Simply establishing a relationship with a producer, however, is just the start of Emilia’s work. She then has to carefully maintain and nurture that relationship - and anticipate fluctuations in usage.
“Just securing the materials when we have new products puts the usage up month to month,” she continues. “The challenge from our side is that many of these oils are only harvested once a year. So, for example, rose oil is produced in May and June and the roses are processed daily for around four weeks per year only and then you have to tell them ‘Oh, we need this much more.’ It’s difficult to get it out of season both from a quality and price perspective. It’s not impossible but I like to complain - I’m Polish!”
It’s not always about reacting to increased usage either. “It’s difficult the other way around as well if we discontinue items and our usage of oils goes down,” Emilia explains. “At the moment , for example, we are using less rosewood oil than before, and you need to communicate things like that as quickly as possible with the supplier because they spend money on maintaining their production levels and are waiting for your order. You need to be on top of it.”
Working directly with suppliers and small companies is a priority for Lush and so Emilia spends a lot of time in conversation with these smaller businesses - something she says has distinct advantages. Smaller companies know everything about the materials they sell because it’s their business, unlike massive companies which source 300 materials and don’t know half of them properly. When you talk to small-scale producers you see their passion.
“A distributor might be able to quote you a price but won’t necessarily be able to give you full transparency on the origin of the material. Because, as a company, we are very concerned about the wellbeing of the people who produce our materials, it is so much easier to go directly to the growers. You know what’s going on on the ground too. For example, because of the drought in South Africa, the price of buchu oil has doubled recently. If we bought from a distributor, he would just name a price, but we know the issue is the lack of rain.”
Lush pays a premium for quality and so it is Emilia’s responsibility is to maintain that standard - even if it means explaining heavy price jumps to the finance department. She says: “Recently, I had a very big issue sourcing bay oil from the Dominican Republic for the hair range. Because of the weather conditions there, production dropped by 60% last year so the prices went up massively overnight. We want to use this oil because it is so good for your hair so we pay the price.”
Lush may still only be a small percentage of the cosmetics industry but a high use of essential oils makes us comparatively a bigger player in this particular sector. It’s something Emilia has learned from experience, as she explains: “We buy rose oil from Senir, Turkey, and they keep telling us we are their biggest customer. Our oudh oil usage is also going up almost every year and at the moment we are the biggest user in Europe. Last year we used around 800 kilos of neroli and the whole of Egypt produced just over one tonne. So even though we are not the biggest cosmetics company on the market, we are a major purchaser of essential oils.”
It puts Lush’s high use of these materials into perspective compared to much larger companies - especially when you consider that 2018 estimates by WWD Beauty suggest that Lush is just 3.8% of L’Oréal. It also means that buyers like Emilia have a great deal of responsibility - both to Lush and the industry.
“We try to have at least two suppliers for each material in case anything happens with a supplier or our usage,” says Emilia. “But, with rose oil, for example, we use a lot and the more we use the better price we can negotiate. So yes, I see your point but the company we buy from in Turkey are happy with us and us with them. They are a family business we have been working with for near on 15 years and they have always delivered excellent quality to us. They are fully aware of Lush’s ethics and philosophy, we know that they are passionate about the reputation of their own business and the quality of their product and this creates an excellent relationship based on trust on both sides.”
Buying essential oils has opened Emilia’s eyes to the number of cheap copies on the market. “If you go the supermarket,” she says, “you’ll see labels saying ‘with rose oil’ and it’s only 0.01% of the product but they can put it on the label. We are the opposite, we’ve got so many excellent materials in our products and we don’t say ‘50% argan oil’, we just know that. It hurts me to read ‘rose fragrance’ when a product doesn’t even smell like real roses! My mum loves roses and when I bought her Ro’s Argan body conditioner she said: ‘I never knew roses could smell so nice.’ She just fell in love with it.”
It’s challenging, difficult work, but the opportunity to experience such exquisite oils first hand never loses its appeal. “Choosing a favourite essential oil would be like choosing a favourite kid!” Emilia laughs. “You like them all for different reasons. I love vetivert but there are so many different variations that I hate some. In fact, vetivert is my biggest headache at the moment! I have rejected over 30 samples in the last few months because they just didn’t smell right.”
And with that, she’s back to the desk, once more on the scent of the finest vetivert she can find.