Towards a more virtuous synthesis?

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From biodegradable molecules and biotechnologies to renewable carbon, the perfume industry is developing new processes to create molecules with reduced environmental footprints to meet the challenges of sustainable development and growing consumer demand for naturalness. But has petrochemical synthesis said its last word?

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[1]Discovered in 1962,” 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.



1 Discovered in 1962
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A collector's item and formal manifestation of an invisible fragrance, the bottle is a powerful form of communication for the scent it contains. It is therefore difficult to compromise on its quality, finish and appearance. However, two major technical avenues have been explored to reduce the environmental impact of its production. The first is to develop the use of refillable bottles. The second is to reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing by switching from gas to electric furnaces, or making greater use of recycled and recyclable materials.

But what is usually called a bottle is actually an assembly of different elements made from heterogeneous materials - glass body, plastic pump, plastic, metal or glass cap, not to mention the transition components that ensure a seal - meaning that bottles must be considered from multiple angles, making them a real headache to recycle.

Technical exploit and new design

Let's start with the main part, the body, the receptacle for the liquid: the bottle itself, also known as the primary packaging. Although new materials have recently appeared in suppliers' catalogues, including highly recyclable aluminium and zamak, a zinc, aluminium, magnesium and copper alloy, which is still not widely recycled, glass remains king. While it is potentially recycled and recyclable, when it comes to luxury, high standards of excellence reign. And that's the problem! When it is important to satisfy customers accustomed to an impeccable end result, incorporating recycled glass into the product recipe, with the possibilities it brings of changing the visual and shaping qualities, is only acceptable if it can equal the original outcome. The Pochet Group, whose bottling division, Pochet du Courval, soon celebrates its 400th anniversary, is the oldest glassmaker in France and is highly regarded by major luxury brands for the quality of its glass.

Its exclusive SEVA glass, which stands for "eco-responsible solution, vision of the future", is a big success. "The SEVA 1 line includes 14% recycled glass specially collected from the high-end perfume industry, and SEVA 3 is composed of 15% PCR post-consumer glass," says Anne-Sophie Legras, the company's product marketing manager. “The transparency, malleability and colour of each line are identical to our signature glass.” The result has won over the company’s partner brands, starting with Viktor&Rolf and, more recently, Chanel for the 100th anniversary limited edition of N°5.

It should be noted that in glassmaking, recycling is already part of the manufacturing process since cullet, waste glass, is one of the ingredients. But SEVA contains high proportions of recycled glass and the figures announced do not include cullet. This percentage is expected to increase and we are already seeing the appearance on the market of bottles made of 40% recycled PCR glass, such as the model created for Rochas’ Girl by Verescence.

Another option for limiting the bottle’s environmental impact using eco-design is to reduce the glass walls. Thinner walls weigh less, a significant criterion for transport and e-commerce. "This innovation is a feature of the 15-mm bottles used for Gabrielle by Chanel and Idôle by Lancôme," says Anne-Sophie Legras. A technical feat proving that sustainable solutions can give birth to a new design style.

Home refills

As for refillable bottles, Mugler pioneered the concept in the 1990s with the launch of La Source, a reinvention of the vinegar fountain found in 18th-century perfumeries. Customers had to go to a store to refill their bottles from the fountain. Now, driven by an approach shared by glassmakers, brands and pump manufacturers, under the aegis of CETIE [the International Technical Centre for Bottling], screw caps have been standardised, competing with the traditional tamper - proof crimp rings, and suitable collars (the pump heads) have shrunk to match established visual codes. This improvement has encouraged in-home refilling with a large container and bottle equipped with a screw-on pump. In support of the trend, refills are now available in portable formats that can be purchased in stores or online, an approach brands are increasingly adopting with different filling options. In the spirit of upcycling, some brands are even proposing vintage bottles, such as Floratropia, which also sells small refills in a flexible pouch. Others focus on the sustainable reuse of their bottles, so beautiful that no one would dare throw them away, such as those featuring in the new collection by Dries Van Noten.

In France, major retailers like Sephora, Nocibé and Marionnaud offer a recovery and recycling service for bottles that are returned to glassmakers via specialised sorting platforms such as Cèdre. Customers who use the programme get a discount coupon in exchange.

Wood and cork

The bottle’s cap and pump are harder to recycle and now get specific treatments. Caps have plastic inserts, designed to ensure a seal, which are difficult to recycle. In response, Pochet has developed the "eternal top", an aluminium cap with a built-in magnet: all its parts can be disassembled so that the magnet and weight can be reused. Coverpla offers wooden caps with a cork insert for a better seal. The brand Obvious has also adopted cork for its zero-insert caps made from wine bottle cork production waste. As for the pump, plastic is widely preferred for the internal parts because it is inert and avoids any interaction with the perfume components. Although plastic cannot be avoided in pumps, some plastics are more advisable than others. For instance, in 2021 thanks to an agreement with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which lobbies for the circular economy and denounces the use of certain plastics, Aptar, one of the leaders in the field, launched its InUne collection that contains no POM (polyoxymethylene), a controversial plastic.

As for secondary packaging, meaning everything that surrounds the bottle, many defenders of the environmental cause feel that "the best packaging is no packaging". Especially since luxury codes usually require a transparent folded cellophane overwrap, its presence is the guarantee of an intact product. In the context of a pandemic, this hygienic connotation is reassuring for some consumers, but today this is being questioned. Houses like Fragonard claim to have never used this approach. When it comes to cardboard, companies are increasingly committed to sourcing from sustainably managed forests with FSC certification. And overall, sustainable alternatives exist. In this sense, niche houses are daring to adopt strategies that show greater commitment. They include an original initiative from Aemium: taking an eco-conscious approach to all assembled parts, it has chosen packaging in the form of wooden boxes sourced from sustainably managed forests. In the same spirit, Olibanum, in addition to offering a lighter bottle, has abandoned caps and offers boxes made of unprocessed recycled cardboard, unbleached, without cellophane, and with water-based and solvent-free glues and inks. It is also worth mentioning the FSC-certified cardboard boxes from Essential Parfums, with the visible bottle nestled inside, held by a cardboard band. Also noteworthy is Une Nuit Nomade’s offer: the brand now sells its perfumes without packaging and with a €10 discount.

Mushroom packaging

On the traditional luxury side, Philippe Ughetto, vice-president of Doro packaging, a company specialising in the sector, explains: "For packaging manufacturers, there is a common commitment to the future, reducing environmental impact, both from the point of view of the production chain with a reduction in carbon emissions, and from the product viewpoint. As far as production is concerned, the general trend is towards ecodesign to reduce paper weights, abandon foam padding in favour of cardboard, and consider single-material assemblies that are easier to recycle. As for printing, natural inks are preferred. Finally, research and development efforts are looking at bio-sourced materials based, for example, on pulp and natural fibres.” Nevertheless, there is no denying that these innovations still come with a higher price tag than previous methods, and not all brands are ready to play the game.

One interesting bio-sourced option is the material invented by Sulpac, a Finnish company that has developed an industrially compostable material made from wood chip and plant binder. Another, more surprising, innovation is the material made from mycelium - mushroom filaments - proposed by Dutch business Grown and Britain’s Magical Mushroom. Organic, insulating, compostable and shock-resistant, mushroom packaging has many advantages and is used by brands such as Haeckels, Ffern and Lush. If this type of innovation is still struggling to fully integrate luxury standards, perhaps luxury can review its standards?

Jan Berbee, CEO of Grown, explains: "We are at the start of the wave, currently maybe better called a ripple. Companies are starting to understand the devastating effects of single-use or plastic packaging. More and more signals are being picked up by the luxury industry that the environmental impact of their packaging needs to be drastically reduced. Those signals come from governments, sometimes simply through legislation, but also many NGOs have started nudging or pushing the industry to start the much-needed change. And probably most importantly: more and more end users simply do not accept useless or less sustainable packaging. The vast amount of unboxing videos with negative comments are a strong evidence. The Plastic Pollution Coalition website[fn][/fn] is just one of many that denounces the 'ugly truth of beautiful packaging'.”

Creating awareness

Mentalities are certainly evolving, but there is inertia in the sector, largely because companies have often made substantial investments, especially in machinery, to implement old-fashioned, i.e. unsustainable, packaging solutions. Jan Berbee feels that the most important and urgent next step is creating awareness. For companies like Grown, the goal is to increase capacity and become more accessible by adding more factories in Europe, which will also lead to cost reduction and further innovation. Of course, the raw and organic look of the product, unbleached and rough, is something the company is still working on to attract new houses and better align with luxury codes. It is also amusing to consider the long-term cohabitation of mushroom and perfume as the reconciliation of two contradictory concepts: one the symbolism of mould, the other of conservation, complementing each other on many levels.

For the shift to green packaging in general, we can therefore hope in the very near future to see the replacement of parts and accessories that are not recyclable, and changes in consumer expectations. Suppliers and major brands are adopting new systems and implementing innovations on an industrial scale. The impetus coming from certain niche companies – because they are freer, do not have the same deep pockets and are therefore necessarily inventive – is also something worth watching: they will undoubtedly help to inspire the entire sector with their radical choices and decisions to renounce certain materials and techniques.

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

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

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

Demand and flow

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

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

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

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

Producing more to earn more

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

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

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

The rhythm of nature

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

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

Bottles up for grabs

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

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

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

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

Fill or recycle?

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

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

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

Sustainable packaging  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read more

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Perfumery and sustainable development: behind the messaging

Scents in circulation: perfume life cycles


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