. With well-designed, high-quality dosing pumps to dispense the personal care products, high-quality, washable aluminum refill bottles and a mission to take those bottles in return to wash and refill them, they may be on to something.

The products themselves are high-end cosmetic products; the line includes a variety of products. There’s a hand wash with an exfoliant — basically, it feels like you’re washing your hands with fine-grit sand. As someone who spent a lot of years in workshops, it reminded me of the industrial cleaners you use to get nasty grease off your mitts, except it actually smells pleasant and it doesn’t feel as if you’ve attacked yourself with a bag of sand. The rest of the line includes a body serum (it’s lotion, I think), shampoo, conditioner and a “skin shield” body wash.

For someone who usually shops around for a $0.29 bar of soap, paying upwards of $25 for a 12.5 fl.oz (375ml) bottle of hand wash seemed a little on the steep side. You can buy the full five-bottle starter kit, which includes five dispensers, for $179. I suspect undiscerning journalists aren’t Uni’s target market; the products feature “Uni Marine Complex™; Uni’s unique combination of marine actives and ingredients with a 24-hour hydrating effect”. Supposedly, the products contain “super plants” to deliver anti-oxidants and vitamins, while being sourced ethically from environmentally sustainable resources and planet-safe ingredients. In other words; probably better for both you and the planet than that bar of soap made from industrial chemicals and a slowly deteriorating will to live.

Uni’s product line — shampoo, conditioner, hand wash, body serum and body wash. The company’s reusable pump is on the far right. It screws onto the refill bottles, leaving exposed the text showing what’s inside. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

TechCrunch would be mad to let me do product reviews of skincare products, so this article is not what this is — the products are fine, I’m sure — what I am excited about, however, is that the company is taking a stab at tackling the climate and environmental impact of the CPG industry. Aluminium has a few advantages over plastic: It is perfectly recyclable when the bottles reach the end of their life span, and the sturdy bottles can be refilled and reused a number of times.

Logistics is hard for any consumer packaged goods (CPG) company — and the question becomes how a tiny startup deals with a complex supply chain not just in the product manufacturing side of things, but also the return logistics from customers.

“As a startup it is less difficult than under an existing company. As a startup, we can build the system the way that we want to from the get-go. We had to think about everything — we formulated the products to work in aluminum; we knew what we were getting into, and designed around it,” said Alexandra Keating, founder and CEO of Uni. “For startups like us, if we are lucky enough to get the right strategic funding, we will end up driving a lot of this innovation. The physical logistics was the hardest to work out; it needs to be cost-effective, it needs to work efficiently. A lot of that is very location-based. Our washing facilities, our co-packers, our labs — it’s all in New Jersey.”

The company’s founder laments the broken promises from the beauty industry.

“My research really shed light on the beauty industry’s empty promises and pledges for future change and action. Uni is the solution today; it is possible to offer safe, sustainable, style-driven body products now — we have developed them, and made it simple for consumers to make a positive impact with their choices,” said Keating.

The company decided to take a mission-aligned approach to raising investment, and took the shrewd step of starting to talk to investors before they even founded the company.

“I think I was a little unusual: I went to the people I wanted to invest in me before I even started the company. I told them, ‘This is what I want to do, if I do it, will you support me?’ At the time, I didn’t know that Guy [Oseary] and Ashton [Kutcher] were going to build a new impact vehicle. Guy told me, ‘if you do it, definitely come back, I’ll help you’,” says Keating. She did, and they invested. “They have been unbelievably strategic for me, in the sense that their existing portfolio is phenomenal. The approach that they’re taking to investing is phenomenal. The conversations I was having as a pre-launch company, I would never have gotten without [Oseary and Kutcher] putting me there. It’s probably the most strategically aligned partner we could have. They were very involved; they saw the formulations, the packaging design, the creative.”

The idea of launching an innovative, closed-loop system of refillable products certainly caught a few folks’ eyes, including the investment community. The company told me it raised $4 million in seed funding from SOUNDWaves — the ESG investment fund led by Guy Oseary and Ashton Kutcher. 

“The hospitality industry is far too reliant on single-use packaging. The shift to reusable, refillable and ocean-safe solutions should be adopted by every player in the industry,” Ashton Kutcher said, celebrating the young company’s progress: “Uni has created a sustainable offering that’s better for you and the environment.”

The circular economy aspect of Uni is obviously a core part of its offering, but as a logistics nerd, it scares me a little; it’s hard enough to ship things around without having to take them in return when they are in an unknown (and unknowable) state. The company’s founder seems unperturbed, however:

“I have people from the beauty industry that were very critical of what I was doing,” said Keating, when queried whether the logistics put an unnecessary bottleneck in the process. “The same people are now calling me because they have supply chain issues, because they can’t get their products. Weirdly, people who were very against it are now asking me how we built our logistics, who put it together. We start with a batch of ‘virgin’ bottles — but the way that my system works is I take the bottles back, I scan and sort them, and then I store them. And when I want reorder, I basically run them through the washing facility, followed by UV light, they get dried, and then they go to be refilled. It is not as daunting as it sounds — we are still doing bulk processing and purchasing. We are still in beta with a few B2B partners, but we haven’t run into any issues yet.”

For its beta partners, Uni worked with high-end business customers like galleries, restaurants, boutique hotels and eco-luxury spas. The pump is brandable with the resort, restaurant or hotel’s branding. This makes Uni’s logistics easier — obviously, these locations have higher-frequency use than home users, and it’s possible to ship larger batches of refills at the time for better economies of scales — and it helps the customers get closer to their ESG goals by embracing refillable solutions.

“For now I just want to get the system out there and working. Version 2 for us is the incentive for the consumers. We want to make sure that people send our bottles back. What I would really love to do is to set up mini pop-ups, perhaps with a retail partner. I don’t know what the answer is, but it definitely has to be incentive-based and convenient,” Keating concludes.

The long-term plan for the company is to go beyond just beauty and body-care products. The company suggests that deodorants might be next, but other opportunities may lurk over the next hill, too.

Update — the original version of this article stated that Uni had raised $3m. This has been updated to the correct figure: $4m.