Gill Smith, The Perfume Shop

Seeds of Change interview: The Perfume Shop MD on building greener thinking within a retailer

A new series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives, and much more.

The Perfume Shop managing director, Gill Smith, sees the eco-related change in business happening on a daily basis – and it has accelerated since the pandemic.

“I’ve seen some of the most hardened traders who have been with the business for years change their ways – you’d never think they’d be talking about sustainability-first over ‘how much can we flog?” she explains.

“But it’s part of their job now, not an add-on.”

Smith is talking about how to engage the wider workforce to operate in a greener way, and she suggests employees of The Perfume Shop are now naturally thinking about how theirs and the business’s actions can become more sustainable as part of their everyday work.

“The whole Covid situation has made so many people reassess their priorities, and it has changed what brands engage with,” she notes.

“I presented our strategy to the [parent company] AS Watson board in July, saying sustainability was underpinning lots of whatg we do. But we’ve moved it up the agenda. It’s now one of the pillars of the business – it’s so important; our customers are demanding it, our suppliers are working on it, and our staff want to know what we think about it.”

Greener thinking in the workforce

This year, for the first time, The Perfume Shop made changes to its bonus scheme as a way of aligning company behaviour towards sustainability.

“Every person in the business bonus scheme has an assessed personal contribution element which is about what they do to support sustainability,” explains Smith, who says the move has engaged everyone on the green agenda.

“Whether you’re in the product team, in sourcing, or in the finance department, you have a role to play. It could be in reducing paper, saving energy, finding new wrapping – everyone has an opportunity to support it.”

She adds: “We said if we really want change, we need people behind us.”

There is a sustainability committee in place at The Perfume Shop, which brings different parts of the business together to talk greener retailing and greener working practices. Smith chairs it every month, taking responsibility as the quasi-chief sustainability officer, and she says initiatives like this have “changed how everyone thinks and operates”.

“It’s every little thing you can do to help as a retailer.”

Parent company AS Watson also has an environmental committee, with one representative from The Perfume Shop involved to help bring tips and guidance from the wider group which also includes Superdrug and Savers. There is also a sustainability manager that looks after all three fascia, but Smith argues “it won’t be long” before The Perfume Shop alone is looking to appoint a chief sustainability officer or equivalent job title.

Recycling, packaging, and circular actions

The managing director says she fears The Perfume Shop has not shouted loudly enough about its greener retailing work. But that is about to change, thanks to new signposting in stores and new messaging. [and interviews such as this, perhaps – ed].

For the last five years, the retailer has collected and recycled old perfume bottles in store.

Green Retail World has covered the recent extension to that scheme, which also has a reforestation element to it as every bottle returned by a customer results in a tree being planted and money off the next purchase, but Smith says it is only recently that there has been significant customer demand for such services.

“People weren’t ready for it, but now it’s more prominent, it’s being talked about, and it’s become very visible,” she remarks.

“We have changed our view – we’ve got to make it visible. What’s the point of doing it if we’re not shouting about it more? That’s one of the ways the business has changed.”

Many of the returned bottles are being used in store refits, with each new store fitting including a chandelier made from the would-be waste glass. All stores will eventually have a recycling unit built into the counters as opposed to being an add-on, Smith adds.

Likewise, refillable perfumes will be more prominent thanks to new fixtures starting to appear in The Perfume Shop stores. Smith says this circular thinking has existed in the fragrance world for years, with Mugler pioneering this over 20 years ago, but not enough has been done to market it to consumers.

“The challenge is customers don’t see it, don’t know it, and don’t understand it, so we’re creating a new fixture in store that will highlight the refillables – making it visible.”

Information about how much glass, carbon, and money is saved by using refillables will be included in these fixtures. “It’s the next stage in the evolution of our store design – visualisation and standalone units to highlight refillables.”

Smith acknowledges there is still so much work required to educate customers about this space. Despite demand for more sustainable items and less packaging, she argues, customers often show concern about the quality or newness of products that come without wrapping, for example.

Elsewhere with packaging, The Perfume Shop has found a cellophane equivalent for its bundled goods deal, which is popular as a gift purchase for events such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. These products are now wrapped in a wood pulp-based material that Smith says is fully biodegradable and compostable.

“It costs more but we want to take more plastic out of stores – it’s UK-sourced as well,” she adds.

Next year, The Perfume Shop will introduce a packaging machine to its warehouse which builds the e-commerce delivery box around the size of the bottle. By implementing this system, the retailer expects to reduce cardboard and infill, and the overall size of the package.

The right ingredients

A quick Google search of the words “perfume/fragrance” and “environment” in unison brings up various examples of why it would be farfetched to ever describe the cosmetics and fragrance industry as green.

Overall, scents come with a high carbon footprint as they are generally petro-chemical based, made in an energy-intensive manner, and produce waste emissions. A team of scientists from the University of Colorado and University of California Berkeley produced a report in 2018 saying perfumes, cleaning products, and paints are playing a growing role in air pollution, especially as cars become greener.

But, clearly everything in commerce leaves a footprint and Green Retail World is focused on highlighting how retailers can do things better. And there are plenty of examples of how The Perfume Shop is doing that, in addition to the examples Smith has already described.

“We do an ethical audit [of the brands we sell], and review their ethical policies on how they are growing,” she adds, suggesting the business will encourage and focus on brands using new tech and systems to make their perfumes in the most appropriate ways.

In 2020, the European Union (EU) identified that a common perfume ingredient lilial as a “carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic” substance and, as of March 2022, it has been banned across the EU. Smith said The Perfume Shop acted quickly to ensure any stock with that ingredient was removed from inventory.

“We made sure we took a stand really early to work with suppliers to know how and when they were fazing it out, and how they were taking back product in which it was contained,” she explains.

“The ban was delayed in the UK but we said ‘let’s get it out as we ship to southern Ireland’. We made sure we cleaned up our supply chain and it was quite a lot of work pulling it from stores, working with suppliers over an 18-month period to make sure we could genuinely say that ingredient wasn’t around at all.”

Such a strong stance is the mark of a company focused on doing the right thing.

The overconsumption conundrum

Every retailer featuring in this interview series is asked about retail’s role in overconsumption, a known significant contributor to carbon emissions. Every retailer exists to sell goods and make money, so how is The Perfume Shop squaring that circle as it talks up its sustainability credentials?

“We are in the business of fragrance which can be seen as not the greenest,” Smith acknowledges.

“But actually it’s every little thing you can do to help as a retailer.”

She adds: “It goes back to needing to play our part across the whole supply chain. Customers will always buy fragrance and my ambition is that they come to us for the sustainable option.”

Smith argues that the company’s stores are getting greener – from energy and manufacture, to the door mats used. And from a supply chain perspective, there’s also that focus on how to make boxes smaller and operations more efficient.

Green partners

Veolia is the waste management company The Perfume Shop uses for recycling bottles that are not put back into shop-fits and store decoration, but Smith argues the main partners the retailer relies on for moving in a greener direction are the perfume manufacturers and brands themselves.

“L’Oreal is at the forefront of sustainability across all the products,” she argues.

“It could do things a lot faster but I always look to the company and it tends to be the first to bring something [sustainability-related] to us.”

Smith admits calling out L’Oreal might annoy other brands and perfume makers stocked by The Perfume Shop, but “if it encourages others to do more then that’s fine”.

The managing director is adamant retailers have a key role to play in influencing wider societal change. Rather than being part of the problem, retailers can be crucial in moving consumer behaviour in a different direction.

Whether that is helping them reduce the waste they end up sending to landfill, encouraging reuse of packaging, or highlighting the companies that are having less of a negative impact on the environment than others, there are plenty of ways retail can point the way to greener consumption.

“I am hopeful,” says Smith, who has now been at The Perfume Shop helm for eight years.

“I’m part of the British Retail Consortium and the environment is an agenda item there – the trade body has a whole week dedicated to showcasing what we’ve all been doing. It’s definitely gone up the agenda.”

She adds “As business leaders in retail, we’re talking about it and we’re more open about our work. If we don’t think about sustainability, customers will shop elsewhere. It might cost you more money but it’s the right thing to do.”

People will always buy things, and Smith’s ambition is that The Perfume Shop is viewed as the most sustainable choice when it comes to purchasing fragrance. Her workforce is engaged in reaching that goal and greener initiatives have been launched, but she recognises there is always more to do.

“On sustainability, our objective is we want to be the customer solution for sustainability in fragrance,” she adds, noting that is the bottom line all initiatives are built from.

“We will be their solution – whatever they are looking for. It’s a strong statement and it means we challenge ourselves all the time.”

At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Gill Smith, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.

[Image credit: The Perfume Shop]

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