“If the bees were to disappear from the earth, mankind would only have four years to live,” Albert Einstein announced in his days. Today this is not different. More and more brands are therefore committed to the conservation of bees and thus our planet. The French cosmetics house Guerlain set up some partnerships, wants to become carbon neutral by 2028 and has recently created the Bee School.
Text Anja Van Der Borght – Pictures Guerlain
Studies have shown that as many as a third of our total food production depends on bee pollination. If these diligent creatures were to die out, it would have devastating consequences for our food production. “In the meantime we have all become – except Donald Trump – also convinced that climate change is not a myth,” says Sandrine Sommer, Director Sustainable Development at Guerlain. “We all live on the same planet and are increasingly aware that we have to act. Now! Guerlain wants to be an example in that respect. Eleven years ago I felt a bit like David against Goliath. I was given the assignment to set up a complete transformation of the company and then created a committee for sustainable development.
In the meantime, I am surrounded by twenty people who help me now every day to strengthen our commitment. We deal with four major themes. Ecoconception is one of them and refers to the packaging. We manufacture beautiful products at Guerlain; luxury has always been synonymous with heavy, voluminous packaging. We are trying to change that now so that the luxury of tomorrow is not only being merely beautiful or even more beautiful, but rather also better for our planet. The first results are already visible. All new Guerlain packaging is now not only smaller than before, but at least as beautiful. Orchidée Impériale, for example, received drastically smaller packaging for the re-launch last year. Another example is our Bee Flask that you can refill for life at the fountains in the boutiques – also in Brussels. A beautiful object that you want to keep because it is too beautiful to throw away is for me the luxury of today.”
From airplane to electric truck
“In the transformation of the company we focus on three other pillars,” Sommer continues. “The second pillar revolves around climate warming. In this context, we have thoroughly studied our footprint and are now trying to reduce it. Especially the transport and distribution of our products seems to play a major role in this. We may be lucky enough to be able to send our products to the farthest corners of the world, but due to time pressure – especially with the launch of novelties – we use too often air transportation. We are now trying to transfer this logistic transport as much as possible to boats, trains or electric trucks. Since 2011, we have also used the ISO 14001 standard in France, which enables us to work in the same fashion everywhere. By 2021 all our affiliates must be ISO 14001 certified, in Belgium we have been there since 2013. In addition, we have another very ambitious climate target and by 2028 we want to be climate neutral for Guerlain’s 200th birthday.
Today I do not know how we will succeed but we are going to make it happen! The third theme revolves around social commitment. Beauty products are not made only to please ourselves but are also important when we personally go through difficult times. For this we work – together with many other beauty brands – together with “Look Good Feel Better”, a foundation that gives free beauty workshops in hospitals to women who follow cancer treatments. After all, beauty in the broadest sense of the word is important for our self-confidence.”
The world as your garden
“The fourth theme of ‘biodiversity’ is of utmost importance and is practically embedded in Guerlain’s DNA,” Sommer says. “At Guerlain, we consider the world as our garden and we draw inspiration from the basic raw materials that we find around the world. We do not really focus merely on what we can find locally, but prefer to get the basic raw materials at the spot where they develop in their own ecosystem. In order to be able to continue to use these reliable raw materials, it is clearly quite important that these ecosystems remain clean in the coming years.
Unfortunately, in many countries nature is not as pure as before. We want to contribute to maintain this purity and the bee plays an important role in this. It is of vital importance and the pivot of biodiversity on earth. Without bees, we would no longer have the majority of our flowers that we use for our products at Guerlain. The bee is of capital importance for us and, moreover, it is our symbol. ”
From wound plasters to cosmetics
That symbol was born when Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, perfumer and founder of Guerlain, dedicated his Eau de Cologne Impériale to Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, in 1853. The particularly shaped bottle was decorated with 69 golden lacquered bees – the emblem of the empire and formed the first chapter in a long story in which Guerlain and bees would cross each other with the regularity of the clock. Convinced of the healing powers of bee products, the perfumer launched next to his cologne – which would later become an icon – also a Pâte d’Amande au Miel. This very first skin care from Guerlain was so successful that the foundations were laid for a new cosmetic that makes use of the highly valued properties of bee products.
The island of Ouessant.
With the hand of bees
Guerlain soon realized that not all bee products have the same effect. The search for the most powerful bee products on earth led the French House to Ouessant. This island at the extreme point of the west coast of Brittany, which has been declared a ‘Biosphere Reserve’ by UNESCO, is the territory of the Apis mellifera mellifera, a unique species of bees that Guerlain soon found to be of utmost importance due to its genetic characteristics and the exceptional ecosystem of its habitat. After all, the remote French island is one of the purest ecosystems in the world. It is therefore not illogical for the native Black Bee to produce honey of unprecedented purity and with exceptional properties.
“The Black Bee, who lives on this island eighteen kilometers off the coast of Brittany, has – because it is too far away for her to fly to the mainland – been able to keep her exceptional genetic heritage intact, and stay far from any bastardization and contamination,” says Sommer. “Nothing stands in the way of her production: neither pollution nor pesticides, nor the diseases that decimate bee colonies around the world. In this pristine area the Black Bee is only subjected to wind and sea salt and collects her honey through plants completely endogenous for the island including Calluna heather and wild flowers. This rich flora forms the basis for one of the purest types of honey in the world: the honey from Ouessant. So pure and natural that Guerlain uses it as a reference value for all other types of honey and also made him the star ingredient of the Abeille Royale product line.”
The wealth of amino acids, the content of trace elements and the high concentration of fructose contribute to the recovery of the tissues. Guerlain combines the honey from Ouessant with the exclusive Guerlain Royal Jelly, the most precious substance from the beehive. This jelly, known for its extraordinary nutritional properties, is used by Guerlain in its products to enhance a radiant complexion as well as to achieve a more intensive skin recovery.
“In 2011, we entered into a ten-year partnership with the Conservatoire d’Ouessant,” Sommer says. “As patron, we have the role of helping them to preserve the ecosystem. The more we talk about Ouessant, the more the bees and the protection of the bees are discussed. We have had a second parternship since 2015 with the Observatoire Français d’Apidologie (OFA), a foundation which uses a different principle and does a lot of lobbying. In Belgium, neonicotinoids or pesticides that kill bees are already banned but that is not yet everywhere in Europe. In this respect, we endeavor to contribute with the OFA. Besides this, the association aims to boost the bee population and for instance grows queens and sends them all over Europe to restore the bee population on the continent. They try to train new beekeepers and make them aware of the problems of today.
Think of climate change, raising awareness about pesticide use, around new parasites that pop up and bringing new diseases, … At Guerlain we love that transmission of information but we also try to contribute our bit in simple ways. For example, since last year, we have been giving bags of honey-containing seeds to all our employees in France. These are seeds of flowers that the bees really love. This year there are a number of countries that follow us. Last summer we also suggested to our customers in the Parisian boutiques to plant such a bag at home. The bees do not have enough to forage anymore today. Far too many farmers perform monoculture in their fields and it is important that the bees have more diversity in their nutrition to protect them from extinction. At the beginning of the summer, beekeepers still demonstrated in the streets in France because we never lost as many bees as this year. Certain beekeepers have lost 80 percent of their business, which is a real disaster. The phenomenon has been going on for several years. Fifteen years ago we sold 40,000 tons of honey in France. Last year that was only 15,000 tons with the same number of beekeepers, and this at a time where the French still consume the same amount of honey, forcing us now to import it from other countries where there are also fewer bees.
For the time being, artificial honey offers an answer to the big question, but this honey contains many impurities or by-products such as syrup. Because transmission is also important to us, we also decided at Guerlain to set up the Bee-school. This means that all Guerlain employees in France and abroad go for half a day in a school to teach the students the whole concept of biodiversity and the place of the bee in the biodiversity and climate. We are not going to sell Guerlain but want to increase the awareness of tomorrow’s generation.”