Why is it that so few fragrance companies are truly cruelty-free? Jo Malone, Viktor & Rolf, Chanel and nearly all of the major fragrance houses sell perfumes tested on animals, meaning that the quest for a signature cruelty-free scent can often run dry.
One brand throwing their name into the mix is Art de Parfum, a London-based perfumery founded by Lithuanian-born Ruta Degutyte. The brand has a chic French aesthetic, making luxury perfumes that have ethics at their very core: not only are all the scents vegan and cruelty-free, they are GMO free and packaged in recyclable materials.
To find out more about Art de Parfum, I spoke to Ruta about her inspirations, her values and why more fragrance brands aren’t following in her footsteps.
What sparked your love affair with fragrance?
Nature was my first great inspiration. I grew up in Lithuania and folk medicine using flowers and herbs plays a huge role in our culture. As a child I would go to central market in Vilnius and I remember the piles of yarrow, comfrey and periwinkles on traders’ tables – everything had a purpose.
I was always interested in how things smelled. My first experiments involved soaking rose petals in water when I was eight, a basic attempt at enfleurage. Needless to say, my first experiments didn’t smell good at all.
My mother’s dressing table was my inspiration and my altar. I remember the sheer awe with which I would uncap those tiny bottles of extrait and sniff the stopper. It was that, more than anything, that taught me that perfume is a gift, capable of evoking emotions.
What inspired you to start your brand?
I saw a gap in the market for perfumes that communicated powerful emotions, but in a clean, uncluttered way. There is too much Baroque posturing in perfume these days. The message of these perfumes gets lost in all the noise. I thought that there would be men and women out there who would welcome a line of perfumes that put across a feeling with elegant minimalism, and I was right.
The people who buy my fragrances often choose them as their signature fragrance rather than as an addition to an already crowded collection. My perfumes speak to people on a deeply personal level. The emphatic choice of one over many says a lot.
My bottles, the marketing, the language used to describe the scents – it’s all pared back as much as possible to allow the perfume to speak for itself.
You’ve lived all over the world – has that inspired Art de Parfum?
Most definitely. The relaxed, beachy lifestyles of the South of France and the South Pacific really draw out my sensuality and sense of fun – qualities that might be more hidden in places like London.
Living in London has taught me about the attractions of unfussy design. There’s a minimalism to my packaging and bottles that I think is quite British. I’d define the brand’s aesthetic as halfway between English restraint and Japanese minimalism.
For me, it always goes back to France, where I went to look for a perfumer and raw materials. The lifestyle that I loved the most was in the South of France, on the Riviera. People there are far more hedonistic and relaxed in their own sensuality. When I’m there, it’s easy to imagine Zelda Fitzgerald strolling down the beach for a pre-prandial whiskey or three. I love the escapism!
What’s the one thing French girls know about fragrance that the rest of the world need to know?
I don’t think that French girls are that much different from the rest of us when it comes to fragrance, actually. Like us, they tend to be monogamous when they find a scent they love.
If there is one thing that’s slightly different, it’s this: French girls regard perfume as an essential part of the grooming process. For them, scent is as crucial a decision as hairstyle, make-up, or clothes. They are unembarrassed about perfume and like to discuss it with their friends. Other cultures tend to be a bit reserved about admitting their interest in fragrance because they think it makes them seem superficial. French girls don’t care about that.
Have you always had such a strong ethical standpoint?
Ethics is a part of who I am, so when I started my own company there was no question that ethics would lie at the heart of the brand. For me to go about it any other way would have gone against the grain of who I am. It’s that simple.
The first thing I did when I established Art de Parfum was to draft a Code of Ethics that still stands as core company policy today. The general principles outlined in our Code of Ethics are:
All fragrances are 100% cruelty-free
We do not use natural musk, castoreum, civet, honey, or even ambergris.
All raw materials and packaging are environmentally safe
The packaging and bottling is often the most expensive part of the process for a small company like mine. Most bottle plants have a minimum order of 20,000 units, never mind the cost of finding recyclable materials. Still, I knew that I had to put my money where my mouth is.
The cap on our perfume bottles is made from sustainably-planted wood, and the bottle is 100% recyclable glass. Everything comes with certificates of origin for green and bio-hazard-free production. The box is made of a natural, linen-covered cardboard material that biodegrades fully.
The company does not use GMO-related products or raw materials
I don’t want Art de Parfum to support, however indirectly, efforts to control the natural reproductive systems of plants and flowers.
All fragrances are free of nano-particles
Art de Parfum will continue to keep their products nano-particle-free until scientists prove conclusively that they do not cause any damage to humans, plant life, or water sources.
The company will use only raw materials that do not harm the economic interests or physical safety of indigenous hunters and farmers in third world countries.
Art de Parfum does not use raw materials that may endanger the livelihood or physical safety of farmers in third world countries. Instead of oud wood, which is now endangered and the process of harvesting resinated wood in the deep jungle is hazardous for local hunters, I chose to use cypriol oil to approximate the scent.
Why do you think so few perfume brands are cruelty-free and inconsiderate of their environmental impact?
Because being ethical is expensive! It requires a serious investment of time and money to ensure that every part of the company’s operations in line with the code of ethics.
For example, you can’t say you are ethical and then use packaging that contains more plastic than a toy store. Ensuring that the raw materials are not tested on animals also means that you have to have eyes on every part of the supply chain. For many small businesses, that’s near to impossible. I am lucky in that I work with a small team of suppliers, and my perfumer knows to check everything that comes into the lab.
What animal ingredients should we watch out for in other perfumes?
In general, there are no concerns about ingredients coming from animal origin if synthetic molecules are used, because these are synthesised in a lab. For example, instead of using natural ambergris in Sea Foam, we use Ambroxan, a synthetic molecule synthesised from clary sage, a herb.
For natural raw materials, avoid perfumes that use natural castoreum, deer musk, or civet. Natural ambergris, hyraceum, and honey do not involve animal cruelty because of their manner of harvesting, but they are of animal origin. So few companies use these animal substances in their natural form, so it shouldn’t worry consumers.
Do you think more fragrance brands will follow in your ethical footsteps?
In my experience, ethics flow from the top down. If the CEO is ethically-minded, then it stands to reason that ethics will be at the heart of everything they do.
I chose an ethical route for my company but I recognise that not everybody feels the same. One thing I will say is that it’s always better to educate people about ethics and allow them to come to their own personal awakening than to force it down their throats with aggressive legislation. Small business owners struggle to stay afloat, and excessive intervention by any official body, be it a regulatory body or a decree, is always met with resentment.
Instead of making ethics a burden, they should be rewarded or incentivised in some way. Of course, the best incentive is when your customers continue to buy from you because they trust you as a source of ethical products.