Scents in circulation: perfume life cycles

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Behind the eco-responsibility claims highlighted by the perfume industry, production continues at a dizzying pace, raising the question of stock management: are stocks being optimised and overhauled now that the climate emergency is a reality? Once bottles are in use, can they have a second life?

With the recent release of the second part of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report[1]https://www.ipcc.ch/languages-2/english/, 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[2]https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/video-au-chili-un-cimetiere-de-vetements-en-plein-desert-datacama.

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!


Summary

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Although natural raw materials, attributed with all sorts of virtues, are particularly popular in perfumery and extensively promoted, the history of the sector has been rooted in chemistry since the late 19th century, and the perfumers' palette is still mostly composed of molecules derived from synthesis. However, in the face of growing environmental concerns over the past decade, chemistry has become undesirable in the eyes of consumers – and therefore brands – who see it as polluting, toxic, energy-intensive and a major source of waste. However, this perception does not always match reality: a natural absolute, which requires a lot of space to grow, the use of petrochemical solvents and has a low yield, can be considered less sustainable than some synthetics which combine good yield, little waste and less impact on the environment. But in order to further reduce their compounds' footprint on the planet, synthetic producers have adopted a greener approach to research and development. 

The idea of sustainable chemistry first emerged in 1998 under the name of Green Chemistry in a book by Americans John C. Warner and Paul T. Anastas. It is based on twelve principles that can be grouped into four overarching aims: resource management, waste prevention, safety and security, and energy saving. These are all areas of progress that guide the perfume industry in developing new molecules or obtaining existing ones in a more environmentally friendly manner. 

The first criterion by which these more sustainable ingredients are judged is their biodegradability, to ensure minimal pollution. "This is a problem we discovered for instance with Galaxolide, a cheap, resistant and therefore widely used musk[fn]Discovered in 1962[/fn]," explains Sylvain Antoniotti, research director at the CNRS [French national centre for scientific research] and director of the Flavours, Perfumes and Cosmetics Institute for Innovation and Partnerships at Université Côte d'Azur. “The trouble with this molecule is that, while it is not toxic, it accumulates in the environment, particularly in marine organisms. Today, we prefer to develop ingredients that have a longevity that corresponds to how long they are used.” This has resulted in the appearance over recent years of new molecules springing from industry research designed to tackle the problem. Two examples are IFF's Cristalfizz, with its zesty notes, and Firmenich's Dreamwood, inspired by Mysore sandalwood, which are biodegradable.

Natural in support of synthesis

Dreamwood also has the distinction of being made from 100% renewable carbon - the new hobbyhorse of composition houses in their work on sustainable synthesis. Carbon, the main component of fragrance compounds, has traditionally been obtained from fossil fuels, which are polluting and vanishing, and therefore hardly compatible with the notion of sustainable development. However, the industry is increasingly working with natural raw materials, which can form all or some of the synthons, i.e. the building blocks used as the foundation for producing the final ingredient. "When we reach 80% renewable carbon in a molecule, that's a really good score," says Cyril Gallardo, ingredients director at Mane. 

While all companies have made great strides in this direction in recent years, Japan's Takasago is a pioneer in the field. It has specialised in pine oil chemistry, which gives it an extensive portfolio of synthesised ingredients thanks to the carbon the oil contains, particularly L-citronellol and L-cis-rose oxide, rose-like notes that are widely used in fine fragrances. As early as 2014, Takasago was the first to indicate the percentage of renewable carbon in all its raw materials with its Biobased index. In 2019, Givaudan implemented the FiveCarbon Path programme, which uses a number of green chemistry principles applied to carbon and, notably, plans to prioritize the use of bio-sourced carbon (i.e. obtained from organic and renewable matter) to create ingredients. To further reduce the environmental impact, this renewable carbon can be derived from waste or by-products, in line with the upcycling principle: Symrise's Lilybelle, with its lily of the valley fragrance, is produced from limonene extracted from fruit juice industry waste, while Givaudan's Akigalawood, with its peppery woody nuances, is obtained using biotechnologies from a fraction of patchouli essence that has no olfactory interest.

Fermentation replacing chemical reagents

Biotechnologies represent the other major tool the perfume industry uses to manufacture sustainable molecules. This involves drawing on the properties of micro-organisms (enzymes, bacteria, etc.), sometimes genetically modified, to transform a natural raw material into one or more odorous compounds by means of a fermentation process that replaces part of the chemical reagents, or even all of them, in which case the molecule is then considered natural by IFRA. This process has led to the development of Clearwood in 2014 by Firmenich to replace patchouli oil, Biomuguet by Takasago, and various lactones by Mane. “Biotechnologies are extremely compatible with sustainable chemistry," stresses Sylvain Antoniotti. “They use renewable materials, consume little energy, are very efficient, produce little or no waste, and they are completely safe for the technician and the environment.”

An impressive list of benefits, but how big a part do they play in the perfumers' palette? Although we hear a lot about these "green" molecules, whose development certainly is in full swing, they are still very much in the minority compared to those derived from traditional chemistry. At Mane, for example, the ratio is a few dozen out of 2,000 in the ingredients portfolio. However, Xavier Fernandez, professor at the Nice Institute of Chemistry and director of the Foqual (formulation, analysis, quality) chemistry master's degree at Université Côte d'Azur, observes that "there is a real desire on the part of companies to shift towards sustainable synthesis. In a few years' time, their products will probably be given an environmental rating, rather like the Nutri-Score, and they know they will have to be ready. In addition to the ecological benefits, this approach is good for their image and will soon be profitable from a financial point of view, when this is not already the case.”

Musks and solvents in the firing line

It is true that sustainable synthesis currently produces molecules that are on average more expensive than their conventional equivalents. "It varies greatly depending on the yield, the number of processing stages, the need (or not) for purification, and so on," explains Cyril Gallardo. In the case of Vinyl Guaiacol, with its whisky and clove flavour, the molecule obtained by biotech is less expensive than that produced by conventional synthesis: it therefore now replaces it in all formulas. But some ingredients can be up to ten times more expensive. "Few of our customers are willing to follow suit, unless they make naturalness a sine qua non," says the ingredients director. But these price differences could soon be reduced or even disappear. "Technical progress and the increasing scarcity of oil will make sustainable processes more and more profitable, and perfumers' palettes will “naturally” tend towards 100% bio-based products," Sylvain Antoniotti predicts. "Today, we are able to obtain all molecules through biotechnology or from renewable carbon. But sometimes petrochemical synthesis is still the most efficient: if it only involves one step, replacing it with a natural process that requires dozens of steps would not be appropriate for the environment. These different methods will therefore continue to coexist," says Cyril Gallardo. The research undertaken by composition houses currently focuses on musks and 100% renewable solvents. If they manage to replace the classic solvents – such as dipropylene glycol, which is often petrochemical-based – used extensively to dilute raw materials and, consequently, formulas, they could contribute to drastically changing the environmental footprint of fragrance concentrates. "Given the place that solvents occupy in formulas, these formulas will soon be composed of more than 50% sustainable molecules, once they have been developed," predicts Cyril Gallardo.

This new approach to chemistry, while still marginal, should gain ground in the coming years, gradually erasing the age-old frontier between natural and synthetic.

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Environmental impact: a monoculture industry?

Measuring this environmental impact is not easy, as the 30% or so of natural products that make up the perfumery palette are diverse. Flowers, roots, fruit, wood, resins and spices each have varying botanical and geographical characteristics. We will leave aside animal ingredients, which, although they raise ethical problems, are now very rarely used.

The first difficulty that arises is that the perfume industry does not exist in a bubble and cannot control crops it has not always directly commissioned. The brands, which sell the finished product, usually turn to composition houses when it comes to olfactory creation. However, the composition houses usually buy natural raw materials from producers who also supply the aromatherapy and food flavouring sectors. This is the case for citrus essence, one of the world's most widely produced essential oils[fn]The most widely produced essential oils in the world are citrus and mint, followed by eucalyptus, lemongrass, clove, lavender and cedar. Source: FranceAgriMer's 2020 overview of perfume, aromatic and medicinal plants.[/fn], made from the peel of fruit used by the food industry for juice. While the large-scale cultivation of fruit trees is polluting, the perfume industry simply uses the by-products.

Even when plants take a more direct path to the industry, the implementation of initiatives requires a global organisation, which is not always the responsibility of the composition houses themselves. This applies to lavender and lavandin, which occupy 49% of the growing area of French perfume, aromatic and medicinal plants[fn]In France, perfume, aromatic and medicinal plant crops represented 67,513 hectares and 6,527 producers in 2021. Perfume plants cover the largest surface area in the sector, with 37,897 hectares in 2021 and three predominant species: lavandin and lavender (33,094 hectares) and clary sage (3,400 hectares). Source: CAP 2021.[/fn]. Thanks in particular to the Comité Interprofessionnel des Huiles Essentielles Françaises (CIHEF), which represents the entire chain – producers, distillers, cooperatives and direct buyers - and is recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture, the sector can implement action plans on a national scale to ensure that the environmental impact is decisive. The Green & Lavender programme[fn]Run by the Fonds de Dotation pour la Sauvegarde des Lavandes de Provence, the programme raises funds to help producers tackle the challenges of the future.[/fn] has recently launched a study of the entire chain, which is crucial to combating false assumptions. Contrary to what the purple fields of Provence stretching as far as the eye can see suggest, "there is very little lavender monoculture. When it does exist, it is mainly a response to the reality of the land: in these areas, not much else grows," explains Pierre-Philippe Garry, director of CIHEF and COO at Bontoux, a company that produces and supplies natural ingredients. It is a crop that "favours biodiversity: it attracts lots of insects, encourages pollination, and is also used to make lavender honey, which represents 10% of French honey production," adds Charlotte Bringer-Guerin, CIHEF's regulatory and environmental affairs officer. A large proportion of lavender production is organic[fn]Over 50% of lavender production and over 10% of lavandin production in France is organic. The figure has been rising for several years and is far higher than the 12% of national production that is organic (for all crops combined).[/fn], but "supply exceeds demand, and not all organic products find a buyer willing to pay the price. They will then have to be sold without the label, and their price lowered accordingly," says Pierre-Philippe Garry. Lavandin is mostly destined for detergents, which are marketed with little need for the organic label. And then there is the fact that "mechanical weeding, which requires the use of diesel-powered machines, can sometimes be more harmful than weedkillers. You have to look at the whole life cycle of the product," as Pierre-Philippe Garry explains.  

However, for globally grown crops, this type of organisation is not systematic. On the whole, monoculture is not the norm, which is a positive point for the environment: "in this regard, countries perceived as 'developing' are ultimately more respectful of biodiversity: culturally, families often work small plots of land as part of a polyculture model", notes Elisa Aragon, co-founder and CEO of the production company Nelixia, in Guatemala. But only isolated, individual initiatives seem possible on the face of it.

The problem of distance: towards more transparency?

While limiting monocultures offers obvious ecological benefits, the distance and multiplication of actors pose other types of problems. Transparency has been the bane of the industry for decades: "A great deal of work has been done to identify the different links in the production chain: composition houses now know much more about the farmers, collectors and distillers behind the materials they buy," stresses Dominique Roques, sourcer at Firmenich. Brands have increasing environmental and social imperatives, responding to consumer demand for more ethical products. However, composition houses do not always have the means to implement changes themselves: they turn to producers, with their overall view of the actors involved, as an intermediary. These producers manage the gap between marketing requirements and the reality on the ground: "European industries are obviously far removed from local realities. Direct communication that explains the time required for any changes and their complexity is therefore extremely important," insists Elisa Aragon. Their role is essential in helping pickers, harvesters and resin tappers to set up systems that are more virtuous: "We always take an array of factors into account, because sustainability is multi-dimensional. First of all, we have to understand the socio-economic situation of the producer and the specificities of the raw material: do they depend on the crop? What is their socio-economic situation? What are the plant's needs in terms of water, sun and inputs? What pesticides are used? We can then carry out a risk analysis to establish an appropriate solution," she continues. The transformation of production methods therefore implies a change on the part of all actors and also raises the question of the value that the industry places on the products on which it depends.

Redefining value: a forgotten necessity?

The reason why composition houses do not always offer purchase guarantees is primarily related to the way the industry works. When a brand decides to create a perfume, it puts different companies in competition: only one of them will win the project and be able to sell its concentrate: "the competition means that the composition houses have little visibility on the projects that will eventually succeed, and therefore on the products that will have to be purchased," Dominique Roques points out. This is why producers help farmers to diversify their buyers and their crops, bolstering their resilience. But Mathilde Voisin, ingredients marketing manager for Mane, reminds us that they cannot carry the weight of the industry on their shoulders: "As a composition house, we have a role to play in buying raw materials every year, not just when we need them.” For example, Mane introduced a responsible purchasing policy in 2009 aimed at encouraging its suppliers to adopt a sustainable approach: "We have them fill in a questionnaire and offer them support based on their answers, but it is not an authoritarian approach. It’s a huge task and it’s essential: we can't claim to have beautiful products without shouldering our responsibilities.” This also means not always meeting the demands of certain customers who would like to be able to claim new essences in their products: "We have to explain to them that putting a crop in place requires a commitment on our part. We need to guarantee farmers that we will work with them over the long term: this is a facet of sustainability that is sometimes forgotten," she continues.

In order to bring about real change, brand demands must result in tangible financial benefits for the most vulnerable. But buyers sometimes take advantage of long-established traditions to avoid paying farmers what they are worth: "The industry must pay a much more concrete tribute to the luxury aspect of these ingredients, since it recognises their rarity and beauty. And many of them are not very expensive; composition houses would usually have no trouble coping with an increase," points out Dominique Roques.

To encourage changes in practices and reward efforts, various actors are looking for solutions. The Low Carbon label created by the Ministry of Ecology makes it possible to short-circuit the lack of investment by buyers: companies can finance low-carbon projects as a form of compensation for their own emissions. The CIHEF is currently implementing it in the lavender industry: "This principle makes it possible to financially support producers who make efforts to adopt more virtuous practices," says Charlotte Bringer-Guerin. But the approach has its obvious limits and reminds us that changing habits globally requires the agreement of all the actors rather than emergency solutions. A few years ago, Dominique Roques sought to remedy this imbalance by organising a process aimed at unifying and establishing dialogue, Naturals Together, to open a debate between producers and buyers. But now that the notion of sustainability has become a selling point for the composition companies, they would like to appropriate it exclusively. However, the competitive system they embrace seems incompatible with the shared, cooperative approach that global change would entail and leaves farmers in the dark.

Certification: shining a light on the shadows?

Certification might seem an ideal solution to tackle the sometimes fragmented messages of composition houses and diverse demands of brands. Often implemented on a global scale, it could provide a single, unchanging and, therefore, more objective set of criteria. "However, there are a lot of them, and they’re not all aimed at the same audience: Fair for Life [measuring fair trade and responsible channels], For Life [for social responsibility], and Fairwild [which monitors sustainable harvesting] are aimed more at raw material producers and buyers. Ecovadis and Sedex have been developed for companies to use among themselves. Others, such as CDP and Dow Jones, are favoured by investors," clarifies Valérie Lovisa, founder of ABTYS, a consulting agency in the field of CSR as applied to the perfume and cosmetics industries.

For Cosmos Natural and Cosmos Organic certifications (or Cosmos Certified and Cosmos Approved for ingredients), the perfumery sector remains poorly represented, "probably because natural composition is technically complex in the perfumery industry, but also because the images conjured up by marketing are not always in line with organic," suggests Nicolas Bertrand, director of Cosmébio and certification body Cosmécert. Conditions for obtaining certification do not stop at the ingredients, as is often thought, but encompass improvements to the entire chain, right down to packaging. The certificate has to be renewed every year, with an on-site audit, "or a statement describing in detail the processes used to obtain the Cosmos Approved raw materials." Certified companies can join Cosmebio, which is in charge of the eponymous label. Created in 2002, it now has more than 500 member companies committed to respecting its manifesto. The manifesto calls for a global change of attitude aimed at drastically reducing our consumption, without which the organic model will not be sufficient. 

On the other hand, certification, of whatever kind, is not always the answer, as it can leave out the smallest actors, who cannot afford the labels and whose disappearance would go relatively unnoticed: "It is sometimes problematic, as it can be punitive and force farmers to hide problems, which means we can no longer act on them. But we cannot demand that all producers' practices correspond directly to our requirements. Instead, we must aim to support them in their efforts to adopt better practices. This is what the UEBT does with its verification programme," explains Elisa Aragon. The Union for Ethical Biotrade is a non-profit association founded in 2007 to promote sourcing that respects biodiversity and the stakeholders involved. It launched ingredient certification in 2015 and an overall system certification in 2018. But it has also created this more flexible “verification” system, which aims to support improvement rather than sanction it.

Certification of companies and brands could be a solution, as they have the financial capacity to pay the price. B Corp, which was created in 2006 in the USA, has social, environmental, transparency and legal responsibility components: "One of B Corp’s objectives is to create a community of companies that can be inspired by each other, and that can be identified by consumers for their positive impact. This certification was designed to encourage collaboration, like a virtuous circle. It redefines the notion of success in the corporate world, making positive environmental and social impact a core value - and thus driving powerful global change," explains Valérie Lovisa. To qualify, brands are invited to fill in an initial online questionnaire, called the Business Impact Assessment (BIA), free of charge: "Free access to the questionnaire allows each company to assess itself, identify its strengths and define areas for improvement that it can work on later," she points out. Once the BIA is submitted, B Lab will ask for justification of 10% of the information provided. In order to obtain B Corp certification, each company must achieve a minimum of 80 out of 200 points. Such initiatives point to increasingly virtuous dynamics in the future, by shifting the cost of certification to the most powerful actors.

We can also question the value of a certified ingredient claimed to be in a fragrance with no proportion mentioned and all the other ingredients a mystery – a practice that looks rather like greenwashing. However, the perfume industry has come a long way: "communication was based on evocation for many years. But now brands are demanding certification of all natural materials: we have entered a phase embracing a much more radical approach," clarifies Dominique Roques. Nonetheless, current labels do not always take account of one of the essential points of a raw material’s environmental impact: its transformation.

Extraction processes: the poor relatives of naturalness?

The life of a raw material does not end when it is harvested: "The extraction process, low yield and amount of waste generated are the main criteria that will lower a raw material’s Green Motion rating," says Mathilde Voisin. The carbon footprint of transporting plants is small, as extraction generally has to be done on site since plants rapidly lose their olfactory components after harvesting - with the exception of certain raw materials, such as resins. It is therefore mainly the concretes or essences obtained that travel, which weigh far less than fresh plants. 

Among the four most widely employed extraction processes, cold extraction, used in particular for citrus fruits, is a method of pressing followed by centrifugation that separates the essential oil from the water. It has the triple advantage of being chemical-free, energy-efficient and using food industry waste. 

The process considered to be the most polluting is extraction with volatile solvents, which is why the absolutes produced by this process are not authorised for Cosmos Organic certification. It is used to extract the perfume from flowers that do not tolerate heating processes. However, hexane, used as a solvent, is a petroleum derivative and continues to pollute even when it is reused several times in the extraction circuit. Companies are therefore looking at ways of doing without it. An alternative has emerged in the form of extraction with supercritical CO2, i.e. compressed to a fluid state. It then acts as a solvent, carrying away the compounds it dissolves, and becomes gaseous again by means of depressurisation. But the process requires an expensive installation that cannot be set up everywhere. Mane has worked on overcoming this problem by combining enfleurage with supercritical fluid extraction, the source of its E-Pure Jungle Essence. Other companies are looking to go solvent-free by developing new methods, such as Firmenich and its Firgood technology. By exposing the plant to electromagnetic frequencies, the water contained in the plant is heated, allowing the fragrant substances to be extracted. Firmenich began developing the technique in its laboratory in 2015, and the first three extracts obtained in 2021 will soon be followed by others[fn]See From Plant to Essence, 2021, Nez.[/fn]. 

Hydrodistillation and steam distillation are processes used to obtain essential oils which are time-consuming and require a lot of energy and water. So while solvent extraction is often seen as the villain, in reality, "we must move away from simplistic marketing messages. Research into bio-based solvents is obviously an excellent idea, but we need to understand that the distillation process, which has a greener image, has a proportionally greater environmental impact, because it is the most widely used by far," warns Pierre-Philippe Garry. Improving this process is thus one of the imperatives of the lavender industry, but also of concern to companies such as LMR, the IFF naturals subsidiary, which has developed an improved distillation process by modifying the mechanisms of the stills for one of its flagship products, patchouli[fn]Patchouli in Perfumery, Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks.[/fn]. 

Yields depend on the plant, its concentration of olfactory molecules and their extractability. For example, extracted with a volatile solvent, jasmine has a yield of 0.125% (800 kg of flower for 1 kg of concrete), tuberose 0.06%. When distilled, vetiver has a yield of 0.5% to 1%, sandalwood 35%[fn]These figures are taken from different books published by Nez (in the Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks collection, and in the book From Plant to Essence).[/fn]. The concretes, obtained by extraction, must then be washed with ethanol in order to obtain an absolute suitable for use - and here again the yield varies, from 26% for tuberose to 60% for jasmine. And for the same plant, depending on the extraction process, the yield - and the olfactory result - can be radically different: Damask rose has a yield six times greater with extraction than with distillation. These are all variables to take into account when gauging the environmental impact of a process, which is a decisive issue for the future of perfumery. Because when obtaining a product involves the use of polluting processes, the systematic rejection of synthetic in favour of natural does not hold water: favouring a natural raw material in a composition while ignoring its mode of extraction clearly does not make much sense.

Finally, plant waste, desolventised if necessary, can be used “as biomass, agricultural fertiliser, or even as a food product, as is the case with vanilla,” says Mathilde Voisin. It is relatively unproblematic compared to other industries, but research is underway to identify optimal treatments. For example, the spent grains (plant residues after extraction) from lavender and lavandin and the plants at the end of their life "will be used as mulch, covering the soil to further promote biodiversity and limit water stress," explains Charlotte Bringer-Guerin. Composition houses are increasingly developing upcycled products, as at Symrise, where the Garden Lab collection enriches the palette of perfumers: odour molecules are recovered from the cooking water of vegetables used to make baby food (asparagus, artichoke, onion, cauliflower and leek) by means of a hydroalcoholic process. However, they do not often feature in compositions, and the impact of the transformations, in other cases, is not always positive: "we can recover certain forms of waste, but we must keep in mind that if we go through a transformation process, we sometimes create more disadvantages than the vegetable waste itself poses," concludes Mathilde Voisin.

In an attempt to cover every dimension of the environmental and social impact of natural raw materials, which is sometimes far greater than that of synthetics, composition companies have developed measurement tools that will be discussed in a future article in our report. However, the complexity of the issue calls for awareness - raising on a broader scale. And that can only be achieved through a change in the industry's communication practices; the prospect of consumers moving towards more thoughtful purchases depends on it.

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Perfumery and sustainable development: behind the messaging

Natural raw materials: plants, essences and people

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