President of the Comité Colbert since June 2022 and of Maison Hennessy since January 2020, Laurent Boillot talks to Formes de Luxe about his definition of sustainability, and how it is applied at the Cognac Maison, particularly to packaging.
"Luxury brands have a common mission: to preserve, to enrich, and to pass on. And their raison d’être is sustainability. It's in our genes," explained Laurent Boillot, President of the Comité Colbert, speaking at the Rencontres économiques des Métiers d'art in Tonnerre (Burgundy) on June 30, 2023. "For the Comité Colbert (93 Maisons, 17 institutions), this represents 18,000 years of accumulated expertise."
"Our raison d'être"
At Hennessy (LVMH Group)—of which he became president & CEO in January 2020 after seventeen years at Guerlain—this sustainability is expressed in a slogan: "Cultivating the future together". "A brand that spreads its influence must bring others along too. This is all the more necessary in Cognac, where we indirectly manage 34,000 hectares of production. We only own 180 hectares of vines, which are intended for research, particularly in sustainable development," Boillot tells Formes de Luxe. "This raison d’être—our North Star—translates into a strategy focused on people and the environment."
The 1000 Palisses program aims to plant 1,000km of trees and hedges by 2032 ©Hennesssy/Alain Benoît
"In terms of ecological transition, three main topics are emerging: sustainable viticulture, the Forest Destination program, and climate," he continues. These include the 1000 Palisses program, which aims to plant 1,000km of hedgerows by 2032, and the planting of 50,000 hectares of forests and trees worldwide by 2030, in partnership with Reforest'Action. The aim is to "reconstitute a living landscape" by developing biodiversity and agro-forestry.
Towards a 50% carbon footprint reduction by 2030
The market leader in cognac is also committed to reducing its carbon footprint. "Our emissions are 320,000 tonnes. We're aligning ourselves with the Paris Agreement, i.e. a 50% reduction by 2030 to aim for the 1.5 degree rule, while also ensuring growth. So the stakes are very high," says the CEO. We're already halfway there, and there's still more to do.”
This is particularly true in terms of logistics. "99% of our shipments are transported by sea. It's the least polluting method. A small share is transported by air (editor's note, 0.18% in 2022). The Made in Cognac label is an essential parameter. So we have to raise the bar," he continues. For instance, the company has signed an agreement with sailing-cargo companies Neoline and Zéphyr & Borée. For distillation, they have switched to 100% biogas and are working on hydrogen-based alternatives.
Packaging at the heart of a green approach
"We are in the process of analyzing our entire range", Laurent Boillot ©Hennessy
Packaging is considered one of the main sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the wine sector, and Hennessy is obviously no exception. Starting with glass, which accounts for 70% of the environmental impact of their packaging. "Unlike some luxury goods sectors, where packaging can represent a significant burden depending on the innovations developed, most of our products have extant qualities. We are in the process of analyzing our entire range (extra flint glass, flint glass, recycled green glass) in order to propose solutions", says Boillot.
As an example, the weight of the VS 70 cl bottle was reduced by 10% several years ago, saving 284 teq CO2 per year, while the glass in the new version of Paradis, released in 2022, has been reduced by 12%. The new version of Hennessy V.S.O.P. features an FSC-certified wooden stopper, eliminating 51 tonnes of [protective] polystyrene per year.
From the challenges of recycled glass to removal of cases
The company is also looking into the feasibility of using recycled glass. According to Boillot: "We're looking into all avenues, while holding on to our high standards." He remains cautious, however: "There’s no doubt that the Maison has a role to play in educating consumers, but we must also ensure the viability of new processes."
Another reality when it comes to glass is that the contents drive the choice of container. "Cognac has a certain acidity. Different types of glass can alter the taste. It’s detectable to the tasting committee, whose role is also to protect product quality in the future". As a result, explains Boillot, "we work proactively with glassmakers to test techniques that are compatible with our cognacs. It's very complex."
Glass bottle collection is also being examined. "This is a very important issue. When we go through distributors, how do we collect the used bottles and redirect them to our partner, given that we are not bottle manufacturers?" Boillot asks. "Research and innovation also imply sitting down with the major manufacturers to draw up specifications and drive the system forward."
What is the simplest part? "That concerns secondary packaging, the cardboard part," Boillot affirms. "For the most part, we’ve eliminated the cases at retail and leave it up to the customers to buy gift boxes separately". As a result, 76% of bottles are sold without a box.
Very rare editions
Sustainability also means a culture of beauty and excellence. "That is also what sets us apart and elevates us," Boillot assures. "While the Maison is a producer on a very large scale, we also manufacture on a nearly bespoke level".
Paradis x NBA decanter by Lorenz Bäumer ©Hennessy
At the end of 2020, Maison Hennessy created the "Éditions rares" division. Headed by Charlotte Joyeux, this studio is dedicated to craftsmanship and the creation of the most exclusive Hennessy decanters, such as Paradis or Richard Hennessy. "We create a few pieces a week here. We have all the necessary artisans on hand: featherworkers, leatherworkers, weavers... These objects are made to last," comments Boillot. The Maison delivers pumps and sometimes even fusils for refillability. Richard Hennessy decanters, for instance, are now fitted with a glass capsule featuring a stainless steel transfer tool for reuse.
But the Éditions Rares division was also created with the aim of raising the company’s profile and achieving commercial success, particularly to respond to Rémy Martin's strength in this segment. And to raise the stakes! The Dame-Jeanne decorated by French featherworker Nelly Saunier was sold in London in summer 2022 for £600,000 (approx. €682,000).
The Dame-Jeanne decorated by French featherworker Nelly Saunier ©Hennessy/Antonin Bonnet
And that's not counting the other limited editions, on more "accessible" products. For example, the partnership with Kim Jones on XO, with a "second skin" decanter. An artistic collaboration in line with another pillar of the House's strategy: culture.
In Tonnerre, three exceptional products were presented : L'Habit de Cuir, which wraps around the curves of the Hennessy Paradis decanter; jeweler Lorenz Baumer's spherical Baccarat crystal decanter designed for the NBA's 75th anniversary; and a wicker-wrapped Dame-Jeanne enhanced with leather straps. How better to illustrate craftsmanship and desirability?