A New Documentary Linked Two Major Fragrance Brands to Child Labor

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Revelations about the use of child labor have become all too familiar across any number of industries but are particularly troubling when it comes to luxury goods marketed to rich countries. Child labor practices, which are typically shrouded by opaque supply chains, are a scourge of many developing nations and are often the result of systemic economic injustices with which consumers are complicit.

In recent years, the apparel, beauty, and wellness industries have come under fire for child labor practices, including instances of children as young as four working in mines to source and gather mica (often used in shimmery cosmetics but also electronics and automobile parts, among other things) and the mining of “healing” crystals, which is sometimes done by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Myanmar, and other locations.

Now, labor policies in the fragrance industry have come into question. Children were reportedly working to harvest ingredients used in fragrances from two major brands, Lancôme and Aerin Beauty, the BBC found in an investigation that began last year. While researching perfume supply chains, the news outlet discovered that jasmine flowers, a popular fragrance ingredient, were being “picked by minors.”

The fragrances in question are Lancôme’s Idôle L’Intense and Aerin’s Ikat Jasmine and Limone Di Sicilia; both scents contain jasmine sourced from Egypt, which, as the BBC reports, “produces about half the world’s supply of jasmine flowers.” Both brands’ parent companies—L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, respectively—have codes of conduct designed to prevent the use of child labor in their manufacturing processes.

The findings were included in the BBC‘s new documentary, Perfume’s Dark Secret. “The BBC visited Egypt’s jasmine region during the harvest season in the summer of 2023 and found children—some as young as five years old—working in the jasmine fields that were supplying some global brands through factories in Egypt,” the BBC shared in a statement timed to the documentary’s May 28 release.

The news outlet noted that “it is difficult to say exactly how many of the 30,000 people involved in Egypt’s jasmine industry are children” but shared that while filming the documentary, they “spoke to many [adult] residents who told us the low price for jasmine meant they needed to include their children in their work.” Local factories set the prices for picked jasmine, which is extracted into oil used in perfumery by major fragrance houses. Workers are paid according to how much jasmine they pick, and low prices create the need to work long hours and pick high volumes, which is why many adult workers include their children. One worker featured in the documentary takes home just $1.50 USD for a night’s work after paying a portion of their earnings to the land owner.

Both companies connected to the BBC report have responded to its findings.

A representative for Estée Lauder told Allure, “We believe that the rights of all children should be protected and have contacted our suppliers in the region to investigate as a matter of urgency. “We recognize the complex socioeconomic environment surrounding the local jasmine supply chain and we are taking action to gain better transparency and work toward improving the livelihoods of sourcing communities. We endeavor to work with suppliers who share our strong values and demonstrate the same commitment to operating responsibly and ethically across all facets of business across diverse legal and cultural environments throughout the world.” The company points toward its Supplier Code, which sets basic requirements expected of its suppliers. It is based on internationally recognised standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Labour Organisation’s Conventions.

L’Oréal responded to the documentary via a statement on its website. The company, it says, is “deeply committed to respecting and protecting human rights and we believe that all forms of child labor are completely unacceptable. We expect all our suppliers, including fragrance houses, to act in a responsible and ethical way. We always act immediately if we identify any problems in our supply chain. And this is exactly what we are currently doing in Egypt, where we indirectly source a small percentage of the jasmine used in some of our products. Thanks to our ongoing monitoring process, in October 2023, after the last harvest and before the BBC reached out to us, we first identified potential human rights issues, including child labor.” Per this statement, L’Oréal “decided to take immediate action” and has “worked to put concrete actions in place ahead of the next jasmine harvest in June.”

According to its statement, the company has set up a coalition in partnership with the Egyptian government, fragrance houses, and other industry partners. “This coalition is being led by the Fair Labor Association and the International Labour Organization, as part of their flagship ‘Harvesting the Future – Jasmine in Egypt’ project,” the company shared. “We are very disappointed that the BBC chose not to include our concrete actions in Egypt, which we had already started to implement before they first contacted us and which we have actively shared with them in detail.”

Though these zero-tolerance policies for child or forced labor are certainly well-intentioned and ultimately necessary, the specifics of how they are enforced is murky. The implementation section of Estée Lauder’s Supplier Code, for example, states that new suppliers must meet its requirements, which often includes an assessment or on-site audit, before it is approved to provide work for the company. (Estée Lauder works with contractors to conduct these on-site audits and assesses certain suppliers “against environmental and social criteria” via a third-party sustainability ratings platform.) What isn’t clear, however, is how, how frequently, and under what criteria audits are conducted after a suppliers initial approval. Meanwhile, L’Oréal’s guidelines for working with suppliers state that it regularly performs “business integrity assessments” for both new and existing suppliers, but the criteria and frequency of those assessments is not specified. The guidelines also reference a “social and environmental audit program,” about which Allure has requested more information.

This isn’t an issue that lies solely with a few select fragrance brands but rather with the entire ecosystem including governments, the local factories that determine the price for jasmine, major fragrance houses, and anyone who purchases luxury fragrance. While the industry has made significant progress regarding transparency in sourcing, supply chain, and ingredients themselves, it’s important to remember that people are as much a part of a product as the ingredients.

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