Amid mounting concerns about climate change, the world of perfumery is innovating planet-friendly alternatives. Nafeesa Saini decodes what it means to make sustainable scents today.
The beauty industry has an ugly side and it’s called pollution. Microplastics from packaging and formulations pollute oceans and harm wildlife; palm oil plantations drive deforestation, decimating habitats and endangering species; sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone bleach coral reefs, risking marine life and food security.
Less is discussed about perfumery’s environmental impact, but this niche industry is not faultless. Similar pollutive packaging and unethical supply chains aside, it contributes to ozone pollution as fragrances contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Now that the industry’s environmental awakening is accelerated by the pandemic’s devastating effects, consumer demand for eco-friendly beauty is surging. Cosmetic brands and large conglomerates are responding by pledging new green frameworks.
The next big thing now is fragrance, but what makes a sustainable scent? Following the key principles of renewable resources, environmental protection, fair trade ethics and social welfare, we explore the new innovations fuelling the eco-conscious perfume movement.
The next frontier
“Carbon-neutral” is one of the newest buzzwords loved by beauty brands. To be a carbon-neutral brand, it must offset, by other means, the same amount of carbon dioxide that it emits into the atmosphere during its production and operations.
This year, Firmenich, a Swiss producer of fragrances and flavour ingredients, committed to carbon neutrality by 2025 and carbon positivity by 2030. The latter generally refers to going beyond net zero carbon emissions and reducing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. It also announced that by 2030, all of its fragrances would be renewable and it would use 99 per cent partially or ultimately biodegradable ingredients.
Coty also announced a partnership with cleantech start-up LanzaTech to introduce sustainable ethanol into its perfumes through carbon recycling. Ethanol is a core ingredient in fragrances as it efficiently disperses the scent.
LanzaTech captures industrial emissions and turns the waste gases into a more sustainable source of ethanol. Coty’s scientists worked with the start-up and production partners to develop a fragrance-grade high-purity sustainable ethanol from carbon capture. This uses near-zero water consumption and reduces the need for agricultural land.
“Ethanol is the number one ingredient purchased for the fragrance category. Over time, this partnership will reduce the environmental impact of our products. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it makes commercial sense too,” says Coty CEO Sue Y Nabi.
Consumers are also demanding more natural formulas with a smaller carbon footprint, and are increasingly avoiding harmful mystery chemicals that can trigger skin allergies. However, not all synthetic ingredients are bad. Harvesting natural ingredients puts more strain on a resource-limited world. Natural ingredients can also include animal- derived ingredients from civet musks and whales. The good news is, synthetic and cruelty-free alternatives are now widely preferred.
Today, there are more perfumes with natural formulations than ever. Acqua di Parma’s Colonia Futura uses a composition made up of 99 per cent natural-origin ingredients. Hermetica has completely replaced alcohol in its formulations with Innoscent, a hybrid compound that combines natural and nature-derived molecules to reveal the heart of the perfume more efficiently while moisturising skin.
Upcycled fragrances, which feature perfume notes that are sourced from discarded materials to reduce overfarming, have also joined the fray. The first to introduce the concept was Etat Libre d’Orange’s I Am Trash. Its name is a literal embodiment of its composition.
The formula uses repurposed ingredients such as apple oil derived from the juice industry’s unwanted apples, and twice-distilled extracts from discarded rose petals and cedar wood chips. Other fragrances include Issey Miyake’s A Drop D’Issey, which showcases extract of vanilla, achieved using renewable carbon from plastic recycling; and Ferragamo’s new silk perfume anthology, Storie di Seta. Created in collaboration with flavour and fragrance producer Symrise, it uses the Lilybelle, a Symrise-exclusive molecule derived from orange peel, a waste product of the juice industry.
Today’s consumers also demand transparency of the brand’s social footprint. Perfumery has a long and complex supply chain, with many different producers involved.
Popular sustainable perfume brand Clean Reserve highlights its partnerships with organisations that give back to farming communities: “At a minimum, they provide fair-trade prices, while some offer renewable farming education, funding for schools and medical dispensaries or protection for the farmers’ agricultural lands.”
It also cites where all of its ingredients are sourced and how these purchases help local communities. For instance, vetiver is derived from poverty-stricken Haiti, where its partnering fragrance house built a primary school and provided safe drinking water.
In June, Dior launched its “Beauty as Legacy” campaign, detailing its sustainability initiatives consistent with its high-quality supply chain grounded in exceptional terroir. A large part of that is the fostering of close links between the brand’s gardens and fields with local populations through long-term partnerships with producers and communities.
In Grasse in the south of France, its 15ha of flower plantations employ 13 people year-round and up to 50 seasonal flower pickers, boosting the local economy. In Madagascar, longoza seeds are harvested for Dior Parfums by several villages in the high-plateaux region, and this initiative has also financed a healthcare centre and nutrition programmes in schools.
By 2024, all the Dior gardens will be Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT)-certified, a strict label that will reinforce the house’s commitment to responsible sourcing.
Today, perfume packaging of a recyclable cardboard box or glass bottle is standard practice. Colonia Futura surpasses this with completely recyclable packaging, including a recycled and recyclable plastic version of the perfume cap and label crafted from scrap dust collected from marble quarries. Clean Reserve’s perfumes are wholly sustainable, from its wood cap to its corn-derived cellophane wrapper.
In 1992, Mugler pioneered the refillable perfume concept, and has introduced more initiatives to expand its sustainability approach. The recyclable Mugler Fountain offers a more circular take: All of the perfume’s parts can be removed and replaced in-store, so customers only pay for the formula. Rather than producing an entirely new perfume, this initiative emphasises durability and reuse. The house cites staggering resulting statistics of 1.5 million bottles and 380 fewer tonnes of glass saved every year.
With sustainability moving from a trend to a prerequisite, greenwashing occurs. This is a practice where brands make false claims to mislead consumers into believing they are eco-friendly.
Labels can be deceptive. Look beyond vague descriptors like “natural” or “eco-friendly” and research the brand’s formulations and sourcing methods. Packaging – such as wood-like caps and earth-tone colours – may also be purely used for aesthetic purposes.
With a wealth of information available now, it helps to thoroughly investigate a product and check for certifications by legitimate organisations. Finding a completely sustainable scent may be difficult, so prioritise what’s important. For some, it may be a refillable bottle, or packaging that uses compostable plastic. For others, a cruelty-free or natural formulation is paramount.
As we are on the cusp of an environmental revolution, it requires an upheaval of existing practices and even mindsets. It is everyone’s responsibility to contribute towards fighting the climate crisis and, for us, that means education and voting with our wallets.
(Main and featured image: Pol Baril for Parfums Christian Dior)
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.