Natural raw materials: plants, essences and people

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Brand messaging regularly gives the impression that natural perfumery is all there is to sustainable perfumery, playing on the mirage conveyed by rose pickers happily at work as the sun peeps over the horizon. Can naturalness be so easily considered the best way towards a more responsible production? The profile of the plant as well as the producer, link between the different actors, financial value given to the product, yield, transformation process and waste management are all criteria to be taken into account when trying to determine the environmental and social impact of natural raw materials.

Environmental impact: a monoculture industry?

Measuring this environmental impact is not easy, as the 30% or so of natural products that make up the perfumery palette are diverse. Flowers, roots, fruit, wood, resins and spices each have varying botanical and geographical characteristics. We will leave aside animal ingredients, which, although they raise ethical problems, are now very rarely used.

The first difficulty that arises is that the perfume industry does not exist in a bubble and cannot control crops it has not always directly commissioned. The brands, which sell the finished product, usually turn to composition houses when it comes to olfactory creation. However, the composition houses usually buy natural raw materials from producers who also supply the aromatherapy and food flavouring sectors. This is the case for citrus essence, one of the world’s most widely produced essential oils[1]The most widely produced essential oils in the world are citrus and mint, followed by eucalyptus, lemongrass, clove, lavender and cedar. Source: FranceAgriMer’s 2020 overview of perfume, … Continue reading, made from the peel of fruit used by the food industry for juice. While the large-scale cultivation of fruit trees is polluting, the perfume industry simply uses the by-products.

Even when plants take a more direct path to the industry, the implementation of initiatives requires a global organisation, which is not always the responsibility of the composition houses themselves. This applies to lavender and lavandin, which occupy 49% of the growing area of French perfume, aromatic and medicinal plants[2]In France, perfume, aromatic and medicinal plant crops represented 67,513 hectares and 6,527 producers in 2021. Perfume plants cover the largest surface area in the sector, with 37,897 hectares in … Continue reading. Thanks in particular to the Comité Interprofessionnel des Huiles Essentielles Françaises (CIHEF), which represents the entire chain – producers, distillers, cooperatives and direct buyers – and is recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture, the sector can implement action plans on a national scale to ensure that the environmental impact is decisive. The Green & Lavender programme[3]Run by the Fonds de Dotation pour la Sauvegarde des Lavandes de Provence, the programme raises funds to help producers tackle the challenges of the future. has recently launched a study of the entire chain, which is crucial to combating false assumptions. Contrary to what the purple fields of Provence stretching as far as the eye can see suggest, “there is very little lavender monoculture. When it does exist, it is mainly a response to the reality of the land: in these areas, not much else grows,” explains Pierre-Philippe Garry, director of CIHEF and COO at Bontoux, a company that produces and supplies natural ingredients. It is a crop that “favours biodiversity: it attracts lots of insects, encourages pollination, and is also used to make lavender honey, which represents 10% of French honey production,” adds Charlotte Bringer-Guerin, CIHEF’s regulatory and environmental affairs officer. A large proportion of lavender production is organic[4]Over 50% of lavender production and over 10% of lavandin production in France is organic. The figure has been rising for several years and is far higher than the 12% of national production that is … Continue reading, but “supply exceeds demand, and not all organic products find a buyer willing to pay the price. They will then have to be sold without the label, and their price lowered accordingly,” says Pierre-Philippe Garry. Lavandin is mostly destined for detergents, which are marketed with little need for the organic label. And then there is the fact that “mechanical weeding, which requires the use of diesel-powered machines, can sometimes be more harmful than weedkillers. You have to look at the whole life cycle of the product,” as Pierre-Philippe Garry explains.  

However, for globally grown crops, this type of organisation is not systematic. On the whole, monoculture is not the norm, which is a positive point for the environment: “in this regard, countries perceived as ‘developing’ are ultimately more respectful of biodiversity: culturally, families often work small plots of land as part of a polyculture model”, notes Elisa Aragon, co-founder and CEO of the production company Nelixia, in Guatemala. But only isolated, individual initiatives seem possible on the face of it.

The problem of distance: towards more transparency?

While limiting monocultures offers obvious ecological benefits, the distance and multiplication of actors pose other types of problems. Transparency has been the bane of the industry for decades: “A great deal of work has been done to identify the different links in the production chain: composition houses now know much more about the farmers, collectors and distillers behind the materials they buy,” stresses Dominique Roques, sourcer at Firmenich. Brands have increasing environmental and social imperatives, responding to consumer demand for more ethical products. However, composition houses do not always have the means to implement changes themselves: they turn to producers, with their overall view of the actors involved, as an intermediary. These producers manage the gap between marketing requirements and the reality on the ground: “European industries are obviously far removed from local realities. Direct communication that explains the time required for any changes and their complexity is therefore extremely important,” insists Elisa Aragon. Their role is essential in helping pickers, harvesters and resin tappers to set up systems that are more virtuous: “We always take an array of factors into account, because sustainability is multi-dimensional. First of all, we have to understand the socio-economic situation of the producer and the specificities of the raw material: do they depend on the crop? What is their socio-economic situation? What are the plant’s needs in terms of water, sun and inputs? What pesticides are used? We can then carry out a risk analysis to establish an appropriate solution,” she continues. The transformation of production methods therefore implies a change on the part of all actors and also raises the question of the value that the industry places on the products on which it depends.

Redefining value: a forgotten necessity?

The reason why composition houses do not always offer purchase guarantees is primarily related to the way the industry works. When a brand decides to create a perfume, it puts different companies in competition: only one of them will win the project and be able to sell its concentrate: “the competition means that the composition houses have little visibility on the projects that will eventually succeed, and therefore on the products that will have to be purchased,” Dominique Roques points out. This is why producers help farmers to diversify their buyers and their crops, bolstering their resilience. But Mathilde Voisin, ingredients marketing manager for Mane, reminds us that they cannot carry the weight of the industry on their shoulders: “As a composition house, we have a role to play in buying raw materials every year, not just when we need them.” For example, Mane introduced a responsible purchasing policy in 2009 aimed at encouraging its suppliers to adopt a sustainable approach: “We have them fill in a questionnaire and offer them support based on their answers, but it is not an authoritarian approach. It’s a huge task and it’s essential: we can’t claim to have beautiful products without shouldering our responsibilities.” This also means not always meeting the demands of certain customers who would like to be able to claim new essences in their products: “We have to explain to them that putting a crop in place requires a commitment on our part. We need to guarantee farmers that we will work with them over the long term: this is a facet of sustainability that is sometimes forgotten,” she continues.

In order to bring about real change, brand demands must result in tangible financial benefits for the most vulnerable. But buyers sometimes take advantage of long-established traditions to avoid paying farmers what they are worth: “The industry must pay a much more concrete tribute to the luxury aspect of these ingredients, since it recognises their rarity and beauty. And many of them are not very expensive; composition houses would usually have no trouble coping with an increase,” points out Dominique Roques.

To encourage changes in practices and reward efforts, various actors are looking for solutions. The Low Carbon label created by the Ministry of Ecology makes it possible to short-circuit the lack of investment by buyers: companies can finance low-carbon projects as a form of compensation for their own emissions. The CIHEF is currently implementing it in the lavender industry: “This principle makes it possible to financially support producers who make efforts to adopt more virtuous practices,” says Charlotte Bringer-Guerin. But the approach has its obvious limits and reminds us that changing habits globally requires the agreement of all the actors rather than emergency solutions. A few years ago, Dominique Roques sought to remedy this imbalance by organising a process aimed at unifying and establishing dialogue, Naturals Together, to open a debate between producers and buyers. But now that the notion of sustainability has become a selling point for the composition companies, they would like to appropriate it exclusively. However, the competitive system they embrace seems incompatible with the shared, cooperative approach that global change would entail and leaves farmers in the dark.

Certification: shining a light on the shadows?

Certification might seem an ideal solution to tackle the sometimes fragmented messages of composition houses and diverse demands of brands. Often implemented on a global scale, it could provide a single, unchanging and, therefore, more objective set of criteria. “However, there are a lot of them, and they’re not all aimed at the same audience: Fair for Life [measuring fair trade and responsible channels], For Life [for social responsibility], and Fairwild [which monitors sustainable harvesting] are aimed more at raw material producers and buyers. Ecovadis and Sedex have been developed for companies to use among themselves. Others, such as CDP and Dow Jones, are favoured by investors,” clarifies Valérie Lovisa, founder of ABTYS, a consulting agency in the field of CSR as applied to the perfume and cosmetics industries.

For Cosmos Natural and Cosmos Organic certifications (or Cosmos Certified and Cosmos Approved for ingredients), the perfumery sector remains poorly represented, “probably because natural composition is technically complex in the perfumery industry, but also because the images conjured up by marketing are not always in line with organic,” suggests Nicolas Bertrand, director of Cosmébio and certification body Cosmécert. Conditions for obtaining certification do not stop at the ingredients, as is often thought, but encompass improvements to the entire chain, right down to packaging. The certificate has to be renewed every year, with an on-site audit, “or a statement describing in detail the processes used to obtain the Cosmos Approved raw materials.” Certified companies can join Cosmebio, which is in charge of the eponymous label. Created in 2002, it now has more than 500 member companies committed to respecting its manifesto. The manifesto calls for a global change of attitude aimed at drastically reducing our consumption, without which the organic model will not be sufficient. 

On the other hand, certification, of whatever kind, is not always the answer, as it can leave out the smallest actors, who cannot afford the labels and whose disappearance would go relatively unnoticed: “It is sometimes problematic, as it can be punitive and force farmers to hide problems, which means we can no longer act on them. But we cannot demand that all producers’ practices correspond directly to our requirements. Instead, we must aim to support them in their efforts to adopt better practices. This is what the UEBT does with its verification programme,” explains Elisa Aragon. The Union for Ethical Biotrade is a non-profit association founded in 2007 to promote sourcing that respects biodiversity and the stakeholders involved. It launched ingredient certification in 2015 and an overall system certification in 2018. But it has also created this more flexible “verification” system, which aims to support improvement rather than sanction it.

Certification of companies and brands could be a solution, as they have the financial capacity to pay the price. B Corp, which was created in 2006 in the USA, has social, environmental, transparency and legal responsibility components: “One of B Corp’s objectives is to create a community of companies that can be inspired by each other, and that can be identified by consumers for their positive impact. This certification was designed to encourage collaboration, like a virtuous circle. It redefines the notion of success in the corporate world, making positive environmental and social impact a core value – and thus driving powerful global change,” explains Valérie Lovisa. To qualify, brands are invited to fill in an initial online questionnaire, called the Business Impact Assessment (BIA), free of charge: “Free access to the questionnaire allows each company to assess itself, identify its strengths and define areas for improvement that it can work on later,” she points out. Once the BIA is submitted, B Lab will ask for justification of 10% of the information provided. In order to obtain B Corp certification, each company must achieve a minimum of 80 out of 200 points. Such initiatives point to increasingly virtuous dynamics in the future, by shifting the cost of certification to the most powerful actors.

We can also question the value of a certified ingredient claimed to be in a fragrance with no proportion mentioned and all the other ingredients a mystery – a practice that looks rather like greenwashing. However, the perfume industry has come a long way: “communication was based on evocation for many years. But now brands are demanding certification of all natural materials: we have entered a phase embracing a much more radical approach,” clarifies Dominique Roques. Nonetheless, current labels do not always take account of one of the essential points of a raw material’s environmental impact: its transformation.

Extraction processes: the poor relatives of naturalness?

The life of a raw material does not end when it is harvested: “The extraction process, low yield and amount of waste generated are the main criteria that will lower a raw material’s Green Motion rating,” says Mathilde Voisin. The carbon footprint of transporting plants is small, as extraction generally has to be done on site since plants rapidly lose their olfactory components after harvesting – with the exception of certain raw materials, such as resins. It is therefore mainly the concretes or essences obtained that travel, which weigh far less than fresh plants. 

Among the four most widely employed extraction processes, cold extraction, used in particular for citrus fruits, is a method of pressing followed by centrifugation that separates the essential oil from the water. It has the triple advantage of being chemical-free, energy-efficient and using food industry waste. 

The process considered to be the most polluting is extraction with volatile solvents, which is why the absolutes produced by this process are not authorised for Cosmos Organic certification. It is used to extract the perfume from flowers that do not tolerate heating processes. However, hexane, used as a solvent, is a petroleum derivative and continues to pollute even when it is reused several times in the extraction circuit. Companies are therefore looking at ways of doing without it. An alternative has emerged in the form of extraction with supercritical CO2, i.e. compressed to a fluid state. It then acts as a solvent, carrying away the compounds it dissolves, and becomes gaseous again by means of depressurisation. But the process requires an expensive installation that cannot be set up everywhere. Mane has worked on overcoming this problem by combining enfleurage with supercritical fluid extraction, the source of its E-Pure Jungle Essence. Other companies are looking to go solvent-free by developing new methods, such as Firmenich and its Firgood technology. By exposing the plant to electromagnetic frequencies, the water contained in the plant is heated, allowing the fragrant substances to be extracted. Firmenich began developing the technique in its laboratory in 2015, and the first three extracts obtained in 2021 will soon be followed by others[5]See From Plant to Essence, 2021, Nez.

Hydrodistillation and steam distillation are processes used to obtain essential oils which are time-consuming and require a lot of energy and water. So while solvent extraction is often seen as the villain, in reality, “we must move away from simplistic marketing messages. Research into bio-based solvents is obviously an excellent idea, but we need to understand that the distillation process, which has a greener image, has a proportionally greater environmental impact, because it is the most widely used by far,” warns Pierre-Philippe Garry. Improving this process is thus one of the imperatives of the lavender industry, but also of concern to companies such as LMR, the IFF naturals subsidiary, which has developed an improved distillation process by modifying the mechanisms of the stills for one of its flagship products, patchouli[6]Patchouli in Perfumery, Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks.

Yields depend on the plant, its concentration of olfactory molecules and their extractability. For example, extracted with a volatile solvent, jasmine has a yield of 0.125% (800 kg of flower for 1 kg of concrete), tuberose 0.06%. When distilled, vetiver has a yield of 0.5% to 1%, sandalwood 35%[7]These figures are taken from different books published by Nez (in the Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks collection, and in the book From Plant to Essence).. The concretes, obtained by extraction, must then be washed with ethanol in order to obtain an absolute suitable for use – and here again the yield varies, from 26% for tuberose to 60% for jasmine. And for the same plant, depending on the extraction process, the yield – and the olfactory result – can be radically different: Damask rose has a yield six times greater with extraction than with distillation. These are all variables to take into account when gauging the environmental impact of a process, which is a decisive issue for the future of perfumery. Because when obtaining a product involves the use of polluting processes, the systematic rejection of synthetic in favour of natural does not hold water: favouring a natural raw material in a composition while ignoring its mode of extraction clearly does not make much sense.

Finally, plant waste, desolventised if necessary, can be used “as biomass, agricultural fertiliser, or even as a food product, as is the case with vanilla,” says Mathilde Voisin. It is relatively unproblematic compared to other industries, but research is underway to identify optimal treatments. For example, the spent grains (plant residues after extraction) from lavender and lavandin and the plants at the end of their life “will be used as mulch, covering the soil to further promote biodiversity and limit water stress,” explains Charlotte Bringer-Guerin. Composition houses are increasingly developing upcycled products, as at Symrise, where the Garden Lab collection enriches the palette of perfumers: odour molecules are recovered from the cooking water of vegetables used to make baby food (asparagus, artichoke, onion, cauliflower and leek) by means of a hydroalcoholic process. However, they do not often feature in compositions, and the impact of the transformations, in other cases, is not always positive: “we can recover certain forms of waste, but we must keep in mind that if we go through a transformation process, we sometimes create more disadvantages than the vegetable waste itself poses,” concludes Mathilde Voisin.

In an attempt to cover every dimension of the environmental and social impact of natural raw materials, which is sometimes far greater than that of synthetics, composition companies have developed measurement tools that will be discussed in a future article in our report. However, the complexity of the issue calls for awareness – raising on a broader scale. And that can only be achieved through a change in the industry’s communication practices; the prospect of consumers moving towards more thoughtful purchases depends on it.


Summary

Notes

Notes
1 The most widely produced essential oils in the world are citrus and mint, followed by eucalyptus, lemongrass, clove, lavender and cedar. Source: FranceAgriMer’s 2020 overview of perfume, aromatic and medicinal plants.
2 In France, perfume, aromatic and medicinal plant crops represented 67,513 hectares and 6,527 producers in 2021. Perfume plants cover the largest surface area in the sector, with 37,897 hectares in 2021 and three predominant species: lavandin and lavender (33,094 hectares) and clary sage (3,400 hectares). Source: CAP 2021.
3 Run by the Fonds de Dotation pour la Sauvegarde des Lavandes de Provence, the programme raises funds to help producers tackle the challenges of the future.
4 Over 50% of lavender production and over 10% of lavandin production in France is organic. The figure has been rising for several years and is far higher than the 12% of national production that is organic (for all crops combined).
5 See From Plant to Essence, 2021, Nez.
6 Patchouli in Perfumery, Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks.
7 These figures are taken from different books published by Nez (in the Nez+LMR Naturals Notebooks collection, and in the book From Plant to Essence).

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