For perfume lovers accustomed to the world of fragrances, a cherished scent might evoke luxury rather than sustainability.
But at Ffern, a plant-based perfumery that wants to connect the craft of making scents back to its traditional, artisanal roots, eliminating excess and creating a beautiful perfume go hand in hand.
The British brand works according to a made-to-order model, each season blending one eau de parfum — a genderless fragrance — for a limited roster of clients. Gone is the usual cap to cover the spray head. The glass bottle is cushioned in a biodegradable casing made of mycelium, a fungus, and excess agricultural materials, which later can be used to propagate seeds. The whole thing is housed in a recyclable cardboard tube.
“When you’re a huge company, retrofitting sustainability into it is often hard,” said Owen Mears, who founded the brand in 2017. “We were able to create with that in mind.”
Ffern’s efforts are part of a once-fringe conversation in the beauty industry that has become more mainstream in recent years: Can a luxury product like perfume truly be sustainable?
The answer may have a large financial impact. The scent industry is booming, with the global perfume market valued at $30.6 billion in 2021 — and projected to grow to $43.2 billion in 2028, according to a report from the market research firm Fortune Business Insights. So as industry watchers refer to so-called “eco-friendly” and “clean” fragrances as an emerging niche, particularly among Gen Z and millennial consumers who are drawn to nontoxic products good for the environment, producing such scents is likely to be a lucrative move.
“Right now, all the retailers want sustainable fragrances,” said Amy Christiansen, who founded the London-based scent brand Sana Jardin in 2017. “There’s a trend in the industry for products that are more eco-friendly.”
People’s affinity for using fragrances — for everything from adornment to worship — dates back to ancient Egypt and the Greek and Roman eras. But the modern industry began in earnest in the late 19th century with the introduction of synthetic compounds and then the industrialization of the product, with small perfumers being bought by sprawling beauty corporations.
Today, consumers and activists are increasingly calling on the world’s largest fragrance makers to address a range of issues around sustainability — from the sourcing of their ingredients to the management of their facilities — and some brands have taken action. For example, companies such as Giorgio Armani and Lancôme now produce refills for their perfume bottles, and the French fashion house Chloé last year introduced an eau de parfum, named Naturelle, that it said was made from sustainably harvested ingredients. (The amount of fragrance oil in a scent determines where it falls in the five common categories of scent. Perfume has the largest concentration of fragrance oil, usually 30 to 15 percent; eau de parfum has the next largest concentration, usually 20 to 15 percent.)
Yet artisanal perfumeries established with transparency and sustainability as core parts of their ethos say such practices are basic to their business model, even as they are still evolving their own practices to become greener.
Some perfumeries, like Ffern, market themselves as sourcing natural ingredients as locally as possible and selling their products primarily to a smaller customer base. Others, like the British brand Floral Street, champion a balance of natural and synthetic ingredients, or offset their carbon emissions by contributing to conservation projects. And many have developed environmentally sensitive packaging that both protects their fragrances and is recyclable.
“When we first started out, we were trying to convince people to love it even though it’s natural and sustainable,” said Frances Shoemack, the founder of Abel, which introduced its first fragrance in 2013.
Based between the New Zealand capital of Wellington and Amsterdam, the natural fragrance brand sells only seven eau de parfum scents at a time, discloses all its ingredients and gives one percent of the gross revenue made on each scent to nonprofits. Recently, Ms. Shoemack said, the company’s customers, who are primarily 28 to 35 years old, have been asking for information on where to recycle empty glass scent bottles (which, she said, is something Abel is researching in their key markets).
“That age group is so aware of climate change, the environment and wanting to align with brands and products that are trying to make a change,” she said. “They don’t just want a pretty product — they really want to know the detail and information.”
With an abundance of terms for consumers to sift through, sustainability experts say that it is not uncommon for shoppers to be confused by greenwashing, or the promises that some companies put forth in their marketing about their environmental credentials, which later turn out to be deceptive — something the executive branch of the European Union said this year it would address through a package of new initiatives.
Brands that want to present proof of their ethos to consumers can apply for a range of certifications like Leaping Bunny, which focuses on cruelty-free practices, or B Corp, which assesses companies’ social and environmental performance. Both Abel and Sana Jardin said they are currently exploring the process for B Corp certification.
Ultimately, a company’s responsibility comes down to whether the ingredients are being ethically sourced and the packaging is recyclable, said Jayn Sterland, chair of the Sustainable Beauty Coalition at the British Beauty Council, a nonprofit group that represents businesses across the personal care sector. Companies, she said, should have a clear goal beyond simply making profit and reinvesting in the community, and consumers should “really start asking the question: Is it profit or purpose?”
To do everything that a company should do to be more sustainable can be an expensive endeavor, so “price will give you a very good indication” of its efforts, she said.
At Ffern, for example, clients pay 79 pounds in Britain or $129 in the United States four times a year for the seasonal releases of its 32-milliliter bottles of eau de parfum. (Developed by the brand’s “noses,” François Robert and Elodie Durande, the fragrances favor citrus and woody notes, though Ffern’s latest autumn release included notes of black tea, basil and lavender.)
“This is an opportunity to connect people with nature in a really profound way,” said Mr. Mears, who operates the business with his sister, Emily Cameron, along with 18 Britain-based employees.
When Ffern was deciding how to package its scents, it partnered with Magical Mushroom Company to customize biodegradable packaging trays for use with fragrance bottles. On a recent Monday, workers at Magical Mushroom’s factory in Nottinghamshire, England, packed a mycelium mixture into molds, allowed it to solidify and then baked it into a form that was tough enough to cushion Ffern’s glass bottles, but which would biodegrade in about eight weeks.
“Like everything about sustainability — it’s more about process than the attitude,” said Paul Gilligan, the chief executive of Magical Mushroom Company, adding that the company has worked to make its signature mycelium product useful for businesses ranging from a door manufacturer to a luxury watch company.
Sana Jardin, whose 50-milliliter eau de parfum retails for about £95, views sustainability through the degree of social impact within its supply chain. The business works with a cooperative of women in Morocco that harvests flowers for Sana Jardin and then sells byproducts from the essential oil distillation process, like orange blossom water, for its own profit.
“The fact of the matter is, human beings desire these consumer goods and they’re not going away,” said Ms. Christiansen, who now is exploring whether the program can be scaled nationally in Morocco. “The best way to leverage that desire is to create products that help people at the base of the supply chain.”
Sustainability is a balance of art and science, said Michelle Feeney, who started the vegan British brand Floral Street in 2017. “It’s really grass roots innovation with people who love the art of what they do.” The PETA-accredited fragrance brand has gained a cult fan base for its floral eau de parfums, created with the perfumer Jérôme Epinette, and distinctively designed bottles, which are refillable at its London store.
Ms. Feeney, who cites the food industry as inspiration because of its innovation and transparency around ingredients, has said the brand’s perfume cartons are made by the paper manufacturer James Cropper from upcycled coffee cups. Now, she is considering whether she can eliminate plastic entirely from her products.
“The beauty industry in general is talking sustainability, but it’s not really not living it,” she said, referring, as an example, to the plastic pump assembly often used for spray perfumes. Bigger brands should pool their resources to work out alternatives, she said.
But even with the best intentions, many brands say that becoming more sustainable has involved challenges, experimentation — and, at times, failure.
That was the case for Ms. Shoemack at Abel, which began using a biodegradable version of cellophane several years ago because many retailers require beauty products to have some kind of exterior wrapping.
But the quality did not hold, Ms. Shoemack said, producing a lot of returns and prompting the company to stop using the bioplastic. To her surprise, after sharing an update about the situation, followers of the brand wrote that they were grateful for her honesty.
“If we fail, we’re upfront about that. Our heart is in the right place,” she said, adding that one benefit of being a smaller business was, after all, the ability to be nimble. “We really need to use that to our advantage.”
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