How Sustainable is Your Natural Perfume?
I would love to put the tagline ‘sustainable perfume’ on my site, products, social media and marketing collateral. The word sustainable, especially coupled with natural, pure, clean, green, eco-friendly and a gammut of other on-trend adjectives in the cosmetics and beauty industry, is however not a word to throw in at liberty.
It needs a whole lot of unpacking along with some understanding, as a bare minimum, of carbon footprints and environmental impact assessments. Natural perfumery can be as much of a polluter as the synthetic fragrance industry, which is in fact doing a lot to clean up its image and act.
My aim in this post is to sensitise you to what goes on under the bonnet in creating a so-called sustainable natural perfume and the kind of decisions and choices that face the indie natural perfumer. A little bit of knowledge they say is a dangerous thing, but I hope that by touching on some of the issues relating to sustainable perfume, I can inspire you to dig deeper, learn more about and from the perfume brands you love and feel more empowered as a fragrance consumer and aware of the story that should lie behind brands claiming sustainable practices.
Defining ‘Sustainable’ in Cosmetics
The cosmetics and beauty sector is rife with what is often sharp practice use of adjectives on its labels; words like pure, green, clean, organic, natural and so on can be misleadingly used. It doesn’t help that there is no single, nor legal definition of these words as they apply to the cosmetics, and nor could there be as jurisdictions across the world have their own cosmetics standards. The EU has the strictest labeling laws and is tightening up its regulations on unfair and misleading claims for cosmetics products with more stringent claims legislation likely to come into force soon.
Sustainability is another grey area that is near impossible for the perfume consumer to unravel and certainly can’t be legislated for. I can see that it could fall foul of the EU’s truthfulness requirements if a company were using the words sustainability or sustainable as a main part of its differentiation and marketing thrust and yet was not adhering to verifiable sustainable practices.
Yet, sustainability, along with ethical business, is becoming of at least equal importance to consumers as organic status. According to Cosmetics Design Europe’s 2091 predictions we are likely to see more sustainability schemes for both individual raw ingredients and overall sustainable business practices. Consumers are demanding surety that products are not only on the inside what they claim on the label, but that they are also produced with ethical sustainable supply chains and manufacturing processes.
One scheme making a positive contribution to sustainability practices is the Sourcing with Respect label accredited by the Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT). The scheme launched in 2018 with cosmetics’ companies Weleda and Natura Cosmetics as its first partners. By being a member of UEBT, companies commit to an ongoing and educative/learning process to change the way they source ingredients and raw materials. They pledge to “source with respect for people and biodiversity” and must submit their systems to review every three years to show they are sourcing ingredients derived from biodiversity. Members can use the UEBT logo and communicate their commitment to the entity’s aims.
Blockchain technology is also helping pioneer verifiable claims and supply chains from field to flacon. Provenance.org is one such blockchain-driven company providing a platform for product businesses to demonstrate transparency in supply chains. Sustainability, ethical sourcing, fair wage and trade are all aspects that can be verified on their platform.
Sustainable Perfume Labeling
Given that the sourcing and extraction of some naturals can be more environmentally damaging than the production of synthetics (ref. Charles Sell ‘The Chemistry of Fragrances‘), we can expect schemes like UEBT to take hold in the perfumery industry too.
Traditionally, consumers have been in the dark about what ingredients comprise the parfum listed on the label alongside denat. alcohol and aqua, but increasingly I am seeing more indie, niche perfume brands list out all their ingredients in the spirit of greater transparency. Once you know what ingredients are in your perfume, the more you can ask about the ethical provenance of the materials and their sustainability.
Most buyers of natural perfume would know, for example, to ask about the origins of Sandalwood and any so-called Bois de Rose (rosewood) that a perfumer lists or alludes to in an accord. But what you might not be aware of is that patchouli oil can have an enormous carbon footprint even though it’s not an endangered plant. Farmer-growers on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi were using firewood to process the patchouli resulting in deforestation and carbon emissions. The naturals divisions of firms like Givuadin and Firmenich who purchase almost all the patchouli supplies from islands like Sulawesi have sustainability projects in place now to promote sustainable energy consumption.
Transparency goes hand in hand with demonstrating sustainable credentials. Parfums Clandestins will be listing all the ingredients on this website, not only the allergens required by EU law. I feel it is important for potential fragrance buyers to have the knowledge and insights they need to make an informed purchase.
Sustainable Perfume Ingredients
There is no binary argument that says that by choosing natural perfume a consumer is helping sustain the environment and farmer-growers in far-flung parts of the world more than if they opt for mainly aromachemical fragrances with raw materials created in a lab at chemical giants like IFF or Firmenich.
My reading lately of various scientific papers and industry reports shows that many large chemical fragrance firms are investing heavily in sustainability projects with growers as they expand their all-naturals offer. These giants of the fragrance industry have the clout and funds to invest in research into more sustainable practices whether for the cleaner, more sustainable manufacture of synthetics or to encourage more eco-friendly, sustainable growing and processing of raw natural perfumery materials.
LMR, a natural’s fragrance firm and part of IFF, is pioneering sustainable practices from farm to factory and finished fragrance. It has developed rigorous and far-reaching ‘Life Cycle Analyses’ to track and define a natural ingredient’s environmental footprint. LMR says that “Assessing, improving and ensuring the sustainability of natural ingredients is an absolute necessity for the future of naturals”, in the Perfumer & Flavorist magazine’s report on its life cycle analysis projects. So detailed is an LCA on a strategic ingredients, such as rose oil, that the LCA includes data on pesticides used, use of fuel in distillation and other extraction methods as well as the carbon footprint of air transportation. Despite the micro data gathered that then feeds back into improving sustainable sourcing, the article acknowledges that an LCA is a moving target and extremely challenging.
For the small, indie perfumer like myself, these corporate initiatives of global giants are heartening and do trickle down to how I go about my work. I know that I can ask my suppliers of raw perfumery materials some quite detailed questions these days as the landscape for all naturals is evolving, striving hard to follow sustainable practices. If the mainstream fragrance firms are leading the way, then I know there are ethical perfumery suppliers out there who are purchasing from entities like LMR.
One company I particularly admire for its ethical, sustainable approach to sourcing perfumery materials and other naturals for us smaller-scale cosmetics’ companies, is Naissance, a UK-based global supplier for small businesses that has since its outset in 2005 sought out ethical and sustainable ingredients. The company now has its own sustainable and ethical grower projects in places like Papua New Guinea where it is working with local growers to ensure they receive assistance in adopting sustainable organic practices and also receive a fair wage.
Hermitage Oils based in Tuscany, a long-time naturals’ supplier, has high ethical standards in its sourcing of materials for indie and niche perfumeries like Olentium. The Hermitage team goes to great lengths to ensure the authenticity, quality and sustainable backstory of the materials it buys in.
Buying Sustainable Perfume Ingredients
As you can see, the sustainability of a natural perfume lies not in its naturalness or organic status, but in the care and attention taken by the perfumer in sourcing the raw perfumery materials. Apart from vetting my suppliers and drilling into their ethics and practices, I also try to buy more locally to my central Mediterreanean base.
This means that when I first start experimenting and devising a new perfume, I try to select materials that are local and involve fewer airmiles. I opt for Egyptian, Moroccan, Sicilian, French or Bulgarian oils for example. To fulfill a creative brief, I do of course need some long-haul ingredients, but my perfumes will contain more materials from closer to home. Local may mean fewer so-called ‘beauty miles’ but does not always mean more sustainable. The devil is in the detail and one has to build sound relationships with suppliers to be able to find out exactly how, where and by whom natural ingredients are produced.
Where next for the artisan perfumer?
As a small artisan perfumer, I do what I can to ensure sustainable sourcing by first researching the sustainability issues involved in the perfumery sector. Then, armed with the background knowledge, I question my trusted suppliers and try to track and trace the origins back to the original producer, farmer, grower. Not every supplier will offer up that kind of detailed information as they like to protect their sources – and often hard earned partnerships with wholesalers and on-the-ground producers – and don’t wish to jeopardise those relations. I source only from those suppliers I have vetted and can vouch for their ethical supply chain, rather than pay lip service to it.
Then, of course, there are myriad micro ways I can practice sustainability in my own lab, for example by recycling and reusing glass pipettes rather than using plastic disposables; by choosing ingredients to fit a creative brief that are more local to me and are less processed; and by sourcing packaging that is Forest Stewardship Certified managed and so on. I will dedicate another post to my own measures in my artisan lab.
In conclusion, my advice to you as a perfume buyer would be not to focus on various adjectives and claims such as wild harvested, natural, organic, 100% botanical and so on. The perfume might well be composed of those but they won’t indicate the sustainability of the natural perfume. Do your research and see if the perfumery has a policy, mission or ethos statement explaining how they source raw perfumery materials. Above all, just ask them and see what they say. My post on 10 things to know before buying natural perfume also has pointers about what to ask of a natural perfume house.
Assessing the Sustainability of Natural Ingredients with LCA – Perfumer & Flavorist, April 2019
So Natural Together—Firmenich Contemplates the Future of Naturals – Perfumer & Flavorist, 4th April, 2019.
Givuadin Sustainability Report, 2018.
The Perfume Industry is Moving Towards Sustainable Fragrances (Euronews, 4th April, 2019).
Clean Perfume – Should you worry about what’s in fragrance? (The Guardian, 9th April, 2019).