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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Perfumery and sustainable development: behind the messaging

Natural raw materials: plants, essences and people

Perfumery and sustainable development: behind the messaging

Responsible formulation: different tools, one ideal

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