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Exporting soap to Europe

Takes about 18 minutes to read

The European market for soap is growing. Now that soap has established itself as a true lifestyle product, the European market offers you interesting opportunities. The mid-mid to mid-high segments are most promising for you. To supply these market segments, you need to add value to your product. Good ways to do so include creating handmade products and paying attention to the origin and/or sustainability of your soap.


1 . Product description

Soaps are part of the Home Fragrance category, or alternatively, part of Home Care in and amongst cleaning products. This signifies the option respectively to develop more emotional or more functional attributes with your soap.  

This study uses the following codes to indicate trade in soap:

Table 1: Product codes

Harmonised System (HS) Prodcom Description
3401 11 20 41 31 20 Soap & organic surface-active products in bars or cakes, etc., for toilet use
3401 19 20 41 31 50 Soap & organic surface-active products in bars or cakes, etc., not for toilet use
3401 20 20 41 31 80 Soap in other forms

Functionality

The quality of soap is first and foremost related to the fact that the product comes in contact with the skin. It must comply with health regulations and be generally safe to use. Obviously, another basic quality requirement is that it cleans the skin, textiles or dishes.

Material

The smell and colour of soap are key important determinants of quality. Extra features include:

  • natural ingredients, like aloe vera, shea butter or jojoba
  • biodegradable and environmentally friendly ingredients and packaging
  • “origin” or “provenance”, from a specific region or origin
  • handmade, often making the soap rough and uneven in shape or form
  • contributing to the home atmosphere, often by embossing or stamping texts onto the soap
  • part of a spa or gift offer.

Natural and authentic soaps are especially popular in the higher segment. Interestingly, “green” values are common among soaps fulfilling the needs to give and pamper. When it comes to this, the fragrance market is a frontrunner in the home decoration market.

Design

Due to the gift nature of soap, design is focused on the packaging. Nice wrappers add value to the traditional bar of soap. Dispensers can achieve design value by using natural materials for the holders (especially types of stone) and creating a set of bathroom accessories around it, in a coherent style. Alternatively, in the mid-market, fancy-shaped soaps (such as fruits or sweets) bring an element of humour that enhances their gift character.  

Durability

Needless to say, in contact with water, soaps are meant to produce froth and as such to diminish in size. Durability is more focused on the packaging, to increase shelf life and protection in transport. Refillable dispensers prolong the life cycle of these items and can also be come from a desire to reduce environmental footprint.

Labelling

  • Information on the outer packaging of soap should correspond to the packing list sent to the importer.
  • External packaging labels for soap should include the fragrance, ingredients, quantity, size, volume, producer, consignee, country of origin and caution signs.
  • EAN or barcodes on the product label are common in Europe.
  • Your buyer will specify what information they need on the product labels or on the item itself, such as logos or “made in…” information. This is part of the order specifications.
  • Use the English language for labelling, unless your buyer indicates otherwise.

Packaging

Importer specification

You should pack soap according to the importer’s instructions. They have their own specific requirements for the use of packaging materials, filling boxes, palletisation and stowing containers. Always ask for the importer’s order specifications. These are part of the purchase order.

Damage prevention

Properly packaging soap minimises the risk of damage by shocks, temperature or humidity. Packaging should ensure the items inside a cardboard box cannot damage each other. It should also prevent damage to the boxes when they are stacked inside the container. Packaging therefore usually consists of outer and inner cardboard boxes filled with protective materials like bubble wrap or paper.

Dimensions and weight

Packaging must be of easy-to-handle dimensions and weight. Standards are often related to labour regulations at the point of destination, specified by the buyer. Boxes are usually palletised for air or sea transport. Make maximum use of pallet space.

Cost reduction

Nesting or stacking the items inside the container reduces costs. While packing has to provide maximum protection, you must also avoid using excess materials or shipping “air”. Waste removal is a cost to buyers.

Material

Importers are increasingly banning wooden crating and packaging due to their unsustainability and high material and disposal costs. Economical and sustainable packaging materials are more popular. Using biodegradable packing materials can be a market opportunity. For some buyers, it can even be a demand.

Consumer packaging

Soap sold as a gift or luxury product carries information about the ingredients, process and additional features that underpin its premium marketing. Small labels or forms of packaging express the exclusivity of the product. However, packaging is increasingly reduced to show off the soap’s natural qualities and reduce its environmental footprint. For liquid soaps, retailers may offer their customer refillable packaging and therefore order in bulk or temporary packaging.

You are not always responsible for attractive consumer packaging, as importers in many cases will design it themselves to reflect their brand identity. Gift packs or complete spa packs can be offered as a further selling point. You may be asked to supply the packaging for this, again depending on the importer’s preferences as well as your options.

2 . Which European markets offer opportunities for exporters of soap?

Europe’s soap imports are expected to continue increasing, with a stable share sourced from developing countries. As Europe’s main importers of soap, Germany, France and the United Kingdom are interesting focus markets. Its strong presence of developing countries makes the United Kingdom especially promising.

Where is consumer demand?

  • European demand for soap decreased between 2012 and 2016. With an average annual growth rate of −2.7% it fell to €1.1 billion in 2016.
  • Demand was highest in Spain at €220 million. Germany and Italy followed with €193 million and €182 million respectively.

What is the role of European production in supplying European demand?

  • Europe’s soap production is slightly higher than its demand. However, Europe’s considerable exports drive the need for imports and do make it an interesting market.
  • European soap production also decreased between 2012 and 2016. With an average annual growth rate of −2.8%, it fell to €1.2 billion in 2016.
  • Germany, Italy and Spain are responsible for 19% of European soap production each.

Which countries are most interesting in terms of imports from developing countries?

  • European imports of soap increased from €1.4 billion in 2012 to €1.6 billion in 2016. This resulted in an average annual growth rate of 3.8%.
  • In the coming years, European imports are expected to keep growing moderately.
  • Developing countries supply around 14% of European soap imports, amounting to €231 million. This share is predicted to be fairly stable in the coming years.
  • Germany is Europe’s leading importer of soap by far, with €248 million in 2016. France €222 million) and the United Kingdom (€203 million) follow.
  • When it comes to imports from developing countries however, the United Kingdom leads with €68 million. This is one third of its total soap imports.
  • The strong performance of developing country soap suppliers in the United Kingdom is evidenced further by a €14 million increase between 2012 and 2016. In the other main importing countries, soap imports from developing countries were relatively stable.
  • Trade within Europe dominates European soap imports, with Germany (23% in 2016) as the main supplier. The leading developing country supplier is Turkey (5.9%), followed by China with (3.6%) and Malaysia (1.9%).

Tips:

  • Study your options in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Its strong presence of developing countries makes the United Kingdom an especially interesting market.
  • Compare your products and company to the competition from Turkey, China and Malaysia. You can use ITC Trademap to find exporters per country. You can compare on market segment, price, quality and target countries.

3 . What role does export play in supplying European demand?

  • European exports of soap consist mainly of trade within Europe.
  • Germany (€507 million) is Europe’s leading soap exporter, followed by Italy (€275 million) and the United Kingdom (€260 million).

4 . What is the effect of real private consumption expenditure on European demand?

  • Private consumption expenditure is an important indicator for the European home decoration market. The sector is closely linked to economic conditions. When money is tight, consumers postpone buying non-essential items until they have enough disposable income.
  • Between 2017 and 2019, European private consumption expenditure is expected to increase. This means that consumption of decorative products is likely to rise. Especially in emerging markets, consumers will have more money available to spend on decorating the home. Consumers in mature markets already spend a fair amount of money on decoration, so growth in their consumption will be moderate.

5 . What trends offer opportunities on the European market for soap?

From functional to emotional; from body to home

Initially, consumers purchased simple bars of soap for washing hands and clothes. It performed a cleaning function and as such was merely a commodity. This type of soap still exists and finds its place in the lower end of the body care/hygiene market.

Soap then became part of the growing body care market, resulting in the luxury segment of wellness and spa treatments, also increasingly at home. In doing so, soap became more suitable as a gift, and the product features and its packaging were adapted to this new use.

And now soap has moved into the home decoration market. With consumers creating a much more personal ambience in the home (the scent and look of soap can create atmosphere of calm and relaxation), soaps have become part of the market that can be labelled “the fragrance market”. In the course of this transformation from a basic, functional commodity to an emotionally charged body and home care product and gift, soap developed a premium side.

Tips:

  • Study the various segments of the soap market and position your product well. More functional means greater product volumes and price sensitivity. This requires a different business model than for moving the soap into more home-oriented, more mid-level or premium end of the market. For premium, more added value is required in the form of attractive packaging and special scents. Price levels are different here too, with a possibility to add some more margin at smaller volumes.
  • Bring your marketing mix (the 4 Ps of product, price, place and promotion) in line with your positioning for a successful market approach. Study how the big brands in soap do this and decide what you can add to the category.

Wellness is becoming a key driver

European consumers are driven by the wish to improve their mental and physical health. Stimulated by Asian lifestyles, they are creating a spa atmosphere in the home, with longer and more intensive bathing. Soaps can bring freshness to the body, as well as mental stimulation through smell and even colour.

Due to its contribution to increased wellness, soap has become a perfect gift for oneself or near and dear ones. Special, often exotic, ingredients, attractive wrapping and nice shapes and/or colours all add to the gift value of soaps.

Notions of convenience and hygiene also come into play, in the form of soap dispensers providing liquid soap in a perhaps more hygienic way than bars of soap entail. On the other hand, the more “unfinished” and chunky a bar of soap appears, the more luxurious it is perceived to be. Here, the gift and “statement” character of the soap matters more than “easy to use” and “hygienic”.  

Tips:

  • Study developments in wellness, including spa, massage, yoga practices and other forms of physical and mental self-improvement. These give important clues as to consumer preferences for the home environment.
  • The spa market has moved into the home and has made soaps a consumer product. However, spa has been stronger in the project market (sauna, hammam, hotel spa) and so the project market is also an attractive market for any soap producer.
  • Create some origin aspects in your offer, for example through special herbal scents from your region, special practices from your culture, or by offering wrappings with designs or accessories showing a touch of your context.
  • Dispensers are essentially an industrially produced form of packaging. Distinguish your product by making the container from a natural material (stone) and add handmade decorations.
  • Consider offering a full set of bathroom accessories in a coherent style, including a dispenser, toothbrush holder, soap dishes and a tray. Collaborate with a nearby manufacturer of such accessories to realise this option.  
  • Look around for options to extend your offer. A first step for emerging (Eastern) European markets could be to develop gift packs, with nice local materials (woven baskets, accessories). Such gift packs have a wider basis in the market than just personal body care and are often somewhat less price-sensitive than purely functional soaps.
  • Depending on your business model, you can also aim for a wider share in the home care category (e.g. potpourri, fragrances and scented candles).

Interest in sustainability is increasing

Green values are important in the fragrance business. Especially in the higher segments, the big trend in soap is to use natural instead of chemical ingredients. Other ways to become greener include sustainable materials and production, biodegradable end products and more effective packing and transport. Certification (such as fair trade or organic ingredients) can also further enhance your product.

Tips:

  • Source and use natural ingredients, such as oils, spices or minerals. For more information, see our study on natural ingredients for cosmetics.
  • Invest in greener production, packaging and transport methods.
  • Consider applying for relevant sustainability certification.
  • Clearly communicate the green aspects of your soap to your buyer.
  • For more information, see our special study on sustainability.

For more information, see our study about trends for Home Decoration & Home Textiles.

6 . With which requirements must soap comply to be allowed on the European market?

With which legal and non-legal requirements must your product comply?

General product safety

The European Union’s General Product Safety Directive applies to all consumer products, including soap. It states that all products marketed in Europe must be safe to use.

Tips:

  • Read more about the General Product Safety Directive.
  • Use your common sense to ensure normal use of your product does not cause any danger.
  • The RAPEX database lists products that the European Union has rejected at the border or withdrawn from the market. Check the database for similar products for an idea of what issues may arise.

Packaging legislation

Europe has specific packaging and packaging waste legislation. It for instance restricts the use of certain heavy metals. Europe also has requirements for wood packaging materials (WPM) used for transport, such as packing cases, boxes, crates, drums, (box) pallets and dunnage.

Cosmetics regulation

Soap has to comply with the European Union’s Cosmetics Regulation. This regulation ensures the safety of cosmetic products on the European market. It also bans the use of animal testing for cosmetic purposes.

Tips:

Products resembling foodstuffs

The European Union’s directive on products resembling foodstuffs bans products that imitate food so closely they could be confused for edible products from the European market. A variety of products fall within this category, such as food-shaped bars of soap.

Tip:

7 . What additional requirements do buyers often have?

Sustainability

Social and environmental sustainability make your products stand out on the European market. Consider sustainable raw materials and production processes. European buyers increasingly demand the following certification schemes:

  • Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI): European retailers developed this initiative to improve social conditions in sourcing countries. They expect their suppliers to comply with the BSCI Code of Conduct. To prove compliance, the importer can request an audit of your production process. Once a company has been audited, it is included in a database for all BSCI participants.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI): This initiative is an alliance of companies, trade unions and voluntary organisations. It aims to improve the working lives of people across the globe who make or grow consumer goods.

You can use standards such as ISO 14001 and SA 8000 to read up on sustainable options. However, only niche market buyers demand compliance with such standards.

Tips:

  • Optimise your sustainability performance. Reading up on the issues included in the initiatives will give you an idea of what to focus on.
  • Buyers appreciate a good story. If you can show that you value your company’s environmental and/or social performance, this may be a competitive advantage. Consider a self-assessment like the BSCI Self-Assessment for Producers, or a code of conduct such as the BSCI Code of Conduct or the ETI base code.
  • For more information, see our special study on Sustainability in the Home Sector.

8 . What are the requirements for niche markets?

Natural and/or organic cosmetics

Cosmos and NATRUE are two of the most common international standards for natural and/or organic cosmetics, like soap. They cover all aspects of the sourcing, manufacture, marketing and control of these products.

Tip:

  • If you use natural and/or cosmetic ingredients, research whether certification would offer opportunities.

Fair trade

The concept of fair trade supports fair pricing and improved social conditions for producers and their communities. Especially when the production of your soap is labour intensive, fair-trade certification can give you a competitive advantage.

Common fair-trade certifications are from:

Tips:

  • Ask buyers what they are looking for. Especially in the fair-trade sector, you can use the story behind your product for marketing purposes.
  • Check the ITC Standards map database for more information on voluntary standards and their requirements, including fair production.

FSC certification

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification is the most common label for sustainable wooden products, including paper. The FSC label guarantees that a product’s source material comes from responsibly managed forests. These products are especially popular in western European markets.

Tip:

  • If you use paper for the packaging of your soap, use recycled paper with the FSC Recycled label.

For more information, see our study about buyer requirements for Home Decoration & Home Textiles.

9 . What competition do you face on the European soap market?

The competition for soap does not differ significantly from the sector in general. See our study about competition for Home Decoration for a general overview. Also refer to our 10 tips for doing business with European buyers.

10 . Which channels can you use to put soap on the European market?

The market channels and segments for soap do not differ significantly from the sector in general. See our study about market channels and segments for Home Decoration & Home Textiles for a general overview.

Market channels

The main channels for the distribution of soaps are importer-wholesalers or retail multiples catering for retail demand.

E-commerce

E-commerce in home decoration is increasing and can help you reach a broader range of customers. Retailers often combine online and offline channels. Consumers research and purchase products online, shopping around and comparing prices on home decoration items. Small (gift) items are especially suitable for this. This is why a great deal of soap is already sold online. To supply e-commerce retailers you must offer small batches and fast delivery.

Tips:

Trade associations and fairs

The following trade associations and fairs are useful sources for finding trading partners in Europe.

  • AISE, International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products in Europe
  • Ambiente, Frankfurt, February
  • Maison et Objet, Paris, January (main event) and September
  • Tendence, Frankfurt, August

Market segments

In Europe, soap has become a true lifestyle product and has crossed the boundaries of several traditional categories. It combines elements from the health and body care markets, the gift market and the home fragrance market. Within these markets, soap has developed lower, middle and higher segments.

The well-developed lower end mainly consists of mass-produced soap positioning on functionality. As such, this segment will not be very easy to penetrate. For the mid and higher segments, soap with added value (gift, origin, hand-made, sustainable) is especially popular. The top end represents chunky bars of soap with special ingredients or slick, branded dispensers.

Hand-made and origin-based segments are most suitable for you to distinguish yourself with. This is the mid-mid to mid-high segment.

11 . What are the end-market prices for soap?

Table 2 gives an overview of the prices of soap in the low, middle and luxury market segments.

Table 2: Indicative consumer prices of soap

  Low Mid to mid-high Luxury
Soap Up to €1 €1–10 €10 and over

Consumer prices depend on the value perception by the consumer in a particular segment. This is influenced by your marketing mix: product benefits, promotion (brand or not, communication of product benefits), points of sale (reseller positioning), and a matching price.

Shipping, import and handling add 25% to the price of your soap. Wholesalers account for a further 100% markup. Finally, retailers may add another 100–150% to the price.

Tips:

  • The value perception of your product in the chosen segment determines its price. The quality and price of your soap must match what is expected in your chosen target segment. To determine your price, study consumer prices in your target segment and adjust your cost accordingly.
  • Understand your segment. Offer a correct marketing mix to meet consumer expectations. Adapt your business model to your position in the market.

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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