Inside the lab: rationalising, not rationing!

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Creating perfumes involves large volumes of disposable products, from glassware, plastic pipettes and bags to paper, gloves and ingredients. This aspect of the development process, unlike many others, is often overlooked. It does, however, reflect a not insignificant reality that is part of any perfume’s overall footprint. At a time when every area is concerned by sustainability issues, what steps are creation houses taking to cut the amount of waste generated in their laboratories? Let’s take a quick look at some of the best ideas.

Imagine a perfume under development with a formula involving some 50 ingredients: to weigh the formula you need almost the same number of plastic pipettes for each trial. Each will be sampled in a 15-ml bottle, in a process repeated six to eight times, at least, for all the in-house creative team and the client. Bottles for the client are placed in a plastic sachet and transported in a thick paper bag by a courier, often in a hurry. If the number of trials (usually in the low hundreds) rises to as many as 5,000, which can happen for major launches, over three tonnes of waste are generated. Which is how much a hippopotamus weighs! It is perfectly understandable that these days the large perfume companies prefer to talk about the sustainable sourcing of their ingredients rather than focusing on the number of modifications made (and the quantity of waste they generate). Times have changed…

Multiplying trials

Quality control, safety standards, health protection and, of course, the faster pace of weighing have all served to increase the number of disposable products used. “A lab assistant might weigh between 800 and 1,000 ingredients a day,” points out Gwladys Jubi, head of the fine fragrance creation laboratory at Mane. The system of competition between composition houses drives them to increase the number of trials, and therefore the amount of waste. Sadly, the pandemic has also exacerbated this trend: samples that could no longer be shared by a team have had to be sent out to their various home-working locations. This stands in direct opposition to all the strategic efforts made to embed sustainability into laboratory practices. “Jean Mane, our CEO, is personally involved during meetings of the in-house social and economic committee where ideas about how to improve our environmental impact and colleagues’ working conditions are discussed,” says Gwladys Jubi. A philosophy reflected in the Green Motion index that “is celebrating its 11th anniversary and is a perfect illustration of the role Mane has adopted in terms of sustainability,” adds Loic Bleuez, head of innovation and development at Mane. At IFF, “it’s part of corporate culture at a company whose motto is ‘We apply science and creativity for a better world’, so we have to be coherent in everything we do,” points out Emilie Baude, technical operations director. A Green Team of volunteers has been set up to seek out and implement everybody’s best ideas. And these new ideas are needed now, because the issue is a matter of urgency! “The profession has worked in the same way for the past 50 years, using a range of single-use products: pipettes and, particularly, pumps, which are very polluting. We need to speed up the rate of transition. This is the mindset behind our Pathways to Positive sustainability programme, which aims to create value that can be shared by all our stakeholders,” explains Odile Drag-Pelissier, senior vice-president for creation & development at Firmenich. The company has also rolled out a new global strategy called Lab 4.0, headed up by Sylvie Breton, vice-president for global perfumery laboratory services. The goal is to give a new dimension to the 35 laboratories and 11 creative centres around the world by adopting modern technologies: robotisation, digitisation and artificial intelligence, lean processes[1]A management method that optimises long-term processes by increasing autonomy, responsibility and fluidity, seeking to eliminate waste, overproduction and lost time. and, of course, incorporating sustainability. 

A Paris-based laboratory generates between one and two tonnes of waste every month, equivalent to between three and six horses. Dealing with this waste is a real logistical and ecological challenge. “We operate a very strict waste-sorting system according to the type of material (glass, aluminium or plastic) and the degree of dirtiness (empty glass, dirty glass, full glass, etc.). If they contain CMR substances[2]Carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction then the products are stored separately,” explains Gwladys Jubi. Glass is melted down and other waste is generally incinerated to recover combustion energy by Suez or Triadis, companies that specialize in waste processing. So, let’s put on our gloves and take a closer look at what’s in the waste bins.

Plastic: not so fantastic

Every manually weighed ingredient requires a single-use plastic pipette. This “makes very accurate weighing possible, 0.04g or 0.02g. Sadly, these samples cannot be stored as the residual ingredient can oxidise very rapidly and lose its olfactory properties,” Gwladys Jubi reminds us. “A year ago the pandemic created a shortage of plastic and we had trouble resupplying. This led us to think about ways of rationing our use of plastic, such as drop measuring [3]A technique where the liquid is dispensed drop by drop onto a blotter. But when did pipettes start invading laboratories? “Labs and production sites have been using more and more of them as companies have moved to ISO 14001 certification[4]A standard that sets out a series of requirements that an organisation’s environmental management system has to meet in order to gain certification which, ironically enough, is supposed to protect the environment,” explains Alain Joncheray, technical director at Azur Fragrances. “Using them is easier. Back in the day, we used to drop weigh, with a spatula for example, which requires a certain amount of skill, and operators had a better understanding of their product and its viscosity.” 

Firmenich is committed to “100% fully recyclable or reusable plastics by 2025.” To reach its goal the company has rolled out a global strategy for all perfumery laboratories, headed by Sylvie Breton. She describes its approach: “For 2021, the first year, by eliminating single-use spatulas, weighing pans and beakers made from virgin plastic, we cut our virgin plastic waste by nine tonnes out of the annual total of 38 tonnes generated by all our perfumery laboratories worldwide. Based on an idea from Latin America, we are now working on reducing the use of single-use plastic pipettes in creation laboratories by packaging perfume ingredients in dropper bottles.” While bottles with built-in droppers appear to be used fairly widely in small independent laboratories, larger companies seem, amazingly, to hardly use them, if at all. “Another pillar of our strategy focuses on packaging and we are following a global programme to cut the amount we use. This includes introducing reuse processes and replacing items made from virgin plastic with sustainable solutions such as bottles with a neutral olfactory profile made from recovered post-consumer waste. These new products must first be approved by in-depth testing for compatibility and leak resistance based on carefully defined protocols,” says Sylvie Breton. IFF has chosen to tackle the issue of the plastic bags samples are packaged in: “we use around 450 of them a day!” explains Evelyne da Silva, creative director of fine fragrances at IFF. “An idea from our Green Team was to make bags out of recycled cotton and transport samples in recycled cardboard. And the couriers are using electric vehicles.” The company is also testing bags made from compostable biomaterials.

Lighter samples

While it is difficult to reduce the number of samples, it is easier to limit their volumes: switching from 15 to 5 ml, without a pump, is a solution proposed by Firmenich and IFF. A solution that saves on raw materials, alcohol and glassware. “Clients are very happy with this choice, because they don’t have enough space either and don’t always have arrangements in place for recycling samples – they give them back to us via the sales people,” says Evelyne Da Silva. “We’re currently looking at using lighter-weight glass, and pumps made from metal rather than plastic. We used to focus on improving performance and aesthetics, but we have now added an additional factor: the environment.”

The introduction of robots has resulted in savings of both glass and pipettes. Robots are currently responsible for weighing almost half of a formula, with the rest measured manually. “We now use stainless steel rather than glass pots on the weighing robots: they are washable and provide a better degree of olfactory neutrality,” explains Sylvie Breton. And it may well be possible in the future to install the robot directly at the client’s site with a formula order guided by the composition houses, which, as Firmenich sees it, would save on travel and time.

Storage capacity also plays a key role in limiting waste: “perfumers generally keep their trials for a year and their collections of perfumes, notes and completed accords for two years, ready to be used in new projects. If the laboratory moves to new premises in the future, larger storage capacity will allow us to keep more items and therefore save on glass and ingredients,” says Gwladys Jubi. 
Once the fragrance is weighed and added to alcohol, it’s time to smell it! One to two million blotters are used every year in each laboratory. And it is difficult to do without them: cellulose paper is a perfumer’s number one tool, and its quality and quantity play an important part in ensuring that perfumers can assess olfactory qualities effectively. Paperless solutions apply more to document digitisation: “formulas are sometimes printed out so that perfumers can note by hand the quantities of ingredients that need weighing in line with the quantity of the product needed,” says Gwladys Jubi. But formulation software is changing things. “Lab assistants have all the data on screen, they scan the ingredient and use connected scales, so that only the label needs printing,” notes Sylvie Breton.

Logistics and supplies

The ingredients used in formulas are, unfortunately, perishable. This means that quality control is crucial in checking that best-before dates are strictly observed. Some materials cannot be kept for longer than three months. Citrus essences, for instance, quickly become oxidised if they are not kept chilled. “It’s possible to dilute certain fragile products in alcohol, like Strawberry furanone[5]A gourmand fruity note that smells of strawberry, so you can retain its organoleptic properties,” explains Gwladys Jubi. This is another area where composition houses rely on the benefits of digitisation, using it to tighten up their stock management practices and cut the environmental impact. “Digital technologies mean we can analyse actual use and optimise safety stock and order levels to avoid overstocking and throwing away materials that have reached their expiry date,” explains Sylvie Breton.

Stock management is inextricably linked to logistics between the lab and the factory that produces and stores ingredients: ordering less and more regularly involves careful management of transport. IFF is working on creating shared platforms for storing accessories and packaging, and rationalising supplies per country rather than sending everything through the parent factory. 

In the old days, raw materials to discard used to be stored together in a container and formed a sort of blend called “mille-fleurs”, that could be sold on the far-off markets of Africa. “With today’s focus on traceability, selling a product with unknown composition is no longer possible,” confirms Emilie Baude. The concept has however been taken in a new direction at Azur Fragrances: “an artist in residence loved the idea of a random creation, almost like a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s Belle Haleine. Now that’s real upcycling!” laughs Alain Joncheray. The issue is not just with ingredients. Wastage also applies to solvents, widely used by perfumers to dilute their formulas and adjust the cost to meet clients’ pricing requirements: “they don’t always know how to dissolve in anything other than dipropylene glycol; however, creating a less-diluted product would benefit everyone, as there would be less to transport, less greenhouse gas, less packaging and lower costs.”

Create less but better 

Would the client notice a 0.01% variation in an ingredient used as part of a new trial? “The pandemic showed us that we could work in different ways, with a more controlled creative process,” notes Evelyne da Silva. “Working from home gave perfumers more time for thinking, and therefore for optimising, as well as for following notes and proposing the ‘right mod’ [modification to a trial].” Emilie Baude adds that “the lack of resources at the laboratory also forced us to adapt to a different rhythm. Let’s hope that these good practices won’t be forgotten in the future.”

Firmenich is also turning to data to optimise the number of trials: “we can now forecast a huge range of factors; by modelling formulas, we can anticipate whether or not a given trial will be successful, which means we avoid generating vast amounts of waste as well as save time, particularly in the final technical optimisation phase,” points out Odile Drag-Pelissier. “The whole creative process needs to be rethought from start to finish,” concludes Alain Joncheray. “Before the advent of digital, we took fewer photos but thought more about framing and light. Taking lots of indiscriminate shots was never the guarantee of a good picture!”

Another source of invisible but significant pollution is the brands themselves, which sometimes “ask for technical documents with every trial, representing a lot of major work ‘just in case’ the trial is selected,” regrets Alain Joncheray. “In the meantime, since information is not always centralised, the documents are saved not just once but several times over, once for every person in the department. That’s a lot of server use!” And the perfumers? “It’s also important to clear out your directories by deleting formulas that are no longer in use, and trials that haven’t been selected as they weren’t effective enough. Each year we need to update everything to meet the latest standards, which used to take a week between Christmas and the New Year, but now takes much longer as there are too many formulas.”

Ecology is often associated with making savings, and good practices are emerging thanks to the goodwill of each individual as well as impetus from management. “We need to instil good habits in our teams and encourage them to behave as though they were paying the bills themselves: for example, by turning off a hot plate and the lights when leaving the office; there’s no reason to behave any differently from at home,” says Gwladys Jubi. Small changes that show how important the subject is, even if they remain symbolic: at IFF, each time the company wins a project, a tree is planted near Rambouillet, in the Paris area. Good intentions, storage capacity, robotisation and digitisation are all playing their part in combating waste. A drop in the ocean, but vital to stemming the tidal wave of plastic.



1 A management method that optimises long-term processes by increasing autonomy, responsibility and fluidity, seeking to eliminate waste, overproduction and lost time.
2 Carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction
3 A technique where the liquid is dispensed drop by drop onto a blotter
4 A standard that sets out a series of requirements that an organisation’s environmental management system has to meet in order to gain certification
5 A gourmand fruity note that smells of strawberry
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When we think that the perfume industry brings together thousands of raw materials from all over the world in large quantities every day, it is clear that sustainability issues are very much a feature of its work. All the major composition houses began the process of going green a decade or more ago. And while most of the companies we contacted for this article claim they are pioneers or leaders in the field, what we see is that they all follow similar approaches. Sustainable development is both a core component of their global strategies and a key marketing claim for their ingredients and scented creations.

The composition companies that dominate the market want to ensure that each of their products reflects this commitment. In order to do so, they have embedded it in a crucial part of their activities: the formulation tool. This software, specific to each company, is used by every perfumer to devise their formulas, giving real-time access to all the data on any given ingredient: stock availability, current market price per kilo, possible regulatory restrictions, etc., as well as a range of indicators relating to its sustainability. "For some time now, our tool has included various criteria to help our perfumers compose by providing an overview of all a brief's parameters, including, of course, sustainability: green chemistry, upcycling, renewable, biodegradable, and so on," explains Valery Claude, vice-president of creation, design and innovation at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF). Firmenich uses the same approach. Its EcoScent Compass tool, developed with the Quantis consultancy between 2011 and 2018, "holistically assesses the sustainability footprint of the fragrances created by our perfumers based on three detailed fields of criteria, including key performance indicators: nature and circularity of ingredients in the fragrance (renewability, biodegradability, green chemistry, E factor[fn]A concept invented in 1991 and used in the chemical industry to calculate the ratio of the mass of waste per mass of product.[/fn]), environmental footprint (climate change, depletion of water resources and e-toxicity) and social impacts (employee and supplier working conditions and responsible sourcing)," explains Michal Benmayor, Firmenich vice-president of global strategic business development. Improvements to the tool will soon see the "inclusion of different renewable carbon sources, such as carbon that has been recycled or recaptured, updated substitution values[fn]Software feature that will make it possible to  improve fragrances’ eco-responsibility rating with just one click and without compromising their olfactory qualities.[/fn] and the ability to include passive water use[fn]During the FirGood microwave-based extraction process recently patented by the company, water already present in the raw materials is the only water used.[/fn]." This list of criteria is a little dizzying, illustrating the complexity of a subject that can be approached from so many different angles, all of them relevant. Although composition houses usually rely on the authority of one or more independent experts, each takes a different approach to defining and applying sustainable development.

The different faces of sustainability

The same applies to perfume brands and their claims surrounding the sustainability or naturalness of their fragrances. Behind terms that are now ubiquitous lies a reality comprising a huge variety of visions, approaches and, therefore, requirements when it comes to composition. A high proportion of renewable ingredients? Positive social impacts in raw materials sectors? A majority of natural essences? In response to the diversity of demands, some formulation tools are designed to allow perfumers to select the criteria prioritised by each client, and aim for a positive final score based on these criteria. When Symrise perfumer Aliénor Massenet launches a new project, she adjusts the sliders on the Product Sustainability Scorecard, a tool the company patented eight years ago that assesses each raw material according to 10 criteria for renewability, biodegradability and also impact on biodiversity and the soil.

The challenge is to adapt to each client's specifications. An example? "When J.U.S came to see us with a concept centring on upcycling, it made sense for me to work on a perfume with a high proportion of ingredients synthesised from renewable carbon: the final composition contains 95% of it." She also points out that there are not sustainable ingredients on one side and unsustainable ingredients on the other: everything depends on the criteria used to assess them. "Some are biodegradable but not carbon-renewable. Others score well in terms of human impact, but less on the environmental level. It's impossible to get an all-round high rating: if a client asked me for a composition scoring 100/100 everywhere...I'd give them a glass of water!" Several of the people interviewed share her enthusiasm for formulation tools, which they see as a vehicle for intelligent discussion with brands, helping to shift preconceived ideas and bring nuanced clarifications to subjects that are too often seen simplistically. When you have the figures to prove your point, it’s easier to explain, for example, that green and natural are far from synonymous: natural ingredients often have a larger carbon footprint than synthetics.

Although sustainability has many faces, some companies chose to assess it against fixed parameters, independent of their clients' requirements. Launched three years ago, Givaudan's Naturality Index is based on an assessment of all its ingredients and uses criteria established in-house by a team of experts so that each perfume formula can be rated. It is unchangeable "as the index represents Givaudan's view of the relevance of criteria that perfumers use to formulate in a responsible manner: carbon footprint, biodegradability and sourcing," explains Marypierre Julien, a naturals innovation perfumer. Mane, based in Grasse, relies on green chemistry. This concept emerged in the 1990s in the USA in response to the desire to limit the pollution associated with traditional chemistry, providing a framework for applying sustainable development principles to the world of chemistry. Eleven years ago, the 12 principles laid out by Paul Anastas and John Warner were used as the basis for developing the Green Motion algorithm that systematically assesses all Mane’s ingredients and compositions according to the same criteria. They are rated from 0 to 100, with 100 the best possible score, and clients that ask are told the results. "Getting brands to understand how and why we designed our tool involves taking the time to share knowledge, but they realise that it’s based on very tangible factors: factual scientific data. The large companies now pay close attention to what we say. We help them understand green issues, in the broadest sense, to appropriate them and talk about them more clearly," says Véronique Nyberg. Vice-president of fine fragrances at Mane, she offers the example of an Italian client that recently commissioned her to create a composition. "They wanted to put an eco-designed fragrance on the market, but they wanted to get their messaging right. So they asked us to help them understand the subject, then to help them educate their consumers in turn." Featuring a QR code on its packaging that links to a page on the Mane website, the perfume is a hit: the brand has already asked Véronique Nyberg to create the next one.

Impact on creation

Designed to make it as easy as possible for perfumers to adapt to current major market trends, these tools help make their daily work run more smoothly. "If the tools didn't exist it would be a nightmare for them, because they would constantly have to exit their formulation software to look for the information they need from external resources, and that would be next to impossible given project turnaround times," says Valéry Claude from IFF. However, the tools do have a direct impact on their creativity: pursuing the ideal of a sustainable fragrance, however the term is defined, shapes the concept from the start by influencing the selection of ingredients. EcoScent Compass uses artificial intelligence to provide perfumers with an alternative for each ingredient which might have a negative impact on the formula. At Mane, Véronique Nyberg is happy to be guided by the Green Motion rating for her raw materials: "When I'm working on a formula and I want a woody note, for example, I'll look at the scores of my different options. And I'll probably choose Santamanol, which scores around 50, rather than Bacdanol, with a score of around 30." Given that many brands require "an ever higher score", as she explains, the use of certain ingredients with a large environmental impact – like most of the synthetic musks, produced by successive chemical reactions, and some woody molecules – has of course fallen off. To retain these key notes in contemporary fragrances without tarnishing their green aura, brands are choosing to work with lower concentrations so that the ingredients making up the concentrate, once they are diluted to a greater degree in alcohol and water, represent a lower proportion of the final product. But some restrictions are harder to circumvent, like when a family of fragrances depends on ingredients with low scores. "Right now it's very complicated to work on abstract florals," says Aliénor Massenet regretfully. "But maybe that will change!"

A Yuka for fragrances

We can certainly hope so. The Yuka app sent a shockwave through the agri-food industry. It provides consumers with increased access to information and the means to act on it, and food brands have had no choice but to adapt. Many of them overhauled their catalogues, developing ranges that better meet their customers’ needs, tweaking recipes and changing sourcing, developing new products and, occasionally, abandoning existing products that could not be salvaged. In the fragrance world, the need to keep formulas secret rules out the use of a comparison tool: it is impossible to objectively evaluate perfumes on the market if their recipes are only known to their producers. But it is not impossible to imagine these lines shifting: a small number of brands, such as J.U.S, Versatile, Bastille, Lush and J’emme for example, have already made the leap and revealed the formulas behind their compositions (or at least part of them), a proof of transparency in stark contrast with the usual impenetrability. This approach hasn't escaped the attention of the industry giants. For its different brand formulas, L’Oréal will soon be providing online access to "at least 95% by weight of the ingredients present in the pure fragrance," according to the company's website. Until someone develops a Yuka for fragrances, the omnipresence of assessment tools in the perfume development process necessarily has a knock-on effect on perfumes and the ingredients they contain. Because they are also raw material producers, composition houses use these new rating systems not only to develop raw materials that achieve a good score but also to try and improve existing ingredients. Many existing fragrances are being revamped. "Some clients ask us to analyse all the formulas we have produced for them to date, and to try and improve their score. Others want one of their perfumes in particular to become eco-responsible and commission us to reformulate it," explains Véronique Nyberg.

One tool for the future?

A question arises in the face of these many and various visions of sustainable development and the tools designed to make them a reality: why don't industry leaders agree on a single rating tool to be shared with everyone? Mane is one company convinced of the all-round benefits of such an approach, and in 2013 it provided free and open online access to Green Motion so that anyone can use it to calculate the score of a given ingredient or composition. Michal Benmayor's view is that Firmenich's EcoScent Compass "based on internationally recognised metrics and guidelines, including the European Commission's research on Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), IFRA guidelines on sustainable fragrances, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s assessment of the social impact of chemical products, is the first tool to offer a standardised, replicable approach to measure the degree of sustainability offered by different actors in the industry." He concludes: "we feel that all the sector's businesses and brands should have access to a tool they can use to assess and improve a perfume's natural and sustainable profile, and we recommend aligning the industry with our EcoScent Compass." Consumers who are keen to use green or sustainable fragrances would be very likely to welcome the existence of a single tool they could use to effectively compare products from various companies. But can we really imagine the companies that dominate the perfumery market adopting a shared ideal, forsaking the fiercely competitive outlook that sets them against each other, and relinquishing a tool that also lets them stand out from the crowd? However sincere and virtuous the respective commitments may be, sustainable development is still a sales argument it would be foolish to forego.

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With the recent release of the second part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report[fn][/fn], concluding that the climate crisis is worsening, many of us are questioning our consumption habits and trying to detect the excesses that impact both the environment and our wallets. We are also seeing an increasing number of perfume releases: thousands per year. A figure that makes us wonder if they all contribute as much to olfactory culture as they take from nature. The issue becomes more urgent than ever as we learn that a related industry, fashion, is guilty of dumping 39,000 tonnes of textiles into the Atacama Desert in Chile every year, literally covering the sand dunes with multiple layers of unsold discarded fabrics[fn][/fn].

Could perfumery be plagued by the same wastefulness? Although trends change much more slowly in the fragrance industry and the latest releases and venerable ancestors sit side by side on the shelves, the perfume lover has reason not to feel entirely reassured. Each visit to a shop brings us face to face with a gigantic stock of products that represents, in the more or less long term, a huge pile of potential waste, especially if it fails to please the customers.

What is the life cycle of these stocks? Are they fully or partially used? Can they be given a second life, a second chance? To come up with some answers, we have examined current trends in perfume production, the new second-hand market that is emerging, and the challenge of recycling bottles.  

Demand and flow

While industry leaders are still cautious about providing information on their perfume production, some niche brands are committed to more transparency and happy to explain the way they are rethinking their work in the face of environmental issues. In contrast to the approach adopted by the industry’s giants, they are ensuring they have a measured production volume while also limiting costs and ecological consequences at each stage of the manufacturing process. However, there is still one unknown factor: the public’s opinion. Anticipating demand for perfumes is a complex task: it is hard to be accurate, requiring constant attention to avoid overproduction or, worse, stock-outs. As Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, founder of Parfum d'Empire, explains, for established brands, production is managed over the long term because launches are never representative of the life of the perfume: “when a new product is released, it is sold to shops and distributors which may buy it without smelling it if they trust the brand. The real issue is the public, who is the judge when it comes to restocking.”

Small companies must therefore ensure that their production is adjusted as much as possible to meet demand, as Caroline Ilacqua, who runs Teo Cabanel, explains: “We produce several times a year according to a sales forecast, in small volumes, with the tightest possible flow to avoid placing too many orders for components, but also to prevent long storage periods that are detrimental to the quality of the perfume.”

However, just-in-time production has a disadvantage: it often means overusing transport, putting trucks on the road and multiplying deliveries. To avoid this, Caroline Ilacqua has chosen her suppliers based on geographical criteria: “We are in Fontainebleau and our label supplier is 200 metres from our office! To limit transport, we have chosen to work with two packers within a 20-km radius, capable of handling larger or smaller orders: an ESAT [centre providing care through employment] and a larger supplier for orders over 500 to 700 identical units.”

Quality control is also simplified thanks to the controlled quantities handled by these manufacturing units. Niche brands try to avoid discarding too many defective bottles, as is done in large companies with faster production rates. The figures for this form of scrapping are not known, but the demand for quality forces some companies to destroy entire sections of their production each year when they do not meet the criteria set for bottle labelling or cleanliness. However, this form of perfume production remains profitable thanks to economies of scale and, sometimes, the artificial inflation of sales by a cleverly orchestrated alliance of marketing and production dynamics. 

Producing more to earn more

The differences in practices are particularly noticeable in the choice of output rates, measured for some and frantic for others, or even multiplied with the introduction of flankers. At the crossroads of creation and marketing, flankers make it possible to save on production costs (keeping the same name, the same muse, the same basic agreement) by multiplying the number of bottles on sale and by occupying the media space with the reappearance of an established success. A vicious circle has thus gradually built up, where concern for consumers and the environment takes a back seat to financial interests. As Marc-Antoine Corticchiato explains, “experience has shown us that the more launches a brand puts out, the more it sells. It's completely crazy but that's how it is. It's easy to spot a brand that's looking for backers: it arranges launch after launch to artificially increase its turnover, because it's this figure that interests investors.”

Brands that prefer to concentrate their know-how on a high-quality release rather than multiplying productions do not see their efforts rewarded: “When a brand spends a year without launching any new products,” says Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, “the shops exhibit them less and do less restocking. Consumers, who tend to ask for whatever is new, are only offered the latest releases.” 

Since overproduction does not always result in commercial success, part of the stock is often sold off at slack periods of the year, a good time to dispose of unsold bottles and boxes waiting to be replaced by next season’s versions. While massive fragrance clearance sales are rare in France, in the US and in the UK, it is easy to find beauty products in chains like TK Maxx and TJ Maxx at prices up to three times lower than in perfume stores.

The rhythm of nature

This market is inaccessible to smaller brands because of their limited margins, but also because of sometimes radically different approaches to production, especially when they are careful to respect the flora’s cycle.

By moving away from industrial trends and just-in-time requirements that deprive raw material suppliers of visibility in their business, perfumers can take into account an increasingly crucial parameter in production management: nature's yield. This factor led Marc-Antoine Corticchiato to adopt a vintage-focused approach for Tabac Tabou: “In this perfume there are extracts of wild plants that are only harvested once a year, in small quantities. It can therefore only be produced once a year, in a limited volume that depends on the availability of the plants. As the perfume is a success, we don’t manage to meet demand. But we share the pressure the pickers and farmers feel, as we are not immune to a bad harvest year that would prevent us from producing the perfume. That's what working with living matter is all about!” From one year to the next, the vintage can thus have slight variations in olfactory traits as well as colour. Unfortunately, the public is used to fragrances that are more standardised and thus are difficult to win over: “the aficionados love it, but a lot of people don’t yet accept the variations from one production to another. These variations are appreciated in wine, but in perfume, if there is the slightest difference from one series to the next, the general public has the impression of being cheated. It's not fair!”

Bottles up for grabs

To find an old vintage of Tabac Tabou, you have to turn to the second-hand market, which is developing on various platforms, from historical forums like Beauté-test in France to Facebook groups of enthusiasts and including auction sites and online community markets such as Vinted. This grey market features all the products owners no longer want, like badly chosen gifts and useless duplicates, as well as perfumes that do not come from the commercial system, such as perfume testers, gifts for shop employees, and press samples sent to journalists and influencers. Thousands of new or used bottles are ready to be given a second life after being resold at a lower price or even exchanged.

Jules Sabah Megard, founder of Mïron, the first second-hand platform specialising in the perfume sector available in France, which he launched in 2022, is surprised by the dynamism of this new sector: “There’s a lot of demand, including in our segment, the democratisation of niche perfumes. When we launched our project, we hoped to have three or four ads in the first few days. But in the first 24 hours we already had 180 ads, 80 % of which concerned new perfumes or bottles that had been sprayed five or six times, products that were often gifts people didn’t keep after trying them out.” On some forums, however, negative comments are rife. “A lot of people are getting ripped off: the fake perfume market is huge,” explains Jules Sabah Megard. “It is estimated at nearly 75 million bottles sold each year online.”

Brands have mixed reactions to this second-hand market. Niche companies tend to be positive: “It’s a good idea”, comments Marc-Antoine Corticchiato. “I’m fine with people reselling a perfume they no longer like, so that it can live on and end up being worn. There's nothing sadder than a discarded bottle!” The big companies don't see it the same way, as illustrated by LVMH, Chanel and Hermès banning platforms such as eBay from reselling their products. Some lesser-known sites have followed in the same footsteps, taking court rulings onboard and in turn preventing the sale of products from these major houses, while algorithms and inspectors working for the brands track down offenders and counterfeits.

Jules Sabah Megard is therefore extremely cautious about his own platform: “We want to work hand in hand with the big houses, so we have to be careful about the ads we post. It’s a mistake to think that hiding a perfume’s brand name on an advert is enough: the design of the bottles is also registered, and we can’t show them without authorisation.” The big brands worry that copies will flourish, tarnishing their image and discrediting them. They also see the second-hand market as a loss of earnings. Jules Sabah Megard notes, however, that they are now trying to come to terms with it, in perfumes as well as in fashion with the Vestiaire Collective platform: “For our part, we also want to fight against counterfeiting, our interests are not mutually exclusive. We want to be partners, not competitors, and we are addressing an audience made up of second-hand enthusiasts, different from theirs.”

Fill or recycle?

As bottles are finally emptied, a new cycle begins for them. When the last drops have slipped through the pump, the consumer has to make a choice: should the container be refilled, recycled, or do we have to find another use for it? 

Refilling is not always possible, and many brands cannot yet offer it, as Caroline Ilacqua explains: “In the Middle East, where part of our production is sold, we have to deliver crimped bottles, and refillable models would considerably complicate customs formalities. Above all, there are few models of bottles with a screw thread, so in our case we would have to develop a special mould, which is complicated and expensive. When it will become an option for us, we will definitely do it.” On the other hand, recycling is becoming a reflex, and is increasingly promoted in the selective sector (by chains like Sephora, Nocibé and Marionnaud). It is also offered by small brands such as Teo Cabanel: “customers can bring their empty bottles back to us in the shop,” explains Caroline Ilacqua. “We take care of the recycling, with full traceability and proof of destruction. We would like to offer this service online in the future, but for the moment the initiative is local, in our shops in Paris and Fontainebleau. In return, customers get a 15 % discount off their next purchase.” 

Paradoxically, perfume as a product is not very popular with recyclers, who, rather than recycling all the containers used in the cosmetics industry, instead often turn to what is euphemistically called “waste-to-energy projects”: waste incineration and recovery of the energy emitted during the process in the form of heat, electricity or fuel. The remains are then stored in landfills. Recycling is therefore rightly viewed with increasing suspicion by the public, who sometimes see it as a way of avoiding challenges to economic activities that overconsume and overproduce waste. Even when all the parts of a bottle can be processed, each of the steps (waste collection and sorting, processing, then storage and remarketing) calls for vast amounts of infrastructure, vehicles, energy and machines, contributing to the contamination of water, soil and air. The least polluting practice is therefore not to get rid of a bottle, but to reuse it in some way.  

Sustainable packaging  

Recycling engenders a certain number of beliefs about the reuse of materials and can give the impression of a virtuous circle where “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed”, to use Lavoisier’s expression. However, recycling an object sometimes generates more CO2 than producing it, and most products that are recycled once, twice or three times will ultimately become non-reusable waste once the material has become "exhausted", i.e. too fragile. 

In this context, it is interesting for brands to propose packaging that can continue to serve after its first use, which is what Caroline Ilacqua has done at Teo Cabanel: “We created a box made entirely of recycled and recyclable materials, but it can just as easily be kept, used to store small things. The design was conceived so that people would want to keep it.” The challenge for some brands is to think not only in terms of recyclability but also in terms of durability and aesthetics. There is a lot of advice online encouraging consumers to upcycle, to see waste as a resource and even to eliminate the notion of waste. On Sylvaine Delacourte's website, an entire page is devoted to the reuse of bottles, proposing solutions as diverse as reusing them as carafes “to hold your favourite alcohol” or as bottles for washing-up liquid. Other ideas include turning them into bedside lamps, vases or decorations for the Christmas tree after painting them gold, silver or red.

We know that a scent does not have the same appeal for everyone. Concern for the environment varies even more. Caroline Ilacqua now feels it is important to educate customers, both here and elsewhere: “There are places in the world where these issues are not a priority, like the Middle East. There, the ecological message is not a sales argument, any more than it is in the United States outside of New York and Los Angeles.” In this situation, it is difficult to rely on the goodwill of consumers alone!

There is also no guarantee that their actions, even if widespread, would be sufficient to trigger the necessary transformation of our mode of production. While fast fashion systematically overproduces today, because it cannot predict the public's expectations, with the consequences mentioned above, the financialization of the perfume economy also tends to disconnect supply and demand in a way that poses a heavy risk. For some large companies, the margins on sales are such that their work no longer consists of selling the whole of their production, but only the quantity that allows them to reach the targeted profit, and then to manufacture again something new without worrying about overproduction. In this context, neither the responsible actions of consumers count, nor their specific expectations.

The system that emerges is no longer based on the production and sale of perfumes to identified customers, but on the circulation of goods whose potentially ephemeral existence and low production costs boost the financial interests of the companies that sell them. This economy is obviously incompatible with environmental concerns; it also concentrates the damage in the hands of the manufacturers.

The environmental crisis can therefore only be avoided by a deep-reaching transformation of our mode of production, by abandoning the rationale that pushes brands to disconnect production from the real demand for perfume and to maximise the circulation of their products in ever shorter timespans.

However, as fragrance lovers there is still something useful we can do: consume less and better. By taking the time to choose a perfume that we identify with, that we really like, by refusing impulse buys and really taking the time to smell, by discussing with our friends the rough bits of our olfactory world. None of which prevents us from offering, exchanging or reselling the bottles lying dormant in our cupboards!

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Scents in circulation: perfume life cycles


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