The sweetest thing: natural or synthetic?

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​It might be the oldest trick in the book of the perfume industry, sex sells but nowadays we might be able to add, so does organic. The idea is compelling: a fragrance that contains all-natural ingredients sounds exclusive, good for our health and environment friendly. However, in the case of perfumes, it’s the synthetic fragrance that proves to be a greener choice.

A natural beauty?

“We’ve been seeing growth in fragrance brands that have a natural focus for years,” says Kissura Craft, fragrance analyst at The NPD Group. “Consumers gravitate toward brands that have a concentration on natural ingredients as there is the thought that they are healthier and better. So they shy away from anything they think is synthetic.” Which isn’t just the case when it comes to perfume; the trend towards using natural ingredients and materials is also evident in the food-, clothing- and beauty industry. However, when it comes to fragrance, all-natural can be more harmful than it might appear. The reason being that several natural ingredients used in perfume come from scarce plants and flowers, like vanilla, sandalwood, ylang ylang, vetiver and more.

Take vanilla – one of today’s most favoured notes – derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla and mainly produced in Madagascar, has now become one of the most expensive spices in the world today. Why? First of all, because of its labour intensity. Vanilla beans are part of the orchid family and have to be hand-pollinated on the farms. Once they are picked, the beans have to dry in the sun for about three to six months before they can be used. Also, it takes about 500 kg of vanilla pods to produce only one 1 kg of vanillin extract. But over the last couple of years another challenge has risen: deforestation. While vanilla beans traditionally grow under the shade of trees in rainforests, farmers in Madagascar now clear these forests to create even bigger plantations to grow vanilla in a more ‘modern’ way. Which doesn’t only have a major impact on our environment, it also reduces the quality of the vanilla.

However, perfumers are still using these scarce natural ingredients (like vanilla) to create their organic fragrance. After all, consumers still think they are healthy and environment friendly so why use the synthetic opponent? Well, let’s start by saying that they are cheaper, stronger, last longer and they offer a bigger variety, allowing the perfumer to be much more creative. However, it’s not what the consumer desires, at least not for now. And so the major struggle that fragrance companies now have to face is how to sustainably produce a product that is rather unsustainable.

Keeping it real

“We support and encourage our members to play an active role in sustainability,” director of the UK International Fragrance Association (IFRA) Lisa Hipgrave says. “I believe that by sharing as much as possible and providing a forum for discussion on sustainability, the industry can continue to develop sustainable programmes and work in a sustainable manner. Many companies in the UK are now progressively integrating sustainability aspects into the ways the supply chains are managed and the clients now expect the entire industry to behave sustainable. This builds trust in the relationship between the consumer and their brands,” explains Hipgrave.

Borregaard, member of IFRA, is such a company that progressively integrates sustainability in producing natural ingredients for the fragrance industry. With their bio refinery concept they turn wood into bio chemicals, bio materials and specialty products based on natural raw materials such as vanillin. It still takes about 1000 kilos of wood to produce three kilos of vanillin extract but the company states that their vanillin has a 90% smaller CO2-foorprint compared to mineral oil-based vanillin. “We utilise more than 90 per cent of our biomass compared to the three per cent used for vanillin produced from beans. We are using a resource that can be regrown,” explains Borregaard Vanillin’s business director Thomas Marwedel in one of IFRA’s case studies.

True colours

Which means that the fragrance industry is making some major steps in ensuring the sustainability of raw materials, but there is still a lot more that can be done. “The concept of the circular economy – a metaphor for enhanced resource productivity, often translated as doing “more with less” and managing waste and residue materials more efficiently – is not applied consciously, but is practiced instinctively in some cases,” explains Lisa Hipgrave. “I think improvements could be made with regard to waste, especially in packaging. To be implemented properly, circular economy practices will require a lot of knowledge.” And sometimes a little nudge from us consumers.

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