We’ve been hearing it for 30 years: reduce, reuse, recycle. Most personal care brands barely get caught up in the third of those ecological safety nets, but Uni is fighting the industry to change that.
It’s a damned misfortune that plastic is cheap and plentiful – the financial cost of the material doesn’t reflect the environmental impact of that shampoo bottle. A third of plastic ends up in oceans or landfills. If they do, they will take about 450 years to decompose. PET plastic is the most common, and even now that scientists are making enzymes that make it possible to shorten that 450-year lifespan to a matter of days, it would be a lot better if we could use less, refill our bottles or could recycle things properly . Uni takes a combination of those approaches, with a brand new line of consumables for the home. With well-designed, high-quality dispensing pumps to dispense the personal care products, high-quality, washable aluminum refill bottles, and a mission to take those bottles in exchange to wash and refill them, they may be on to something.
The products themselves are high-quality cosmetic products; the line includes a variety of products. There is a hand wash with an exfoliant – it actually feels like washing your hands with fine-grained sand. As someone who has spent many years in workshops, it reminded me of the industrial cleaners you use to get nasty grease off your mitts, except it smells really nice and doesn’t feel like you 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 for a $0.29 bar of soap, paying over $25 for a 12.5 fl.oz (375 ml) bottle of hand wash seemed a bit on the steep side. You can buy the full five-bottle starter kit, which includes five dispensers, for $179. I’m guessing low-profile journalists aren’t Uni’s target audience; the products feature “Uni Marine Complex™; Uni’s unique combination of marine actives and ingredients with a 24-hour moisturizing effect”. Supposedly, the products contain “super plants” to provide antioxidants and vitamins, while ethically sourced from environmentally sustainable sources 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 diminishing will to live.
TechCrunch would be crazy to let me do skincare product reviews so this article isn’t what this is – the products are fine I’m sure – what I ben what it is excited about, however, is that the company is making an effort to address the climate and environmental impact of the CPG industry. Aluminum has a number of advantages over plastic: it is perfectly recyclable when the bottles have reached the end of their life and the sturdy bottles can be refilled and reused several times.
Logistics is difficult for any consumer packaged goods (CPG) business – and the question becomes how a small startup handles a complex supply chain, not only in product manufacturing, but also in customer return logistics.
“As a startup it is less difficult than under an existing company. As a startup, we can build the system the way we want from scratch. 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’re lucky enough to get the right strategic funding, we’ll end up driving much of this innovation. The physical logistics were the hardest to work out; it has to be cost effective, it has to work efficiently. Much of it is very location specific. Our laundry facilities, our co-packers, our labs—it’s all in New Jersey.”
The company founder laments the beauty industry’s broken promises.
“My research really shed light on the beauty industry’s empty promises and promises for future change and action. Uni is the solution today; it is now possible to offer safe, sustainable, style-driven body products – we developed them and made it easy for consumers to make a positive impact with their choices,” said Keating.
The company decided to take a mission-oriented approach to attracting investment and took the smart step of talking to investors before they even set up 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 said to them, ‘This is what I want to do, if I do it, will you support me?’ I didn’t know that guy then [Oseary] and Ashton [Kutcher] started building a new impact vehicle. Guy said to me, ‘If you do, be sure to come back and I’ll help you,’” says Keating. She did, and they invested. “They have been incredibly strategic to me in the sense that their existing portfolio has been phenomenal. The approach they take to investing is phenomenal. The conversations I had as a pre-launch company I would never have had without [Oseary and Kutcher] put me there. It is probably the most strategically aligned partner we can 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 the attention of a few people, including the investment community. The company told me it had raised $4 million in seed funding from SOUNDWaves – the ESG investment fund led by Guy Oseary and Ashton Kutcher.
“The catering industry is far too dependent on single-use packaging. The shift towards reusable, refillable and ocean-safe solutions should be adopted by every player in the industry,” said Ashton Kutcher, celebrating the young company’s progress: “Uni has created a sustainable offering that’s better for you and the environment .”
Uni’s circular economy aspect is clearly a core part of its offering, but as a logistics geek it scares me a bit; it’s hard enough to ship things without having to take them back if they’re in an unknown (and unknowable) state. However, the company founder seems imperturbable:
“I’ve had people from the beauty industry who were very critical of what I was doing,” Keating said, when asked if the logistics were an unnecessary bottleneck in the process. “The same people are calling me now because they’re having supply chain issues, because they can’t get their products. Strangely enough, people who were very much against it now ask me how we built our logistics, who put it together. We’ll start with a batch of ‘virgin’ bottles – but the way my system works is I take the bottles back, I scan and sort them, and then I save them. And if I want to order again, I basically run them through the wash facility followed by UV light, they are dried and then they are going to be refilled. It’s not as daunting as it sounds – we’re still bulk processing and sourcing. We’re 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 corporate clients such as galleries, restaurants, boutique hotels and eco-luxury spas. The pump can be printed with the branding of the resort, restaurant or hotel. This simplifies Uni’s logistics — these locations are obviously used more often than home users, and it is possible to ship larger volumes of refills at once for greater economies of scale — and it helps customers get closer to their ESG goals by embracing refillable solutions. .
“For now, I just want to get the system out there and work. Version 2 is the driver for consumers for us. We want to get people to return our bottles. What I’d really like to do is set up mini popups, maybe with a retail partner. I don’t know what the answer is, but it should definitely be incentive-based and convenient,” concludes Keating.
The company’s long-term plan is to go beyond just beauty and body care products. The company suggests that deodorants may be next, but other opportunities may be lurking as well.
Update – The original version of this article stated that Uni raised $3 million. This has been updated to the correct figure: $4 million.