What is ‘cosmetopoeia’ and why is LVMH getting behind it?


Under this emerging concept, LVMH-chaired beauty industry coalition Cosmetic Valley is unveiling a EUR 500000 fund that aims to preserve Africa’s natural resources and their traditional uses in beauty.

By guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business

March 7, 2023

LVMH and Cosmetic Valley, a beauty industry coalition it chairs, are funding a new conservation effort in West Africa that could help safeguard the future availability and quality of key cosmetics ingredients by protecting the ecosystems they are sourced from.

That’s significant for an industry that depends heavily — but has largely overlooked its impact — on nature. What makes the programme interesting and unique is its embrace of an approach to conservation that the Western world is only just starting to understand: one in which people don’t fence off sections of nature in order to preserve it, but rather learn to coexist within it.

The initiative, announced last week at the One Forest Summit hosted in Gabon by the French and Gabonese presidents, involves a financial endowment of over EUR 500000 and a commitment by the French cosmetics sector to leverage the “preservation of Africa’s heritage” as a tool for local economic development. At the heart of the initiative is a concept that Cosmetic Valley calls “cosmetopoeia”, which aims to create an inventory of natural resources and their traditional uses in skincare and cosmetics. It’s modelled on the idea of a pharmacopoeia — “a book describing drugs, chemicals and medicinal preparations”, according to Merriam-Webster. The endowment will be used to boost the study of forest cosmetopoeia in the Congo Basin by funding scholarships, internships, doctoral theses and post-doctoral work.

The programme seeks to understand and preserve the “huge cosmetopoeia potential” that exists in African forests, in the form of ingredients such as Padouk (pterocarpus soyauxii), a large tree in Gabon from which a powder can be used as a traditional mask or mixed with oil for use in traditional cosmetics. Another tree, Moabi (Baillonella toxisperma), produces seeds that communities collect to make butter for cooking and cosmetics, and according to Cosmetic Valley, cooperatives in northern Gabon collect the fruit and market cosmetic products made from it.

Preserving this knowledge is crucial to biodiversity conservation, Cosmetic Valley argues. “The scientific progress of the 20th century has often left aside traditional knowledge in medicine, as in cosmetics. That this magnificent world cultural and natural heritage is not — or is so little — recorded, becomes a systemic problem. The erosion of [traditional] knowledge could lead to the disappearance of an important part of the common history that unites humans and their environment,” the coalition says in the statement, explaining that climate change and biodiversity loss threaten the survival of plants that are linked to traditional practices. “Cosmetopoeia is thus a lever for biodiversity conservation that drives a new dynamic for a better knowledge of the traditional uses of plants.”

Cosmetic Valley, which formed as a “competitiveness cluster” of French perfume and cosmetics companies in 2005  and counts Puig France, L’Oréal and Guerlain among its members and LVMH general secretary Marc-Antoine Jamet as president says the endowment fund will be supported by an industry consortium of about 10 companies. These have not been finalised yet, but will include both “large corporations and SMEs”. The consortium will then define the strategy and priorities of the fund.

As a concept, it seems like a stretch for LVMH, which is not only one of the world’s largest corporate behemoths, but has also lagged behind some of its biggest competitors when it comes to embracing ambitious sustainability initiatives. However, the group has changed its tone significantly in the last year and a half, and if the cosmetopoeia effort proves effective — and is welcomed and embraced by local communities — it could symbolise a victory for Indigenous communities, biodiversity conservation advocates and other activists who have been saying, in increasingly unequivocal terms, that the world can only achieve global conservation targets “with the leadership of Indigenous peoples and local communities and with full recognition of their rights”. These calls have grown in tandem with the increasing body of research finding higher levels of biodiversity on Indigenous-managed lands.

“Cosmetics are as old as the world. They relate to humanity, children or the elderly, women or men, on the whole Earth. They originate in natural resources. Preserving them is an imperative,” Jamet says in the statement. “Knowing their multiple properties is a wealth for all — those who collect and produce as well as those who enjoy their benefits. From there, our aim is to contribute to the constitution of sustainable sectors, respectful of the planet, local traditions and ecosystems, and meeting the needs of our research and of the current cosmetics market.