It allows to limit packaging and waste, is in line with the environmental regulations being developed, and is even becoming an “encouraged commercial practice”… Bulk has become more than trendy and will soon be almost mandatory. The cosmetics industry must adopt it more widely than it does today… which is not without some adaptations and difficulties to overcome. During the Regulatory Meeting organised by Cosmed on March 25, 2021, Lucia Pereira, Director of Legal Affairs at Réseau Vrac, explained how the bulk sales sector is being structured.
Réseau Vrac (Bulk Network), the French association of professionals in the bulk sector, was created five years ago with several objectives:
• To secure the practices of suppliers who accept that their products are sold in bulk, of retailers who want to distribute them and of consumers who decide to buy them
• To make bulk available for all products (today, bulk is mainly used for food products, cosmetics and detergents, whereas all consumer products can be sold in this way)
• To make bulk products available in all shopping locations, both physical stores and online
• To make bulk convenient
• To generate a positive environmental and social impact
Réseau Vrac is an association under the French law of 1901 which today brings together more than 1,800 professionals from the entire bulk value chain: manufacturers (including about a hundred cosmetics manufacturers), processors, equipment manufacturers (who make bulk sales equipment), service providers, distributors (mainly specialised “bulk” shops or organic shops, supermarket chains are not currently members of the network), project leaders, etc.
The association is present in 14 countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Iceland, Switzerland, Canada, China, the Netherlands, Portugal, Israel, Uruguay, Senegal, Monaco and the United States.
To adapt to the internationalisation of its activity, Réseau Vrac is in the process of having its website and legal tools translated into English, to ensure that the conditions and regulations of bulk sales are harmonised throughout the world.
The actions of Réseau Vrac
The association intends to democratise bulk sales through three levers.
The association lobbies for a clear regulatory framework for bulk sales of food products, detergents, cosmetics or any other consumer product.
It also organises training courses and leads working groups.
This aspect is particularly important from a regulatory point of view.
The association sets up tools and services to develop bulk sales, networks the various players, organises the Bulk Trade Fair and develops key partnerships with organisations such as Ecocert, for example.
The aim is to encourage citizens, local authorities, companies and journalists to popularise bulk sales and make them desirable.
Adaptation of regulations
In this context, Réseau Vrac has contacted the competent authorities to remove the obstacles to bulk sales that exist in the texts setting out the rules for the manufacture or marketing of products.
“These texts were adopted at a time when it was unimaginable that certain products could be sold without primary packaging, and therefore impose restrictions that are not necessarily justified, particularly when they require packaging,” explained Lucia Pereira. “So they have to be adapted. We have managed to get certain obstacles lifted, for example for olive oil and cosmetic products. We now have a regulation that is not necessarily included in the European Regulation 1223/2009, but which constitutes a clear framework accepted by the DGCCRF and the ANSM, especially for the bulk sale of liquid cosmetic products.”
Training courses (Réseau Vrac has created eight) are particularly important for shops selling bulk cosmetics: the competent authorities have clearly recommended that these shops be trained in good bulk selling practices.
The contribution of the working groups
Réseau Vrac has set up several working groups designed to address the problems of the different sectors:
• The “Upstream bulk packaging” working group aims to reduce packaging waste between the supplier and the distributor, because if bulk has a certain effect at the level of the consumer who uses reusable containers, the problem of waste and reuse of packaging still exists upstream: work on standardisation and definition of cleaning protocols will be carried out within this framework
• The “B2C bulk cosmetics” working group is working on the reuse of reusable containers by the consumer, in collaboration with Cosmébio and Ecocert
• Another group is working on secondary lifetimes in foodstuffs, and others are in the process of being set up, such as the one entitled “Bulk Cosmetics B2B”
The bulk market
It is a booming market that grew by more than 41% between 2018 and 2019 to reach 1.2 million euros excluding tax, a figure that includes specialised bulk grocery shops, bulk departments in organic shops and supermarkets.
However, growth has slowed down with the health crisis, as many shops, particularly supermarkets, have had to close their shelves.
“Réseau Vrac has put in place specific recommendations for this period, notably concerning hygiene and the rules for reusing containers. And it is worth noting that the specialised bulk shops have continued to grow despite the health crisis,” commented Lucia Pereira.
Despite everything, the growth prospects are good: the bulk market should reach 3.2 million euros in 2022. And the legislative framework that is being put in place, notably with the AGEC law, encourages bulk sales…
Today, 37% of French households say they buy in bulk. 46% of them are regular consumers and buy in bulk at least once a month. 62% of French households would like to be able to find more bulk products in their shops, and this involves hygiene and beauty products for 43% of them, who would like to find their usual brands in bulk, in their usual shops.
However, there are still obstacles to bulk sales:
• The perception of prices: for 37% of consumers, they often seem high, but according to Lucia Pereira, this is mainly due to the fact that bulk products are nowadays mainly labelled organic
• 29% of consumers are reluctant to switch to bulk for hygiene reasons
• 28% find the system too inconvenient
• 28% feel that they lack information on the products offered in bulk
• 24% regret not finding a bulk offer in their usual shops
• 20% regretted that their usual brands were not available in bulk
“Today, there are two levels of bulk sellers,” explained Lucia Pereira. “On the one hand, there are shops that are trained in good hygiene practices for bulk sales, and on the other hand, there are shops that sell in bulk but do not have the appropriate tools. This creates a barrier for consumers because they wonder about the rules that must be respected. The objective of the Bulk Network is that our hygiene recommendations become the rule for all shops, so that the shelves are at the same level of hygiene everywhere and that this changes the consumer’s perception.”
The French legislative framework is currently very favourable to bulk through three vectors:
• The AGEC law
• The draft 3R Decree
• The draft Climate and Resilience law, resulting from the Citizens’ Climate Convention.
The AGEC law
The law on Anti-Gaspillage et à l’Économie Circulaire (Anti-Waste and Circular Economy) was adopted on 10 February 2020 and includes a definition of bulk sales. This definition, for which Réseau Vrac has been advocating, was designed mainly for the food industry, in order to distinguish bulk sales from cut sales.
“Today, the labelling rules that apply to self-service bulk sales are the same as those that apply to the sale of products without packaging. However, there is a big difference between these two sales methods, notably the absence of the trader and the source of information that he represents (traceability, conservation, etc.). This specific definition of bulk sales will make it possible to define specific labelling rules for this type of sale,” explained Lucia Pereira.
This definition is included in a section entitled “Encouraged Commercial Practice”.
“We knew about aggressive commercial practices, unfair commercial practices, now we have encouraged commercial practices and the first of them is bulk sales. We are very proud that the public authorities have included bulk sales in this new section,” commented Lucia Pereira.
It should be noted that this “encouraged commercial practice” section does not only apply to bulk sales, but to all sales of products without packaging, for example in the deli or bakery section. But to be considered an encouraged commercial practice, they must give consumers the opportunity to use reusable or reusable containers.
The draft 3Rs decree
This draft decree “on the reduction, reuse and recycling targets for single-use plastic packaging for the period 2021-2025” has incorporated in its Article 2 bulk devices as devices that enable companies to achieve these targets.
The Climate and Resilience Bill.
This law confirms the public authorities’ desire to develop bulk sales, in particular by setting a target of 20% of sales areas devoted to bulk sales in large and medium-sized stores, i.e. stores larger than 400 m², by 2030. This includes the development of bulk sales of liquid food products, detergents and cosmetics.
This is a measure that Réseau Vrac intends to support and extend, with the particular aim of obtaining the cooperation of the authorities to build a secure regulatory framework for all the players in the bulk sector.
The association has two objectives:
• To encourage bulk sales as a sustainable and responsible way of consumption, which reduces both packaging waste and food waste
• To clarify the rules of consumer information as well as the rules of hygiene and traceability of products, the good practices defined by Réseau Vrac being to date much stricter than the regulations, which, according to Lucia Pereira, contain a large legal vacuum.
The new regulation in practice
The definition of bulk sales
It has been included in the new Article L. 120-1 of the Consumer Code: “Bulk sales are defined as sales to consumers of products presented without packaging, in quantities chosen by the consumer, in reusable or reapplicable containers. Bulk sales are offered on a self-service basis, or as an assisted service in mobile sales outlets. It can be concluded as part of a distance selling contract.”
Lucia Pereira proposed a decoding of this definition.
• Sales to the consumer
This is a retail sale of products presented without primary packaging, and does not involve the stage of supply of the products to the distributor which necessarily requires secondary packaging, but only the stage of sale to the consumer.
• Selected quantity
The absence of primary packaging allows the consumer to buy the quantity they need, not the quantity imposed by the packaging.
• Reusable or reapplicable containers
In cosmetics and detergents, reapplicable containers will be used. This comes from a rule resulting from exchanges between Réseau Vrac and the DGCCRF, which states that the consumer must dedicate his containers to the same products, and therefore re-use the same cosmetic container to buy the same product. The reusable container is more involved in the food industry, the typical example being the jam jar. Instead of throwing it away, the consumer will reuse it to buy another food product, for example cereals. But they cannot use it to buy cosmetics or detergents: consumers are not allowed to use food or food containers to buy non-food bulk products.
• In self-service.
This point clearly distinguishes bulk sales, a new business in retail, from the sale of unpackaged products on an assisted service basis.
• In assisted service in mobile sales outlets
The only exception to the previous rule is that many bulk businesses are developing on the road. It is accepted that bulk sales are carried out on an assisted service basis since the consumer cannot enter the truck to serve himself.
It should be noted that it is not excluded that this definition evolves within the framework of the Climate and Resilience bill, and that the notion of bulk sales is extended to assisted sales, as is the case for delicatessen, bakery, or on markets.
“At the beginning, Réseau Vrac was not very favourable to this extension, because we really wanted specific rules for self-service bulk. But we realise that in everyone’s mind, bulk sales actually mean the sale of products without packaging. So, in the end, we are not opposed to this definition evolving to include all shops that present products without primary packaging, provided that these shops have the possibility of using usable or reusable containers and that consumers are given the opportunity to buy the right quantity. And then define specific labelling rules for self-service bulk…” commented Lucia Pereira.
The new section “Encouraged Business Practice”
This section introduces several new principles.
The free marketing of all products in bulk
The new Article L. 120-1 of the Consumer Code specifies that all types of products must be allowed to be sold in bulk, except for exceptions duly justified by public health reasons.
The list of exceptions is to be determined by decree. A draft, prepared by the DGCCRF, has been notified to the European Commission. It does not include cosmetic products in the exceptions, but mainly food products, frozen food, milk, baby food or food supplements.
The consumer’s right to be served in his or her own reusable or reapplicable container.
In retail outlets, the reusable or reapplicable container may be provided by the retailer at the point of sale or brought in by the consumer, as long as it is visibly clean and appropriate for the nature of the product purchased.
“When you are in a self-service business, you know that the retailer is not going to be behind each consumer to check whether the container is clean and suitable,” commented Lucia Pereira. “The solution is the obligation to put up a sign in the shop to inform the consumer about the rules for cleaning and suitability of refillable containers.”
This display of information makes it possible to transfer responsibility from the trader to the consumer who accepts to buy in bulk, Réseau Vrac advocating the notion of responsible consumption by which the consumer takes responsibility for his act of purchase and therefore for the hygiene of his container. The public authorities have accepted this position, which establishes a balance between consumer protection and environmental protection.
“Bulk cosmetics have been around for five years, with some shops respecting these display rules, others not necessarily respecting them… To date, we have not had any health issues on cosmetics,” said Lucia Pereira. This new right is only one year old, and there is still little feedback on its implementation, but in the long run, it will serve as a basis for action against retailers or brands that prohibit consumers from using reusable or reusable containers. Although, in any case, the trader can refuse the service if the container offered by the consumer is obviously dirty or unsuitable.
The display of the cleaning protocol of reusable containers is mandatory in France today only for cosmetic products. And it has been the subject of very clear recommendations from the DGCCRF…
Réseau Vrac has set up a working group to define cleaning protocols for re-usable containers for cosmetic products. The aim is to avoid having a different protocol for each brand, which would make it very complicated for retailers to display. The work focused on the container materials used today (PET, HDPE, aluminium, glass) and the definition of container/content pairs (rinse-off liquid cosmetics, oils, non-rinse-off products and creams.
Three standardised protocols have been defined, with different steps to be carried out at the consumer’s home. They will be communicated to cosmetics manufacturers who will have to test them and integrate them in their PIF.
The consumer’s right to be served in the quantity chosen
Two modalities can be developed in cosmetics to satisfy this new right:
• Refill practices, when the consumer fills a container and does not have the choice of quantity
• Real bulk practices, with weighing systems or certified graduated containers that allow the consumer to choose the right quantity
Two options in the latter case:
• The container is tared on an approved scale, before being filled and reweighed, but this assumes that each retailer is equipped with an approved scale, which does not currently exist, for example, in the cosmetics departments of supermarkets,
• The container is graduated and the graduation is certified
“Manufacturers of reusable containers are working on this certification,” said Lucia Pereira. “Here again, there is real work to be done on standardisation, particularly for plastic containers used in cosmetics, which can be too flexible and be a little deformed if they go through the dishwasher.”
This right to choose the quantity is therefore still a real issue, particularly for bulk e-commerce sites, which will not have to impose the sale of predefined quantities.
The obligation to provide containers
All shops of more than 400 m² must provide consumers with clean, ready-to-use reusable containers.
A new obligation for the French eco-organisation in charge of household packaging: it will have to devote at least 2% of the contributions it collects in the framework of EPR channels to the development of solutions for the re-use of packaging, in particular through deposit systems or local washing centres that provide washing services to shops or packaging manufacturers.
The rules of information, hygiene and traceability
Three major issues are emerging for cosmetics.
The Responsible Person for bulk sales
The manufacturer must remain a Responsible Person and therefore integrate all stages of bulk sales into the safety assessment of their products.
Réseau Vrac warns retailers on this point: if they buy a 10-litre can of shower gel and do not inform the brand that they are fitting this can with a tap to sell the product in bulk, they become the person responsible for this sales method. On the other hand, if they buy a can already fitted with a tap, it is because the manufacturer has agreed that the product can be sold in bulk and has carried out the safety assessment accordingly.
Réseau Vrac also insists on the selection of product suppliers: many cosmetics are sold in bulk today even though the manufacturer has not carried out a safety assessment on the steps involved in bulk sales…
The DGCCRF has specified the obligations of the Responsible Person, with five main points.
• Evaluation of the product’s air contact stage: the cosmetic product does not have to be transferred from the manufacturer’s secondary container to a dispensing container in the shop, it can be delivered to him in a refill system, fountain, etc. The manufacturer must assess the stability of the product in its open secondary packaging in the shop.
• Assessment of the product dispensing equipment: the hygiene of the material of the dispensing equipment (taps, etc.) through which the product will pass to be sold in bulk must also be controlled, as must the way in which the retailer will have to maintain them, and the contact of the product with their materials must be assessed.
• Assessment of the contact of the product with the refillable container: ideally, the stability of the product in all possible materials of refillable containers should be assessed, i.e. PET, HDPE, aluminium and glass, so as to give the consumer the greatest freedom and opportunity to exercise his right to be served in the refillable container of his choice. Appropriate cleaning protocols should also be included in the DIP.
• Determination of the expiry date: when a consumer buys a cosmetic product in bulk, he must leave with an expiry date of the product. A bulk retailer cannot manage a product with a PAO (Period After Opening): the opening of the secondary packaging being done in the shop, it would mean that each customer would have to be given a different PAO…
• Labelling: the consumer who buys a bulk cosmetic must leave the point of sale with a labelled container, bearing the same compulsory information as for a pre-packaged product, except for the quantity since, by definition, it can vary according to his needs.
Good practices in bulk sales
Second issue: the points of sale must be trained in the good practices of bulk sales. We are not talking here about Good Manufacturing Practices, but about the management of the key stages of distribution of a bulk cosmetic product.
Businesses selling bulk cosmetic products are obliged to make a primary packer declaration to the ANSM. The Agency has updated the form for them to allow a simplified declaration.
“The control authorities consider that the filling phase that takes place in the shop is a packaging stage and that it must be secured,” explained Lucia Pereira. “They therefore want to know which shops sell in bulk.”
Compliance with good practice for bulk sales of cosmetic products involves several points:
• The selection of cosmetics suppliers who authorise the bulk sale of their products, in particular by checking that the manufacturer has integrated bulk into its safety assessment
• The storage of products, designed in conditions that ensure hygiene and traceability
• The display of products on the shelves, again with hygienic conditions for the sales equipment, so as to ensure that the filling operation by the consumer is safe
• A hygiene protocol for the premises, guaranteeing maintenance, cleaning and, if necessary, disinfection
• Compliance with the rules for the use, suitability and cleaning of reusable containers
• Compliance with labelling rules (on the dispensing equipment and on the container), with in particular the indication of the use-by date and the batch number (this can be done by a simple written mention on the label for small shops, or by automated methods for supermarkets)
The consumer is becoming a key player in the bulk consumption method and is assuming certain responsibilities, but this must be done through clear information in the shop.
This requires mandatory displays in shops to remind consumers:
• That they must use a reusable container that is clean and suitable for contact with the chosen product
• What the cleaning protocol is for the container depending on the products listed
• That they are not allowed to use a food container for cosmetics
• That they are obliged to pre-label his container before filling, in order to be able to read the composition of the product before using it (note that the same label, for the same product, can be kept for several fillings, as long as it remains legible and the formula of the product has not changed: in this case, the manufacturer must inform his distributor so that the latter can adapt the information displayed in the shop)
• That they must fill his container with the product corresponding to the one that is pre-labelled
• That they must re-use the same container for the same product, so as to avoid mixing products
• That thee are not allowed to mix products, and that if he does so despite a clear display in the shop, he will be held responsible
• That a member of staff called the “Bulk Referent” (and trained in good bulk practices) is available to serve them if necessary or to give them any information on containers, products, etc.
In conclusion, Lucia Pereira indicated that Réseau Vrac is currently lobbying to have all these rules integrated into European regulations.
The association also asked the European Commission whether Regulation 1223/2009 should be amended to include the notion of bulk sales. The Commission has indicated that this should not be the case, since on the one hand, the obligation to ensure the safety of cosmetic products is incumbent on the Person Responsible, regardless of the mode of sale, and on the other hand, the labelling arrangements are the responsibility of the Member States.