Well-being, artificial intelligence and environmental responsibility: towards a new era of perfumery

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Loss of smell and nationwide lockdowns have dealt a blow to the perfume industry, but also prompted a much-needed rethink. In order to respond to new societal challenges, Firmenich lays the foundation for a new paradigm in perfumery. Ilaria Resta, President of the World of Perfumery, spoke about these questions on June 30, 2022 during a presentation at the WPC in Miami.

The closure of many businesses, the slowdown in trade and the lack of social interactions began to have an impact on the global decline in sales in the industry. But the epidemic has also led to recognizing the importance of smell as one of the conditions of our well-being. In these complex times, when the world organization is upset, this criterion has become essential when choosing a fragrance: “Today, the main reason people wear perfume on a daily basis is for self-care and comfort. Motivations used to be about excitement, hedonic pleasure, or sensuality., explains Ilaria Resta, World President of Perfumery at Firmenich. After twenty years of experience at Procter & Gamble, after joining the composition company two weeks before the borders were closed, she has driven a rapid development in the sector and faced this critical situation to rethink the model of creation. In a world where perfume consumers are increasingly curious, seeking transparency, rejecting gender stereotypes and adopting a more global approach to well-being, the old image of perfumery had no place.

The dissemination of scientific studies on the sense of smell, especially following the discovery of olfactory disorders caused by Covid-19, but also at the initiative of brands and composition houses, has made it possible to increase knowledge of the neurology of action of smells: “Fragrances have the power to change our mood and evoke emotions through their effects on our brain. And because they control the body, certain scents can improve our well-being by inducing physical relaxation, making us feel less tense, gaining focus, and even elevating our mood. emphasizes Ilaria. This is how a new creative approach has developed: we no longer wear perfume just to smell good, but to feel good. It is the credo of “functional fragrance”, a branch of perfumery that no longer considers only the aesthetic aspect of wearing, but also the emotional impact. In a world where well-being has become a top concern and spending in this area is ever increasing, Firmenich had a card to play: “Our studies have shown that two-thirds of consumers are looking for creations that give them a feeling of freshness and calm them down.”. A way to reconnect with the historical roots of perfumery: let’s remember that it was at the center of religious rituals and medical care, especially in Egyptian antiquity. The trend now extends to all scented products, from cosmetics to fabric softeners, opening new perspectives for creation. “In the case of skin care products, more and more work is being done on sensor technology; and not only because we are moving from a clinical approach to a more holistic notion of skin well-being, but also because the connections between the skin’s olfactory receptors, our nervous system and the health of the epidermis are better understood. We can see healthcare taking an interest in perfumes, or rehabilitation clinics giving them a place in their protocols.” Ilaria continues.

This increased attention to the sense of smell and its importance in our daily lives is also influencing another trend: the revival of the digital experience, from which smell has been excluded until now. But with the rise of the power of what is called that phygital », the screen must now become the vector of immersion in a reality that involves all the senses. Especially since the metaverse is developing, which, according to the American company Gartner, will affect 30% of organizations worldwide by 2026. The sense of smell, which offers a strong grounding in reality, brings crucial potential to the media age and exhibitions previously dominated by the primacy of sight. The nose is now being mobilized in various museums. The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco closed in June “Living with scents », an exhibition on the theme of smells that featured the works of more than forty artists and designers. For his part, Firmenich collaborated with artist and designer Refik Anadol, who presented an immersive digital installation in homage to Gaudí at Barcelona’s Casa Batlló in May.

And if the virtual now offers a place for the olfactory, the profession of perfumer is in turn digitally permeated as artificial intelligence is now an integral part of developments. “Fragrances are complex chemical compositions. All matter – and there are hundreds of them in a single creation – has different physical and chemical properties. Artificial intelligence is used to enhance certain performances of a fragrance or to introduce perfumes that can provide emotional benefits. It is already one of the key components of our innovation.”, synthesizes Ilaria. Various tools are therefore summarized under this term of artificial intelligence, which make it possible to take into account the increasingly important parameters for the creation. In particular, think of the constantly evolving regulations surrounding raw materials and their dosing. But Firmenich also developed its EcoScent Compass, which brings together complex criteria for measuring the environmental impact of products.

Because consumer demand for sourcing transparency and greener products is part of this new impetus that is transforming the industry. Perfumery is said to produce 92 million tons of waste a year and the climate emergency has become a necessity. In order to achieve its ambitious program of ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets to be achieved by 2030, Firmenich has decided to reconsider the range of perfumers and focus on CO2 extractions.2, more environmentally friendly than other extraction techniques, but also on upcycled ingredients and biotechnologies: “We still have a lot of work to do to offer perfumers more creative options that respect high standards of environmental responsibility. The ingredient palette is fundamental to this and I’m sure science will be our driving force. We are on the cusp of another major transformation on the same scale as the introduction of plastics [à la fin du XIXe siècle]. Biotechnology is the next big step. It enables us to produce ingredients from renewable resources that also have functional benefits.” An exemplary case, the company’s Dreamwood with sandalwood facets, is 100% renewable, has a low carbon footprint, but is also antibacterial and has interesting properties for the skin. One way to challenge the somewhat oversimplified statements about the natural, according to Ilaria: “Consumers are beginning to realize that natural claims can be misleading and understand that natural is not always more sustainable and requires a more objective, science-based approach “.

A key challenge for the Swiss company’s world president of perfumery, who guides her vision of a “positive perfumery”, both for creativity, for the planet and for the consumer. And that certainly explains the current 30% sales growth in fine fragrances, higher than before the pandemic. Reshuffling the cards to usher in a new era in perfumery reveals a range of possibilities with promising potential for years to come.

Jessica Mignot

A freelance writer with a degree in Philosophy, she is interested in the aesthetics of perfume and cuisine, ethics and epistemology.

See all his articles

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