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.



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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