Ethical fragrances: ‘We’re in the midst of a reinvention of perfumery,’ says Firmenich

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

The sustainable transformation of perfumery needs smart and collaborative thinking, pushing forward with recreated natural and synthetic ingredients that plugged green needs [Getty Images]
The sustainable transformation of perfumery needs smart and collaborative thinking, pushing forward with recreated natural and synthetic ingredients that plugged green needs [Getty Images]

Related tags firmenich Perfume Fragrance Sustainability green beauty conscious beauty Environment climate crisis Biodiversity sustainable beauty

The fragrance and wider beauty industry must act now amidst an ongoing climate crisis and mass extinction of fauna and flora, working to collect environmental impact data and collaborate for true sustainable change, says the VP of conscious perfumery at Firmenich.

Last month, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its annual Adaptation Gap Report and Emissions Gap Report​ highlighting a radical shift of gears was needed to tackle today’s ongoing climate crisis. The reports said that whilst many countries worldwide were working hard, actions were not keeping pace with real-world risks and impacts on planet and people, largely due to huge funding gaps.

Renowned British environmentalist Sir Jonathon Porritt painted a similar picture of urgency back in October, telling attendees at the 2022 IFSCC Congress in London, UK, the beauty and personal care industry had to establish ‘ethical integrity’ across its entire supply chain​ if it was to respond successfully to converging global crises.

And at last month’s Sustainable Cosmetics Summit, the converging global crises was certainly a central topic for many presentations and panel discussions. Michal Benmayor, VP of conscious perfumery business development at Swiss fragrance and flavour major Firmenich, also kickstarted her presentation outlining areas of concern.

‘There’s an ecological crisis’

“We talk a lot about the climate crisis, but it’s not only the climate crisis that’s affecting us – there’s the ecological crisis. We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, losing 200 species every day,” ​Benmayor told attendees.

There had been unprecedented heat waves across the US, Europe and India in recent years, with wild fires causing extensive losses of fauna and flora, she said. And 2022 had been the driest year on record for Europe, with consecutive droughts in Africa and terrible flooding in Pakistan too, all of which was a result of human actions.

Beyond that, she said the ongoing COVID-19 crisis had “exacerbated social inequalities”​ and the war in Ukraine had added “instabilities​” around food and energy prices, all of which had “delayed sustainable transformation”.

So, what did all this mean for the beauty and, more specifically, fragrance industry?

‘It’s no longer only about the benefit of the product’

Consumers had far higher expectations and products had to fulfil these, Benmayor said. “Consumers are changing their lifestyles to a more sustainable one, reducing meat consumption, changing their ways to reduce carbon footprints, changing vehicles, and furthering their habits on recycling. They are expecting brands and companies to do the same. It’s no longer only about the benefit of the product, but how it impacts people, nature and planet.”

Beauty consumers now wanted to know if ingredients were ethically sourced; if the product and process respected nature; how production and sourcing impacted communities etc., she said.

“Sustainability is now mainstream. There is no longer a question on why or what but: how do we drive it to action? How do we accelerate the sustainable transformation? How do we drive more commitments to real accountability?”

Entering a ‘new dimension’ of perfumery

For perfumery, Benmayor said today’s sustainability demands certainly created “a new dimension”​ for fragrance and perfume companies, sharpening focus on issues like biodegradability, renewable ingredients, responsible sourcing and carbon emission reductions, for example.

“For a chemical industry that’s predominantly using fossil fuel as a key source, it’s requiring and triggering substantial innovation.”

“…We’re in the midst of a reinvention of perfumery. I think at the beginning of this journey, everyone was looking to recreate exactly the same perfumes, in a different way. But the objective is not to recreate the past. Instead of recreating exactly the same notes, how do we bring ourselves the opportunity to create new hedonics and overcome new territories and boundaries?” ​she asked.

Sustainable transformation of perfumery was certainly complex, she said. “For us to be able to drive impact, we need to collect information, using that data and measuring can help us with impact. The first transformation is really understanding the data. The second aspect is innovation – how do we recreate ingredients that will support the decarbonisation of the world? How do we generate ingredients that will help us support circularity? The third element is accountability – how do we make commitments and set the right targets? And have accountability to reach them?”

Importantly, Benmayor said success in these areas relied on a mindset shift towards collaboration. “One country, one company, will not solve the sustainability challenge we face. We’re used to working in a competitive world, especially in the private sector, but coming together as an industry will help us drive forward what’s needed.”

Beyond green and clean

The perfumery sector had already evolved significantly, she said, with the likes of green, natural, organic, clean and free-from concepts all shaping innovations in recent years. But today, the sector was entering the “zone of conscious perfumery”, ​which meant all of these previous focuses remained important, with the addition of sustainability and ethics, she said.

And this transformation, she said, would require perfumers and fragrance manufacturers to “reinvent”​ ingredients. For naturals, she said this meant sharper focus on responsible sourcing, certifications, traceability, and sophisticated extraction methods. For synthetics, she said this meant more investment in green chemistry, biotechnology and renewables.

For Firmenich, much of this transformation centred around data and analysis. Back in 2020, Firmenich outlined its ‘CreateForGood’ five-step design process​ to offer a different approach to traditional fragrance design, placing importance on brand purpose and conscious consumerism. The process leveraged data and used algorithms and AI technology to better develop relevant and more conscious final products. The fragrance player had also been working with an EcoCompass tool since 2018​ to measure the sustainability footprint of its ingredients and final blends.

Speaking to the latter, Benmayor said the company “continuously iterated and optimised” this​ tool, updating data and introducing more KPIs into the system.

“The key message is sustainability is about data. And the question is: how can we each, on one hand collect that data, but also think about sharing some of that data where it’s common and can help all of us? It’s about transformation. How do we really link to the right transformation and change our paradigms to drive the right innovation that will lead us towards decarbonisation and net zero? And in the end, it’s a collective effort. Many of us are in this together.”

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