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Can eco-responsibility and luxury cohabit when it comes to bottling and packaging fragrances?
The liquid evaporates, but the bottle remains while the packaging piles up. And the conventional codes of fragrance packaging — immaculate whiteness, perfect paper grain, crystal-clear glass and a heft associated with noble materials — do not seem compatible with sustainable solutions. Nonetheless, techniques are improving, attitudes are shifting, and some natural-focused brands are opting for alternatives.
What answers exist today that can reconcile the urgent need for change with luxury brands’ requirements?
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.
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.
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 websitehttps://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/the-cosmetics-industrys-plastic-packaging-problem is just one of many that denounces the ‘ugly truth of beautiful packaging’.”
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.
- Is sustainable perfumery possible?, by Jeanne Doré
- Natural raw materials: plants, essences and people, by Jessica Mignot
- Towards a more virtuous synthesis?, by Anne-Sophie Hojlo
- Responsible formulation: different tools, one ideal, by Sarah Bouasse
- Inside the lab: rationalising, not rationing!, by Aurélie Dematons
- When packaging goes green, by Delphine de Swardt
- Scents in circulation: perfume life cycles, by Clément Paradis