L’OCCITANE Group’s Sustainability Director’s strategies to tackle the most urgent beauty industry topics

Raphaëlle Archambeaud shares insights on how to make refill solutions successful, the need to focus even more on transparency and biodiversity, the two not enough well-known sustainability topics in beauty — and how the B Corp certification has made many things so much easier in her daily operations.
December 06, 2023

L’OCCITANE Group includes eight leading beauty brands, including Elemis, Grown Alchemist, Sol De Janeiro, and L’OCCITANE en Provence. In her daily operations, Archambeaud oversees the overall ambitions of the brands and business units.

— On a typical day, I have many meetings — with the R&D teams, our Nordic or European teams, or the logistic teams, on how to think about infusing and making sustainability a key criteria in decision-making, she explains.

How has your sustainability work changed in the last few years?

— One thing that really helps is the B Corp certification. When I took this position, five years ago, we had amazing initiatives and the brand was leading on some key topics. However, I had difficulties evaluating the performance of our whole company on the same criteria, to make sure that Nordics is progressing in the same way as Asia, or the same as our factory or logistics. B Corp is helping us in many different areas and on the same framework for everyone — it first helped us to evaluate our performance and then to progress everywhere to get the certification. And then also to keep progressing, because you need to recertify every three years.

— We always work with many other people and companies, including competitors. We have the size and need collective action — we cannot do everything on our own. We are also working on biodiversity, with OP2B (One Planet Business for Biodiversity) — a coalition with other companies that are not only in cosmetics, such as Danone. 

Sustainability is so big that it’s a bit hard to grasp. As a group, what is your main focus now?

— We always prioritise what has the biggest impact. In the cosmetic industry, of course, one big impact we have is on plastic waste and packaging. It’s well-known but still a big, big focus. Here, L’OCCITANE en Provence is quite advanced in terms of practices, because this was integrated as a topic a long time ago, and so was the use of recycled plastic and refills. The latest big move was when the brand reworked the Hand Cream 30ml tube. It was not recyclable before so it took three years(!) with the supplier to make it recyclable, and it will be launched in January. 

— For refills, L’OCCITANE en Provence has had it for 10 to 15 years for its products. We’ve always tried to push them, the refill solutions, in stores. It’s now that we can see an impact on consumer behaviour and that the sales are increasing. It took maybe 10 years. And this topic, the plastic circular economy, is a big one for us. By keeping on investing in it and being consistent over time, consumers will change their habits. It’s also about finding ways to keep the brand spirit and brand identity but with a very low impact. The Hand Cream tube is one example — and that’s why they took so much time to work on it.

According to Archambeaud, there are also two other major topics that are yet not that well known by the end consumer — yet critical for the cosmetic industry.

— One is the sourcing of plants and raw materials and the link with farming. We have about 1,500 raw materials that we are buying to put in our formulas. Behind each of those raw materials, you can have one plant, two plants, and sometimes three or four plants. Depending on the way those plants are cultivated, it can have either a very negative impact on biodiversity, climate, and people, or it can have a positive one. 

— On the negative side, we talk about how chemicals, pesticides, deforestation, and mono-crops all have a negative impact on climate, biodiversity, and people. On the other side, if you use regenerative agriculture or farming practices — meaning that you cover the soil, have trees planted again on the field, and don’t have any chemicals — it’s actually very positive to regenerate biodiversity and to capture and sequestrate CO2 in the soil. This is a critical topic for the cosmetic industry because it means that depending on the way the plants at the end of the supply chain are cultivated, it can be both negative and positive.

— At L’OCCITANE en Provence, for a significant part of the raw materials, they have direct access to the producers and the local farmers of almond, lavender, and immortel. So, they are working directly to improve the farming practices. For example, what they did super well was to start the transition to Fairtrade and agroecology practices for all plants, even those that are cultivated in France, to have a Fairtrade certification. Also for the French farmers, this certification will have a positive impact on people and the environment. 

— But in the cosmetic industry, you also have raw materials where you don’t have access to the end farmer and producer. What is really critical then, is to work on traceability and make sure that you know where every plant is cultivated in the world so you can make sure you promote positive practices.

Raphaëlle Archambeaud.

L’OCCITANE en Provence also has a team of five agronomists in the organisation who work only on this topic. This includes doing around 200 field visits every year, to producers, to see their challenges, and the impact of climate change on the yield.

— We are also working a lot in coalition with other companies to make sure that this topic progresses fast, says Archambeaud.

— The other topic is more on the use phase, by the consumer. Something that I feel people don’t know yet is the impact of a shower by consumers on our carbon footprint and also on the use of water resources. When you consider our carbon footprint, half of it is based on the hot showers taken by consumers. You need energy and most of the time (except for in the Scandinavian countries, Ed’s note) it comes from fossil fuel, and then it links to CO2 emission and also to a lot of water usage. So, L’OCCITANE en Provence promotes responsible consumption and behaviour from consumers. This is also a topic on which we need to raise awareness from the consumer because they also have a lot on their hands in terms of impact.

When it comes to regenerative practices, fashion might have come longer than beauty, especially with cotton production. What’s the reason why we don’t hear that much about it in the beauty industry yet?

— I think it’s because the cosmetic industry supply chain is way more complex than the fashion industry’s. In fashion, you are sourcing plants directly. In the cosmetic industry, most companies are sourcing raw materials that are already transformed and are not buying directly. We are lucky because we have a connection with farming and with the soil because of the brand’s DNA and history. But in the cosmetic industry, you sometimes don’t have any contact with farming and agriculture because the supply chain is super complex with many steps. The difference with the fashion industry is the complexity of the steps.

Refill station.

If we talk about the refill solutions, can you share any lessons learned from when you say that you’ve grown a lot with it?

— As mentioned, I think the best practice is consistency and long-term commitment. L’OCCITANE en Provence was good at doing that from the beginning and never giving up on it. Even when the sales of the refill were still super small, and it took space in the store shelves, they kept insisting. Your best practice is also to incentivise the retail staff. 

— In the company, we try to incentivise people not only on sales and financial but also on planet and people. For example, for office people in the bonus, we also have the B Corp score to show that performance in the company. It’s not only with economical or financial performance but also with creating value for people and planet.

— And it’s also progressing, so we’ve had refill pouches for almost 15 years now. Tast year, we even improved them to make them 100% recycled and recyclable. For a very long time, they were not, but at least they were reducing the amount of packaging and waste, which is always the number one priority. Now, they are also recycled and recyclable. This also shows customers that you’re always progressing and reducing your impact.

When it comes to packaging, can you share any predictions? Will the virgin or recycled plastic remain such a crucial part of the beauty industry or are you looking at material innovations as well?

— We have teams dedicated teams for packaging and they are constantly working with the objective of reducing impact and innovating on packaging with lower impact. They are always working with suppliers with new solutions and have plenty of innovation in mind. We are committed to Ellen McArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy, so we have to report on our plastic targets every year. 

— When it comes to increasing the percentage of recycled, we are confident that we are progressing, thanks to technological solutions. What is more critical is to increase the reuse, because the recyclability is also progressing. How do we increase the reusability of our products? This has to be a big focus in the coming years. And it’s something on which we also want to work with other beauty brands and B Corp companies, and beauty companies. 

— We have plenty of ideas but what we have to find is how to reduce. For every project relaunch, the team that I mentioned is trying to reduce the weight and the number of materials used. The reduce part is always the beginning of the equation, Archambeaud concludes.