Essential Oils - Ethical + Sustainability Issues


With the demand for scented products higher than ever and an increase in aromatherapy popularity, when it comes to sourcing essential oils sustainably and ethically, it’s far more complex than it has ever been.

Essence + Alchemy scented goods are made from essential oils, most of which are farmed throughout the world and many from poor countries. Keeping abreast of what’s happening in the essential oil industry can be difficult. Sudden changes in climate conditions, natural disasters, war and conflict can all affect the growing seasons and sustainability of plants and trees.

The demand for naturally fragranced products is on the increase with essential oils being used in everything from perfumes to washing up liquid. This unfortunately means that demand for some essential oils is often higher than supply, causing huge sustainability and ethical issues. When botanicals become vulnerable or endangered there is also a greater risk of corrupt practices in essential oil trade, from the misrepresentation of botanical species to the addition of cheaper oils to create additional profit for by adulteration (i.e. adding in cheaper essential oils or mixing them with semi-synthetic compounds). The most adulterated essential oils tend to be the high value oils like frankincense and rose.

On a positive note, regeneration of endangered species is possible through conservation initiatives that are promoting the practice of sustainable harvesting methods through training and funding to ensure the conservation of species whilst also creating better working conditions.

Over the years, I’ve had to change my practices, substituting essential oils for more sustainable options and even discontinuing scent lines due to plants/tree species becoming threatened. Working with reputable UK essential oil suppliers who source direct from the growers/suppliers and who build close relationships with the farmers helps me to select raw materials that are sustainably and ethically sourced.

Summarised below are a few of the essential oils currently facing challenges with their sourcing:

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Frankincense

For millions of years, frankincense, one of the most commonly used essential oils for fragrance and spiritual practice was harvested in a sustainable manner but unfortunately the rise in global demand has meant that the forests can’t regenerate fast enough to survive current rates of over-harvesting and many frankincense forests have completely disappeared.

Unsustainable harvesting methods involves making a higher number of cuts per tree to extract as much sap as possible and tapping the trees year all year round rather than seasonally allows them little chance to recover. These intensive practices weaken the trees, impeding their regrowth and ultimately killing them.

With frankincense harvesting being one of the main livelihoods for local people in Somaliland, they are risking their lives to meet the global demand by climbing up cliffs to find new sources with reports of people suffering injuries including breaking legs and in some cases death.

Source Link: DW.COM, Fair Trade Frankincense
Photo Credit: picture-alliance/AP Photo/hotabe

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oud / Agarwood

Oud grows in the wounds of the Aquilaria tree (Agar-wood). The trees would naturally be scarred by the claws of bears and tigers and the subsequent rot when harvested then burned gave off an irresistible fragrance.

Distilled into essential oil, oud is one of the most expensive materials in perfumery and incense. The mysterious and woody scent has been popular in the Middle East for centuries but now its popularity in the West is driving the wild trees to extinction with new plantations struggling to keep up with the demand.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation, which maintains an authoritative database on the status of species, called the red list, issued an update in July 2018 and moved the species from vulnerable to critically endangered.

Source Links: Plantations International, Hindustantimes
Photo Credit: Source Unknown

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Ylang Ylang

Ylang ylang, known as the ‘Flower or Flowers’ is popular in perfumery for its deep floral qualities. Originally from Indonesia, the Cananga odorata tree now finds its home in Madagascar and the archipelago of volcanic islands called the Comoros islands.

In Comoros, the industry was fuelling its own demise through deforestation. Trees were being harvested to provide wood to fire the ‘bush stills’ with deforestation being further an issue with land being cleared for more and more ylang ylang trees to be planted.

Due to this, ylang ylang has a bad reputation. There are organic and sustainably harvested sources becoming available as conservation initiatives are put in place in the Comoros islands including training and environmental management.

Source Link & Photo Credit: Natural Resources Stewardship Circle

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Rosewood

Essential oil from the Brazilian rosewood tree (Aniba rosaeodora Ducke) is valued as an important fragrance ingredient in the luxury perfume industry. Due to over harvesting, rosewood is now listed as an endangered species with the production of it’s essential oil being a strong contributor to its demise.

Source Link: Forest Legality Initiative
Photo Credit: Westranger/iStock/GettyImages

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Vanilla

Vanilla is everywhere, used extensively in the fragrance and food industries. Fair Trade farmers cultivating the beans face theft of crops, violence and murder. The value of beans is increasing due to demand and changing weather patterns and with such high demand, many commit crime to get hold of the valuable product.

Source Links: Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, BBC
Photo Credit: BBC