Sustainability, the new luxury.
Sustainability is at the heart of our business model and I’ve had more and more questions recently about the sustainability of our packaging. We strive for full transparency at all levels of our company, so I wanted to take the time to illustrate the thought process that goes on when we are developing our packaging. This is the start of a four part series on our packaging, beginning with a piece on the design process for our new perfume.
We have been working on a new perfume for the last 18 months. Every ingredient of this perfume has been chosen and considered with care. 100% from natural ingredients and using a high proportion of organics, the liquid perfume itself is the costly star, containing precious, expensive and exclusively natural essences and extracts. For me, it is the culmination of 20 years working with perfumes and natural raw ingredients. My promise to myself was that I would not compromise on any detail of this new perfume and no expense would be spared. So for the packaging, we’re going to offer both a bag and a box. So much thought has gone into even that small decision. The aim here is to give people choice as to how much packaging they feel they need with their perfume. They can have it in the bag, in the box, with both, or with neither if they want. I decided to offer a bag because when the perfumes were bigger we had a lot of people asking for handbag sizes. So this perfume is going to be small enough to put in your handbag (a dainty 50ml) and the bag is to protect it when you’re carrying it around.
I’m using linen for the bag because it’s one the most sustainable fabrics. The production of linen uses the entire plant, and requires much less water than cotton. It is also biodegradable, doesn’t contain microfibres and is traditionally produced in Europe. Seems like a great decision, right? It certainly is, but that didn’t stop a million doubts coming to me even after I had decided. Not only ‘linen has to be organic’ but also ‘where are we going to get that?’ (we have now sourced our linen from Belgium), ‘do people need a bag?’, ‘is it just a nice thing?’, ‘are people going to use it?’. But in the end, I think the bag is a good idea as an alternative to a box because it can be used again and again, not just for carrying around the perfume necessarily, and if you make it nice people will keep it. So we’re going to offer it with no box, because if I bought something I would like it without the box. But then if it’s a gift, it’s nice then to have a presentation box.
There’s one of the challenges – the kind of challenges that we’re dealing with. So the best thing is obviously no packaging, but people still want it to look nice.
Then again with the box there are lots of choices. All the boxes you see that perfumes usually come in are made in China, which is very inexpensive but has poor environmental controls. Companies try and make it look as expensive and luxurious as possible by putting things in unnecessarily large, complex boxes that are three times the size of the bottles itself, but which are actually made very cheaply with little regard for environmental manufacturing costs. People don’t know what to do with them, so they just throw them away. We’ve all got too much stuff really. I feel that we’ve got to become a lot more mindful. It’s really hard. So what we’re trying to do is look at it differently, how can we design a product that is beautiful and meets everyone’s needs, while making it as sustainable as possible?
It’s especially difficult because what we’re trying to do is not the norm in the perfume industry. For the box, we call it the carton, we are using an art quality paper from Fedrigoni which is certified FSC, made from 20% recycled materials and acid free. We use this for all our perfume boxes, and it is much much more expensive, but that price is a reflection the quality of the paper and the fact that it is sustainably made. Fedrigoni are a very environmentally responsible company. They have now partnered with the World Land Trust to create Carbon Balanced Paper, so we will soon be getting a certification that our paper is Carbon Balanced. We work with a really good printers, KPS Colour Print, who looked into the source of our inks for me and confirmed that they are all vegetable inks and that all the papers we use are now FSC certified (which we pay more for). We get everything printed with KPS in Mayo (except things like the gift bags and bespoke tissue paper which are printed in Italy). They were shocked by how expensive the paper we use is. They’re very careful of not wasting a single centimetre of it when they’re printing and we appreciate this care. We are always pushing the parameters of even such high-end professional printers. We’re always asking them to go bit further, asking questions about the inks, the paper, we use better quality paper, things like that. They’re good, and we make sure to work with people like that. It’s basically taking apart, dissecting all the elements and ensuring that everything has been thought about and is the best solution possible. We take risks, use new materials and sometimes things don’t work out but that’s okay. That’s really what it comes down to, is doing the background work. Pushing our suppliers to tell us where things come from, to ask their suppliers. As I would want a company to do if I was buying from them. But it all takes time, and it takes energy.
After all of that you have to then think about the bottle itself. The bottle will be glass, like many of our products. Glass is good because it is 100% recyclable and can be endlessly recycled without degrading in quality, unlike most things. Our supplier, a very traditional company in France, is developing an even more eco-friendly perfume bottle. The bottle with use less glass and will be refillable via a twist opening. So that is promising and our next unisex perfume will use these new eco refillable bottles. The cap is going to be aluminium, because there is a very good market for recycled aluminium. We did think about wooden caps but the problem/catch is that they actually can’t be recycled or composted because they’re treated and they have a little bit of plastic in the middle. Our caps will also have a small plastic insert in them otherwise they wouldn’t work, but we are pushing our supplier to develop a 100% recyclable solution. We could suggest to regular customers that they could reuse their existing cap.
The bottle then has to be protected in the perfume box by the an insert. The fine fluted card inserts protects the perfume from rattling around inside the box and breaking. These have to be sourced from somewhere else as well. Luckily we get 100% recycled cardboard inserts from DS Smith who use FSC certified cardboard and won the 2018 award for ‘Recycling Business of the Year’.
Working on all the details that need to be considered during the journey of creating this perfume brought me to think a lot about the concept of luxury. What is luxury? How do you define luxury? Is luxury an outsized ‘made in China’ box which is thrown into the bin straight after opening? Is luxury a paying a high price for expensive marketing and packaging, which hide cheap ingredients that carry a trail of environmental damage and pollution with them? That is not my definition of luxury and I think that we need to rethink. For me, luxury is being able to make informed choices. To chose to be mindful every step of the way and to be able to offer very precious, natural extracts and oils, which have taken much effort and expense to produce from flowers and plants and barks and woods without environmental impact. To be able to choose handmade papers from mills that care about their environmental impact and their workforce, to simplify the packaging down to the essential, to try to tread lightly and carefully. Not to compromise on real quality or to take the easy route for the sake of cost. I suppose I would define it as value contained in quiet quality rather than loud ‘luxury’.
The challenge is that in businesses, this all takes time, and usually money as well, and in most businesses it’s just easier to go ‘oh it’s fine.’ it’s very like politics in that sense. If there’s no fuss about it, then it’s fine. It takes time and money and energy to be ethical and ahead of the game.
That is why it takes two years to launch a new organic perfume! Slow beauty..
The Burren Perfumery September 2019