Sustainability & the Consumer

2020 . 05 . 15 | written by Karen Marin

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Sustainability is a multi-industry, global topic that has been heating up over the past few years. For the fragrance and cosmetic world, it is a complex equation that includes ingredient cultivation, sourcing, production, packaging, transparent communication and concern over carbon footprint. We hear about conscious consumers who will only shop from brands whose values and ethics mirror their own, but what are the key issues to consider? What are the consumer expectations? How widespread is this tendency and does it really apply to all sectors? Are consumers voting with their wallet against brands that lag behind?

The onus is on brands to make good choices with materials, to go refillable, reusable and to use eco-conscious packaging. Separable pumps and screw necks, which allow reuse, are growing in popularity since refillable fragrances can lessen waste. Glass bottles, pulp cartons, raw paper labels and biodegradable cellophane wrapping are all helping to reduce environmental impact and make strides towards a plastic-free world. Superfluous and luxurious packaging, once an indication of prestige, is not only considered waste but is now a sure route to bad press, where influencers are calling out the offenders for “too much packaging” or even #wastefulpackaging.
Ingredient sourcing is now subjected to scrutiny, especially when it pertains to synthetics vs naturals. Brands are expected to be transparent, and so they must be prepared to explain to the consumer why they chose the ingredients used. Synthetics are favored particularly when natural ingredients are no longer available, no longer in use, or when it is more sustainable, and more efficacious with long-lasting results to use them. In some cases, the production of natural essential oils has a greater cost on the environment than synthetics, meaning they are not a sustainable choice.
However, doing the right thing is a complicated dance. Glass is a renewable resource that can be recycled, but it is heavier to ship. A new product made from lighter materials could come with excess packaging. Synthetics may produce lower carbon dioxide emissions in the production process, but they may not breakdown in the ecosystem. Ethically sourced ingredients may come with a high carbon footprint. These factors make it difficult for brands to adopt practices and methods that are truly eco-friendly with a minimum impact on the planet.

The movement to pursue a socially conscious and fair-trade policy has created interesting collaborations. Brands are discovering ways to support local communities from whom they source, be it vetiver in Haiti, flowers in Morocco or rose petals in Turkey. The partnerships are often with family-based businesses who are open to learning better agricultural practices that allow them to be cleaner. In 2019 Parfumeurs Sans Frontières, a non-profit association, was founded by four renowned French perfumers. Through their projects they seek to teach local people to work sustainably with their natural resources while improving living conditions and allowing them to become independent. Real social and environmental change is afoot.
Further, the demand for transparency in communication adds more complexity. Storytelling is still a key element to market a brand but now it must also include information on the supply chain, such as traceability. Consumers have become more savvy to the beauty industry’s impact on the planet, so brands will need to be more forthcoming in the programs they have put into place to respect the environment. Brands must be honest in their progress – or lack thereof – to give an accurate explanation of how they have embraced sustainability and how their practices will evolve going forward.

Here are a few niche fragrance brands with unique sustainability programs:
Sana Jardin, who touts itself as the first socially conscious luxury fragrance brand, produces clean and sustainable fragrances while providing economic empowerment for its female workforce through a zero-waste program. The model is based on “flower recycling” along with business classes in order to aid the women in the supply chain to become micro-entrepreneurs.
Essential Parfums produces fragrances with natural and sustainable raw ingredients, created by Master Perfumers including Calice Becker, Antoine Maisondieu and Sophie Labbé. The bottle and the packaging have been carefully sourced from suppliers who minimize the environmental impact while being socially responsible.
J.U.S. has a refillable and returnable bottle program and even re-uses vintage bottles as well as molds for some of their fragrances. In an unprecedented move towards full disclosure, the formulas for each fragrance along with inspirational notes from the perfumer are posted on the brand website.

Now let’s focus on the consumer to understand what is affecting purchase decisions. Two distinct shopping attitudes are prevalent: Social Signaling and köpsgkam, a Swedish term meaning “shopping shame”. Social Signaling is a theory that presumes that people buy certain things because of the message it sends to others. For example, years ago, carrying the “it” handbag, was a sign of wealth and status. In contrast, “shopping shame” refers to the feeling that comes from consuming unnecessary products or buying multiples of something. Initially related to the lack of ecological responsibility associated to those who buy excessive amounts of clothing, this Scandinavian term now triggers awareness on environmental impact, and it’s affecting the shopping habits of younger consumers. Witness the rise in vintage clothing shops and resale platforms. Today, buying eco-friendly products signals concern about the environment and a higher consciousness about the state of the planet, which may soothe the guilty pleasure of splurging on oneself.
While plenty of consumers indicate that sustainability and being “clean and green” are important, others admit it is not the essential factor influencing their purchase. Efficacy and price are still the key drivers, especially when it comes to skincare. However, generational patterns emerge as found in a study conducted by Nielsen.
• Of those surveyed, 75% of Millennials would change their shopping habits to reduce the impact on the environment. This group is the most willing to spend more for products that are eco-friendly with sustainable ingredients, and over half would do without a brand by opting for one that is environmentally friendly.
One-third of the participating Baby Boomers would shift spend to reduce environmental impact. Sustainable and natural ingredients interest just over 50% of those surveyed, and the majority would not give up a brand for ecological reasons.
Only 36% of Gen Z shun unsustainable products.

The results are thus inconclusive and may be explained by the biggest obstacle facing the industry: confusion.
There are no global, industry-wide regulations or guidelines to certify a product as “green”, “clean” or other claim. Some retailers have carved out dedicated zones to highlight eco-friendly brands, or they have identified specific ingredients that are banned from their assortments. However, universal labelling is still lacking, although the Eco-Cert and Fair-Trade seals and the Made Safe certifications are a great start. People want to see proof, not unsubstantiated claims and until this dilemma is solved, the consumer will be baffled, even when trying to shop more responsibly.

In addition, as a whole, the industry is still highly competitive which precludes a collaborative approach to some solutions. Why can’t refills become an industry standard, with a universal machine and filling system that all retailers could use? Wouldn’t it be a comprehensive move in the right direction?
In regard to fragrance and beauty brands, the challenge is to bring to market products that are esthetically pleasing, that feel desirable, and that stay true to brand DNA and heritage while respecting the environment. Niche is ideally positioned to pioneer creative solutions and out-of-the-box thinking by exploring new technologies which will result in greener practices. Certainly, these are objectives found at the heart of what being artisanal and creative is all about. In conclusion though, the bottom-line evidence suggests that even as brands are encouraged to shift to a more ethical, sustainable approach to luxury, which will appeal to many consumers, it will not change overall purchasing behavior. However, there is a wildcard, and that is the post COVID-19 consumer behavior which could see priorities shift to simpler values and concern for the environment.


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