Perfume is going green

Perfumers are experimenting with the sweet smell of sustainability. John Dyer reports.

Flowers and other natural scents were the mainstay of perfumes from the 1700s to the 1920s, when Coco Chanel first incorporated artificial scents to create her Chanel No. 5. The popularity of the aroma spurred an explosion of synthetic fragrances through flowers, roots, fruits, wood and moss continued to provide scents for perfumes.

But now customers want more natural ingredients in their perfumes, wrote Chemical and Engineering News.

All-natural skin care products

A Harris Poll recently found that 19 per cent of consumers believed that buying all-natural fragrances was “important”. That was a 4 per cent increase compared to 2015. Approximately 38 per cent of respondents said they preferred all-natural skin care products.

The trend spells a shift for the $39 billion global perfume market, which grows by around 3.6 per cent annually, with younger, more environmentally conscious consumers making their biggest cohort of new customers.

Companies likely won’t transition entirely to natural ingredients anytime soon. Synthetic materials have been tested for health and safety, don’t suffer shortages, don’t succumb to wild price swings and don’t come from animals.

Not all natural ingredients are sustainable

Natural ingredients aren’t necessarily always sustainable or sourced responsibly, either. Some mosses contain allergens. French lavender is produced in an environmentally friendly way, but sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli often originate in developing countries where they are not farmed sustainably.

“Over the decades I have seen vanilla prices fluctuate wildly,” said Anya McCoy, who is president of the Natural Perfumers Guild. “We do get weather, war, and other disruptions.”

Some of McCoy’s creations have had limited runs due to shortages. She was concocting a perfume from rare golden agarwood, an expensive ingredient. Then the producer discontinued supplying it, so she could no longer make that scent.

“I don’t get all that worked up about it,” McCoy said. “Scent variations happen from year to year. It’s a natural cycle like for a farmer, gardener or winemaker.”

Sometimes synthetic is better

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a natural or synthetic scent is better.

For years, adding a musk aroma to perfumes required killing an Asian deer, for example. But in the 1920s, scientists discovered how to make musk synthetically. In the 1980s, however, artificial musk was revealed to be carcinogenic. New costly replacement options are now available using smells modelled after the oil from ambrette seed in the Andes.

The world’s biggest fragrance and flavour company, Switzerland’s Givaudan, made three moves involving natural scent-related firms last year.

It bought Expressions Parfumées, which specializes in organic compounds, and announced its intention to acquire Albert Vieille. Both are based in Grasse, France, the traditional heart of the European perfume industry. It also partnered with Synthite, an Indian company that produces floral extracts and essential oils like cardamom, ginger, jasmine and tuberose.

“We are always looking for innovative solutions,” said Maurizio Volpi, president of Givaudan’s fragrance division, in a statement. “Synthite…is at the origin of some of the most iconic perfumery ingredients. We will use their existing capabilities to craft locally unique exclusive new floral and spicy qualities that will define the signatures of consumers’ favourite brands.”

Chanel invests in new forests

Other companies are making moves towards sustainability.

After concerns arose about sandalwood deforestation in India, Chanel invested in new forests in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The company is funding local efforts to breed new trees, controlling cutting and protecting 75,000 old trees.

“While New Caledonia has extensive resources of sandalwood, the supply chain faced a combination of environmental, social, and economic risks,” said Chanel in its 2018 corporate responsibility report. “For every tree cut in the conservation area, five new trees are now transplanted to and cultivated in the sandalwood nursery.”

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