Responsible formulation: different tools, one ideal

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How best to judge the sustainability of a scented composition? Using which criteria? To provide objective assessments of their products and meet their clients’ various demands, fragrance houses are including sustainable development factors into formulation tools used by their perfumers. Each in their own way.

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[1]A concept invented in 1991 and used in the chemical industry to calculate the ratio of the mass of waste per mass of product.), 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[2]Software feature that will make it possible to  improve fragrances’ eco-responsibility rating with just one click and without compromising their olfactory qualities. and the ability to include passive water use[3]During the FirGood microwave-based extraction process recently patented by the company, water already present in the raw materials is the only water used..” 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.


Summary

Notes

Notes
1 A concept invented in 1991 and used in the chemical industry to calculate the ratio of the mass of waste per mass of product.
2 Software feature that will make it possible to  improve fragrances’ eco-responsibility rating with just one click and without compromising their olfactory qualities.
3 During the FirGood microwave-based extraction process recently patented by the company, water already present in the raw materials is the only water used.
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While the original intention is commendable, the implementation of these concepts and the lack of transparency in terms of the means used are unfortunately more akin to a form of greenwashing to make people feel less guilty, as can be observed in the food sector.

A sign of growing interest in the subject, since 2020 there has been an "eco-responsible perfume" filter on the French Sephora website (which seems to bring up almost all the current best-sellers, with Sauvage by Dior topping the list), referring to several labels: good for a better planet – "positive gestures to take better care of the planet" – is meant to guarantee "eco-designed packaging and/or responsible sourcing of ingredients". The "vegan perfume" filter (good for vegans) produces a list of 131 products that do not contain animal ingredients (forgetting of course to point out that very few perfumes today use them, and that a fragrance without the label in question is not necessarily "cruel to animals"). As for "natural perfume", this filter is associated with the “good for you” notion, and includes, for example, all the Atelier Cologne products, which claim to contain "91% naturally sourced" ingredients (without specifying whether this refers to the perfume’s formula or to the finished product, and without explaining why it would be better for you).

This prime example of a communication method that has become ubiquitous, whether at Sephora or in the press, highlights the sad reality of excessive use of oversimplification, the absence of useful information, and the absurdity of this kind of tool: without taking the time to explain and qualify, it only sows confusion and doubt, fuelling speculation and therefore fear. As a result, the race is on to produce the best label, which will come out the winner regardless of the reality behind it.

These terms, which do not convey much in the way of tangible information, only reinforce the idea that perfume is suspect, and that we should therefore turn to the brands that claim to do something about it. Yes, but what exactly? That's much harder to find out. What practices are behind all these slogans? What does the notion of sustainability mean for perfumery, an industry whose market is worth nearly 35 billion dollars overall, with experts predicting that the figure will double in the years to comeSource: https://www.fragrancefoundation.fr/2021/03/la-parfumerie-francaise-est-en-pleine-expansion, and which, in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic depriving many people of their sense of smell, is enjoying a defiantly robust 10% growth rate?

Although the question of limited resources began to emerge towards the end of the 18th century with the dawn of the industrial revolution, the notion of sustainable development only appeared for the first time in 1980, when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a report entitled World Conservation Strategy.
The term was adopted at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro summit as a way of combining the three pillars of development: environmental, social and economic.
Today, the concept is criticised for suggesting that the economy can be developed while protecting the environment and its resources. In other words, holding out the mirage of infinite growth in a finite world.

While the concept of eco-responsibility is spreading within the perfume industry at the same frantic pace as new launches, what it actually implies seems much less visible and tangible than its claims. There are plenty of words, assertions and declarations, but, as is often the case in an industry that likes to cultivate secrecy, there are also a lot of simplifications and slogans, with few substantiated and nuanced messages to better explain what it's all about and help people make informed choices.

Does the fact that less than 1% of an ingredient in a perfume's formula is organically grown weigh more in the ecological balance than the thousands of bottles produced that had to be transported by truck, packed in vast swathes of cellophane? Or than the hundreds of press releases sent individually to each journalist?

Another aspect is that the emphasis is often on eco-responsibility, sometimes to the detriment of the social dimension of sustainable development: when a product boasts of being good for the planet or good for you, is it also beneficial to the people who grow or transform the perfume plants, in countries that are geopolitically and economically fragile?

Continuing on the path that began with a detailed examination of natural perfumery in late 2021, Nez invites you to go beyond press kit catchphrases as it provides an in-depth and transparent exploration of the different practices and possible approaches to make perfume, at all stages of its life, more compatible with a better future. From the cultivation of perfume plants, their transformation and the synthesis of molecules to the fate of unsold bottles, quantities of waste generated and recycled, tools available to perfumers and the different elements of packaging, we are taking you on a deep dive into the world of sustainable development in perfumery.

Illustration : Marie Duval

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With the recent release of the second part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report[fn]https://www.ipcc.ch/languages-2/english/[/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]https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/video-au-chili-un-cimetiere-de-vetements-en-plein-desert-datacama[/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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Perfumery and sustainable development: behind the messaging

Scents in circulation: perfume life cycles

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