By Nicole Di Tomasso
After filming a documentary in the slums of Nairobi, which are littered with plastic waste, husband-and-wife duo Andrew Murray and Jacquie Rushlow, set out to develop an innovative solution to a global environmental crisis. Enter, The Keep Refillery — a retail store designed to help communities reduce their single-use-plastic consumption by offering the option to re-use and re-fill containers with bulk household and personal-care products.
“With no adequate waste infrastructure, Nairobi is literally swimming in plastic,” says Murray. “When we returned, we started doing everything we could to reduce our waste, but it’s challenging because the reality is, consumers aren’t set up to be able to shop that way. So, we decided to do something about it.”
With no real experience in retail or entrepreneurial ventures, Murray and Rushlow opened the doors to their first brick-and-mortar location on March 1, 2020 in their hometown of Creemore, Ont. in a 200-sq.-ft. shed. Known for being environmental activists in their community, especially Rushlow, the concept proved to be successful from the start.
“Previously, the shed was being used to store winter tires. There was no heat or running water,” says Murray. “We bought $10,000 worth of products and knew within an hour of opening that it would work in our small town.” Three months later, Murray and Rushlow adapted quickly and moved The Keep Refillery into its current space on Main Street in Creemore, Ont. Since then, three additional corporate locations have opened in Meaford, Ont. (May 2021), Kingston, Ont. (December 2021) and most recently Toronto (March 2023). Murray says they’re looking to start franchising once the Toronto location finds its footing. In fact, the duo has already received approximately 40 inquiries about franchising.
“Each store is in a completely different market by design,” says Murray. “Our goal is to make re-filling available to all people in all places. We’re trying to educate and change consumer behaviour, which isn’t the easiest thing to do.”
Additionally, an important piece of growing awareness and calls to decrease single-use-plastic consumption involves partnerships with hotels, which Murray says are responsible for nine per cent of all global waste.
To help expand both sides of the business, Murray and Rushlow have taken on three investors: Nicole Vollebregt, former head of Global Sustainability at Adidas, who happened to walk into the Creemore, Ont. location a couple of years ago and reached out a month later; Christine Day, former CEO of Lululemon and current co-founder of sustainable fashion house, The LR&C, which she founded with Russel Wilson and his pop-star wife Ciara; and Paul Hollands, former CEO of A&W and current owner of The Naramata Inn in B.C.
“Since the first time I visited The Keep Refillery in Creemore, Ont., it was clear this was more than a business — it was a mission,” says Vollebregt. “The real challenge The Keep faces as a company is trying to change the way people think about the way they consume. I believe the hospitality industry has a responsibility to do something about this too. By partnering with like-minded friends, Paul Hollands and Christine Day, to lend our guidance to Jacquie and Andrew, I’m confident we can accomplish just that.”
Earlier this year, Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa became the first hotel in Ontario with an in-house refillery for all in-room amenities by tapping into the expertise of The Keep Refillery, preventing more than 2,000 plastic bottles from ending up in landfills and waterways. Murray says Quebec-based ONEKA is the company’s main supplier for standard in-room amenities, such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion. Since then, The Keep Refillery has also partnered with Cobble Beach Golf Resort near Owen Sound, Ont. and the Royal Harbour Resort in Thornbury, Ont.
Generally speaking, the refillery offers a range of natural, biodegradable and micro-plastic-free products from more than 100 suppliers. In addition to standard in-room amenities, the store also offers laundry detergent, dish soap, mouthwash, deodorant, cosmetics and more. Zero-waste accessories, such as bamboo toothbrushes, are also available.
“One of the things that makes us unique in the re-filling space is we hold all of our suppliers accountable for their waste,” says Murray. “We return empty bulk containers to the product manufacturers to be re-filled again and again, creating a closed-loop system.”
Murray continues, “There seems to be an assumption that natural products don’t work properly, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If our products don’t work better than what people are currently using, they’ll simply go back to consuming plastic products. Every product that comes into our stores has been vetted by multiple employees.”
In the last couple of years, Murray and Rushlow have officially walked away from the television business to focus full time on their fight against plastic. “At the end of the day, we are climate activists looking to disrupt the hospitality industry,” says Murray. “We are leaders in this space and are capable of making real change a change that’s essential to the future health of the planet.”