Perfumery might seem like a fairly benign business. It’s about personal scent more than anything else. But as one of the largest global luxury industries, perfume-making can have a significant impact on certain plants and animals valued for their rare scent profiles. Most perfume formulations are hidden behind one word on perfume labels, usually ‘Parfum’ or ‘Aroma,’ which makes it difficult for a consumer to know if a product is made using ethically sourced ingredients. Sustainability of raw materials used in perfumery has not always been a primary concern for consumers, but environmental consciousness regarding the issues seems to be growing.
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Most perfumes are designed using synthetic ingredients these days, but there’s been a resurgence when it comes to use of more natural and organic materials, and some perfumes have so-called ‘mixed-media’ blends that use both synthetic and natural products. Though synthetic ingredients are typically cheaper, there are certain benefits to natural perfumes that are attracting attention from manufacturers and consumers alike, including the fact that they are less likely to trigger allergies, asthma, or headaches. Nevertheless, use of natural ingredients can be problematic. Some raw plant materials have been so overexploited by perfume makers and worshipped by perfume lovers that they are now threatened with extinction, and use of animal derived materials raises serious ethical concerns.
The perfume industry is one of the biggest consumers of precious oils extracted from plants. Although many plants are cultivated specifically to meet consumer demands, there are some wild plants that are targeted by the industry. Most of these are highly appreciated by perfumers because of their rarity, difficulty in harvesting, and because they have a unique scent profile and add outstanding nuances to perfume formulations.
Sandalwood, which is used both in perfumery and traditional medicine, is one example. It is harvested primarily in India, where it is now almost extinct in the wild. The Indian government enacted strict regulations on sandalwood harvesting in the 1960s, and as a result, production in the country has fallen significantly. But sandalwood is still listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. With sandalwood threatened in the wild, Australia has entered the sandalwood market and is producing the trees sustainably. Environmentally responsible perfume brands usually mention the origin of sandalwood if it is used in their formulations.
Though cultivation can offer an alternative to unsustainable wild harvesting, it also poses challenges. Trees like sandalwood and aquilaria — another tree commonly targeted for perfume production — are slow growing. It takes a long time for them to mature, and maturity is essential for oil extraction. But this means that for farmers, it takes several years, sometimes up to ten years, for returns on their investment. And when supply can’t keep up with demand, poachers turn their attention to wild incense trees, particularly in the case of aquilaria. (Aquilaria trees are sought after for agar resin, which is formed when the trees are infected with mold.) In some cases, these poachers are destroying the wild population of century-old trees. In Hong Kong — which translates to fragrant or incense harbor in Cantonese — agarwood is close to extinction in the wild with almost all oldest and largest trees having been illegally felled.
“Poachers look for older trees that are naturally infected, as they have more value, so these trees will increasingly be threatened,” Gerard McGuirk, sales director for Asia Plantation Capital in Hong Kong, which is trying to save the trees by running aquilaria plantations, told the BBC. “Now in Hong Kong, you’d be lucky to find a tree that’s 30 years of age.”
In addition to the threats posed to certain plants, there are animal welfare concerns related to perfume making. Animal products have been slowly disappearing from perfumes in recent years, but some brands still, unfortunately, use them, and the trend is actually being revived by some niche perfume brands. Animal products — including castoreum from beavers, glandular secretions from civet cats, perineal secretions from endangered musk deer, and ambergris, a substance produced by the digestive system of sperm whales — were traditionally used as fixatives in old perfume formulas. (Fixatives are used to stabilize perfumes and to slow down the rate of evaporation.) Scents like those derived from musk and civet can now be produced synthetically, but due to high demand for natural perfumes, some brands have not prioritized use of synthetic ingredients.
These animal-derived materials are in most cases cruelly produced. Ambergris is the one possible exception — it is typically considered cruelty free as it is a type of whale waste and can be found on beaches and oceans after being expelled by whales. Its use in the US is still illegal because sperm whales are listed as an endangered species, and the Endangered Species Act prohibits the use of any product from an endangered species, but it continues to be harvested in Europe, and remains one of the rarest ingredients in the industry today.
But even with ambergris, there concern about whale poaching. Eleonora Scalseggi, co-owner of essential oil company Hermitage Oils, says that on a few occasions, her company has been approached by people trying to tell large quantities of low quality ambergris. “Now in my opinion, these are clear signs of ambergris coming from poaching,” she says. “Floating ambergris gets found stranded in relatively small amounts. It is rare that large pieces are found, and even in that case it’s never many kilos. To me having many kilos of fresh ambergris in a single piece on hand means that a whale has been recently killed. It can of course come from a dead beach stranded whale, too, but the suspicion is too high.”
Secretions from civet cats is problematic ingredient. In Ethiopia, for example, civets are captured from the wild and kept on family farms, a practice that goes back centuries. Animals are typically kept in small cages in which they can hardly move. The cages are located in dark rooms without any daylight or ventilation with a constant source of fire to create a smoke-filled atmosphere — higher temperatures are believed to facilitate musk production. Due to high temperature fluctuations between the day and night, stress, and painful extraction methods, there is a high rate of mortality among captured animals.
Castoreum derived from beaver sacs has always been a popular perfume ingredient, especially in high end perfumes. Although many designer perfumes have substituted it with synthetic ingredients, the natural form can be found in niche perfumes. It was so popular in early perfume creations and for medicinal purposes that by the sixteenth century, beavers had been hunted to extinction in Scotland. (In 2016, the rodent was reintroduced to its natural habitat.) It is expensive and almost impossible to get secretions from live beavers, so they must to be hunted and killed — and sacs removed and tinctured — to get this perfume ingredient.
Perhaps, one of the most notorious non-ethical animal products is deer musk. Although the use of musk has decreased, today six musk subspecies are listed as endangered on the IUCN Redlist, and the seventh is listed as vulnerable (IUCN Red List). Deer populations are still decreasing and the main threat is illegal hunting for musk extraction for the perfume industry as well as for medicinal use in Russia, Mongolia, and China. Deer musk can be extracted from live animals but they are typically killed to remove their glands. Musk is taken from male deer, and to find one deer who will yield enough musk to be profitable, about 25g, experts estimate that three to five deer are killed. Non-target animals are also often all killed by hunters looking for deer.
Perfume makers can take several routes towards sustainability. Rare raw materials can either be sustainably sourced, replaced with other natural oils with similar fragrance profiles, replaced with synthetic options, or avoided completely when no sustainable options exist. Though even some of these options can be tricky. For example, some synthetic options are not considered eco-friendly, and some plant oils are sold under common names, but extracted from several different plants, making it extremely difficult to control export certification.
From the point of view of an eco-conscious consumer there is only one way to guarantee that perfumes are sustainable and cruelty-free: check how transparent a perfume brand is. While it is still quite a new trend, several small indie brands have begun to pave the way to a more responsible approach to perfume production and ingredient sourcing, and improving transparency in the process, and a few well-established perfume companies have begun to make sustainability commitments as well.
You do not have to stop using perfumes if you are an environmentally conscious consumer. Rather, you must be more cautious when buying the next bottle, and look for brands that respect nature and whose ethos is not only about using ethically sourced raw materials but also promoting sustainability across the industry.