Building relationships in buying
When it comes to sourcing the best essential oils, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all down to good raw materials. And while top-quality ingredients are important, Lush essential oils buyer Agnès Gendry places emphasis on the importance of nurturing and maintaining strong direct relationships with the growers and producers who make and distribute essential oils.
Essential oils are sourced from all over the world. Some of the plants can be grown in your garden, whereas others can only be found in remote locations, closed communities or in conflict zones. This means that sourcing the valuable and often rare ingredients needed to make them can be a tough task.
As such, the marketplace is rife with imitations and companies selling adulterated oils in order to increase profit. The whole process is complicated further by an ingrained tradition of middlemen and facilitators who take a cut of profits and make it difficult to know where or by whom an ingredient was grown.
Agnès found pretty early on in her career as a buyer that working direct with suppliers was the best way to guarantee consistent high-quality materials. But doing so was no small task - working directly with suppliers was just not the done thing. Agnès and her team have spent 15 years travelling the world to build contacts and relationships with growers and producers from Europe to Australia, and everywhere in between.
She explains: “Many years ago when I started buying essential oils we were mainly buying from re-sellers, middlemen and traders. But through the years, my mission really has been to go directly to the producers of essential oils and absolutes. It means finding sources, finding producers and creating relationships, so that we are actually working in a supply partnership. It’s mass selling versus individual and direct selling.”
Agnès defines a supply partnership as an open relationship in which both parties are able to voice concerns, raise possible quality issues and work together to find solutions to problems. To achieve this close relationship, a shared ethical outlook must first be established.
Agnes says: “We want to make sure we have a good relationship with our suppliers; that we understand what they are doing and that their ethics match ours. We never want to work with companies where people have no interest in the way we’re working. It is really just finding the perfect match for our business.”
The team maintain these close relationships through regular visits to meet and get to know the growers and producers on their land and in the production facilities. Apart from checking for the technical capabilities and the environmental and ethical practices of suppliers, the buying team also has to ensure they are receiving oils that have not been tampered with or diluted with chemicals or other cheaper oils.
By visiting the growers and producers and learning exactly how the oils are made and processed, the team can make well-informed decisions about suppliers. They then receive samples and test them using high-tech equipment, which breaks down the chemical compounds to ensure the oils are pure and high quality.
As well as ensuring everything is up-to-scratch and running as it should, these visits provide the team with an insight into the enthusiasm the growers and suppliers, often small family-run farms and businesses, put into their work.
Agnès says: “The thing that amazes me is people’s passion. It really is right through the chain, from the farmers growing the crops to the producers making the oils and absolutes.
“The people we work with are really passionate about what they do. They are passionate about delivering quality and they see themselves, I think, as craftspeople - particularly the companies that are family businesses that have been going for generations. They really feel like they are upholding a tradition.”
And that’s not something middlemen can boast. Agnès points out that although a trader may be able to assure you of the quality of what they sell and be valuable and honest allies, most are not connected to the product in the same way.
By dealing directly with suppliers over traders, the buying team have been able to build up a bank of knowledge surrounding the ingredients they source; something that would have been impossible when using untraceable bulk-buying techniques.
Agnes explains: “By buying direct from producers, we are putting knowledge into our business. We have knowledge in this company that comes directly from producers. I am absolutely sure that 15 years on we would not have gained the information we have gained if we had continued working with distributors.
“We wouldn’t have visited the production sites, we wouldn’t have seen the fields, we wouldn’t have known how it was done. We wouldn’t have known all the tricks, we wouldn’t have known what are good and what are bad practices and quality. It would have been a completely different situation.”
And, while not all of the experiences have been good, they have taught the team what to look out for when sourcing. By working with such an extensive variety of people, cultures and industries, Agnès is now able to use the learnings they’ve made across all buying policy.
She says: “Having the expertise and the knowledge you’ve learned from one field, means you can then apply that to others. It gives you a depth of understanding of growing conditions, production conditions, the environment, of social issues - and that applies across the board. Once you’ve learned certain things about one thing you learn it about others too.”
And that’s certainly the case with synthetics. Although Lush uses natural where possible, the company includes safe synthetics in its product recipes to help ensure the highest-quality, responsibly sourced products.
Agnes explains: “We apply the same standards and have regular relationships with the people who supply synthetic materials. We quality control the batches as they come in, we have samples that we approve in advance, and we have these arrangements for certain quantities every year to ensure we get the best prices and we apply the same sourcing standards.”