Is Your Perfume Sustainable?
By Kamila Abdurashitova
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.
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 U.S. 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 said. "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.
Kamila Abdurashitova, also known as Kamila Aubre, is a freelance writer and an independent perfumer. She has an MA in Political and Social Sciences from Lancaster University. At the moment she lives in Belgium and designs natural perfumes as well as promotes an eco-conscious approach to beauty and perfume products.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earth Island Journal.
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Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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