Sustainability has different meanings and applications. For every industry we refer to, there are different factors, supply chain considerations and ways sustainable operations come into play. So today I wanted to go into more depth on an area I haven’t yet fully covered here.
What does sustainability mean when it applies to perfume?
The problems with perfume
Perfume often has a complex supply chain. It requires multiple ingredients, usually sourced from around the globe, as well as various production areas to consider. There are many people involved in the creation of perfume, and many opportunities for unethical practice to slip in.
One of the key considerations is fragrance. There are around 4000 chemicals commonly used in perfumes, while an individual fragrance is usually comprised of mixtures that can require hundreds of chemicals, many of them synthetic and unsafe. The issue is that consumers rarely know what chemicals are used, as brands are able to hide ingredients behind the umbrella term of fragrance in the name of ‘trade secrets’.
These hidden ingredients can include multiple petroleum-based products and toxic chemicals. A 2016 study found that fragranced products can trigger health issues, due to phthalates, octoxynols and nonoxynols, which are hormone disruptors. The Unpacking the Fragrance Industry report exposed the common use of carcinogens and chemicals that appear on international warning lists in perfumes, and one-third of fragrance ingredients have been labelled as known or potential chemicals of concern by Women’s Voice for the Earth.
Beyond ingredients, what else is key to a sustainable perfume brand? Transparency, packaging, how much is produced, fair supply chains, carbon footprint, proper pay for workers and artisans, waste management, circular principles and methods of working that don’t harm the earth are all factors to be considered.
Finding sustainable options
Just like fashion, it’s important that a brand can give answers about their supply chain and sourcing:
- Where is it manufactured? Including product and packaging. Local suppliers will reduce carbon footprint, while certified and transparent supply chains (such as FSC certified packaging) will be more trustworthy.
- How are workers treated? Is child labour allowed? Are workers paid a living wage and allowed to unionise? What are conditions like and can the brand show us?
- What’s the alcohol base? Ethanol, which is fermented from corn, is the norm for mainstream fragrances. Sustainable brands often use sugar cane alcohol as an alternative that uses less energy.
- Is there a low waste approach? What is packaging made from? Is there thought into end of life? Is it refillable, compostable or recyclable? Can you send it back to the brand for reuse?
- What is the brand doing to minimise its footprint? Does it use a local supply chain? Does it support regenerative agriculture or other agroecological methods? How does it transport and manufacture?
- How much does the brand produce? Is the model sustainable if a brand is churning out new fragrances every week? Those creating more small batches slowly are more likely to be operating ethically.
- Is it certified cruelty-free? A finished product may be cruelty-free but a raw materials supplier or parent company may not be, so external verification can be useful.
- What does the label say? Is the brand transparent and clear? What information is available on their products and their website?
Naturals vs Synthetics
When it comes to transparency, the issues of fragrance are top of the list. With it comes debate on natural and synthetic ingredients.
Natural and synthetic ingredients need to be considered on a case by case basis. Sustainability also means reducing harmful overconsumption and resource extraction. In some industries using natural elements can be more damaging, due to impacts like deforestation and water pollution, than creating a synthetic alternative in a lab (this is the case for diamonds, for example).
What matters more is each specific ingredient and the ecological impacts of its production. In the right cases, synthetics can act as alternatives to ingredients that cannot be extracted from nature due to over-harvesting, animal cruelty, natural disasters or other environmental impacts. They can be made ‘nature-identical’, usually meaning they’re created in a lab or replicated from an existing natural molecule. This is particularly used in the case of endangered materials, such as overharvested sandalwood.
Ultimately, it’s not enough either for a brand to say it’s natural or to say it’s safe, and vegan/cruelty-free labels only relate to animal welfare. There needs to be transparency and labelling throughout the brand that explains what is being used, and where it has come from. If a brand clearly labels and has certification, then ingredients and production are generally held to higher standards. Soil association and organic certifications deal with ingredients, fair trade focuses on workers rights, B Corp looks at a brand overall. Other useful certifications you may see include Ecocert, Ecolabel, Cradle to Cradle, Natrue, and Cosmebio.
Brands that can tell you where things are sourced, including documentation of farms, factories and working conditions, are more likely to be trustworthy. They should have knowledge of endangered plants, and should be able to tell you whether they are actively avoiding those ingredients or how they are managing their supplies if they do use them. Some will avoid these ingredients altogether, some will source from certified producers, others will replace them with other ingredients that have similar fragrances, some will use synthetics. Those using synthetics to protect from overhavesting should also be transparent on sourcing and manufacturing processes.
Essentially, it all comes down to transparency.
Some of my favourite sustainable options
With all of this in mind, I wanted to share a few brands who I do think are doing good work, and trying to improve and be open about what they do.
Created in collaboration with Lovorika, Gung Ho’s Bee perfume is 100% pesticide-free and unisex. It’s an alcohol-free Dry Oil Parfum spray, handmade in London in small batches using organic essential oils certified by The Soil Association and natural coconut oil emollient certified by EcoCert. You can also send it back for refills.
Floral Street have won multiple award for sustainability and scents. Their vegan-friendly formulas use sustainably sourced ingredients (including some synthetics created in house), are cruelty-free and housed in recyclable, reusable, compostable packaging. You can even refill in their Covent Garden store.
Sana Jardin is built on circular principles. They established a women’s cooperative in Morocco, enabling low-income female floral harvesters to become micro-entrepreneurs through upcycling and selling floral by-products. All fragrances are cruelty-free and free from phthalates, artificial colorants, parabens, and formaldehyde, and they divert waste from landfill by upcycling orange blossom by-products into essential oils for their bases. Packaging is made from recycled materials and you can return your empty bottles to them directly.
Ffern handmakes organic small-batch perfume four times a year, in sync with the seasons. They are unisex and vegan friendly, and use traditional artisan processes to create perfume slowly, as it was once designed to be.
Abel’s perfumes are 100% natural and vegan, made with an organic, food-grade alcohol base alongside mostly certified organic raw ingredients. They’re committed to transparency – publishing all ingredients and origins online – use recyclable packaging, and are aiming for 100% carbon neutral shipping by 2022.
St Rose source ingredients directly from cooperatives and farmers at origin, ensuring an ethical supply chain and working directly with small producers. Their sandalwood is sourced from an Australian supplier who operates in tandem with the local Aboriginal community, and for each purchase they donate to the non-profit connected with this farm to further give to Indigenous communities in the area. Their ingredients are natural, vegan and non-toxic, packaging is sustainable, they plant a tree with each purchase, and you can send empty bottles back to them for proper recycling.
Henry Rose is unisex, cruelty-free and hypoallergenic, while also being Cradle to Cradle certified. They’re free from parabens, phthalates, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Bottles are made from 90% recycled glass, are 100% recyclable and caps are made from sustainably sourced and commercially compostable soy
Pour le Monde are B-Corp certified and certified by the Natural Products Association. They create 100% natural perfumes that are free from phthalates, petrochemicals, synthetic fragrances, and dyes, have unisex options, and donate 5% of each net sale to charity.
By Rosie Jane is cruelty-free, vegan-friendly and free from parabens, phthalates, and hormone disruptors. Perfume is handmixed in Los Angeles using botanical and nature-absolute synthetic ingredients, all of which are listed online. Their packaging is fully recyclable, with vegetable-based inks, and no single-use plastics.
Maison Louis Marie crafts non-toxic, vegan, cruelty-free fragrances made with natural and safe synthetics. Packaging is made from recycled fiberboard, paper without any toxic coating, soy inks, and glass. They’re also a member of 1% for the planet.
Elementary create 100% natural, unisex fragrances in small batches in the UK. They use natural plant oils with organic grain alcohol, and they’re committed to zero waste principles. Perfume comes in glass bottles with aluminium caps, you order the atomiser separately so you can reuse it again and again, reusing or recycling the glass bottles.
Eden Perfumes are vegan-friendly, cruelty-free and palm oil-free, with no synthetic preservatives, parabens, or phthalates. They use organic European beetroot alcohol as a base and source all essential oils from Europe. You can return your empty bottles to have them refilled.
Prosody London creates natural and organic scents in the UK. They use over 90% certified organic ingredients, as well as organic grain alcohol, and use minimal water. They only source sustainably farmed ingredients, are cruelty-free and vegan-friendly, and support charities working in Fair Trade, Clean Water and the Education of Girls. They also offer a recycling incentive scheme, offering a discount on your next purchase if you return an empty 50ml bottle with the packaging.