Adaptive reflective surfaces have been a challenge for both electronic paper (e-paper) and biological organisms. Multiple colours, contrast, polarization, reflectance, diffusivity and texture must all be controlled simultaneously without optical losses in order to fully replicate the appearance of natural surfaces and vividly communicate information. This review merges the frontiers of knowledge for both biological adaptive coloration, with a focus on cephalopods, and synthetic reflective e-paper within a consistent framework of scientific metrics. Currently, the highest performance approach for both nature and technology uses colourant transposition. Three outcomes are envisioned from this review: reflective display engineers may gain new insights from millions of years of natural selection and evolution; biologists will benefit from understanding the types of mechanisms, characterization and metrics used in synthetic reflective e-paper; all scientists will gain a clearer picture of the long-term prospects for capabilities such as adaptive concealment and signaling.