Sustainability Red Alert June 30, 2020

It is difficult to look for a silver lining when every news item is met with a sense of dread. In times when survival is the basic instinct, other ancillary factors take a back seat. But sometimes the biggest tragedies also give us the time and space to reflect. And the coronavirus pandemic has done just that. It has forced us to address the elephant in the room. The unprecedented lockdown across the globe to stem the spread of coronavirus has had a pleasant side-effect.

Nature is healing, and wildlife is on a restoration path. Visuals of cleaner water and air, along with animals freely occupying otherwise crowded urban spaces have been a soothing sight in this pandemic chaos. For some parts of the world, different birds chirping is a first. All this has been made possible by a drastic drop in pollution levels across the globe. With hardly any cars on roads and factories shutting down operations, carbon emissions have declined, the air is visibly cleaner.

The word sustainability has been the centre of strategy conversation for a while, but this situation puts it into prime focus.

According to certain published reports, China saw a decline of 18 percent in carbon emissions between early February and mid-March. This led to an estimated 250 million metric tonne fall in carbon-related pollution from China, which is the world’s biggest contributor to carbon emissions. It is being estimated that the European Union (EU) too will witness about a 400 million metric tonne fall in carbon emissions, due to decreased industrial activity and power consumption.

These numbers are remarkable and go on to show the unadulterated plundering of the environment we do on a regular basis. However, this isn’t a long-term solution, but a rude jolt of reality. If we continue to look at China as a case in point, industries are commencing operations slowly, but steadily. And we can already witness a rebound in emissions, thus diminishing any hope that the short-lived decline will cause even a dent in the mountain called climate change.

So, what is it that the entire episode of nature’s personal healing taught us? It has given us proof, if we ever needed it, that we are abusing our environment to limits which will be impossible to come back from. The word sustainability has been the centre of strategy conversation for a while, but this situation puts it into prime focus. Now more than ever, we need to sustain the bend of economies towards a greener and climate friendly direction with investments in low-carbon infrastructure and building efficiency. The way of working, as we knew it, will have a drastic change and overnight evolution. We need to come out of this crisis in a better position, there simply is no choice here.

The only way to achieve this target is a collective approach. Sustainability is a ship that can’t reach the shore unless every sail is hoisted properly. For the essential oils industry, every participant in the process needs to undertake sustainable practices to ensure a healthy relationship with the environment. This is even more crucial for our industry, because, for essential oils, it is not only about sustainable production practices, it is as much about conservation of plants. Flora and fauna, after all, form the core of this business. Thus, this is an extensive sustainability exercise that requires everyone, from farmers to distilleries to distributors, to companies procuring the products, and consumers using them, to play an active role to effect change.

Let us start at the base of the food chain. Farmers are the most crucial element in this cycle and often the most neglected. Going forward, every stakeholder must ensure adequate working conditions in farms for the success of this model. Proper working standards must be followed, social distancing, along with suitable support for sustainable farming practices. A major part of essential oil farming happens in developing economies, and thus, this a crucial step that cannot be ignored. Farmers in these countries need assistance and guidance to progress on a sustainable path. Organic substitutes for pesticides and herbicides should be made available. At the same time they also need to be educated in the advantages of organic farming. Unless they understand and witness the advantages, there will always be a danger of relapse towards chemical ways.

The next step is the reduction of carbon footprint. Like other domains, technology can play a massive part in this quest for the essential oil industry too. For a while now, advancements in resource recovery and waste recycling have shown good results. Research in developing environment-friendly products, innovative extraction methods, and alternatives to rare plant species are also in the works.

While we are on the sourcing side of essential oils another factor that needs to be considered is partnerships with local communities. Investing and developing local markets for the sale of products is a healthy exercise.  If we partner with local suppliers, NGOs, associations or other initiatives, they will aid the growth of the farming community and in turn the region.

But one of toughest calls, still, in the entire cycle is concern of over-harvesting. Essential oils are highly concentrated products and large quantities of plants go into meeting the demand. There is a delicate balance between fulfilling demand and preserving the environment that needs to be maintained here. One of the first steps to ensure healthy harvesting practices is the transparent dissemination of information amongst all concerned parties. This will lead to more responsible practices, while sourcing essential oils. The next crucial factor concerns the mechanism that is adopted to procure these treasured products. Whether it is wild harvesting or controlled environment harvesting, there are clear guidelines that one needs to follow.

First and foremost, wild harvesting is not encouraged because of the limited supply in nature. While it may be the easier option, it should never be done at the cost of the species. Even if one was to go for wild harvesting, the stipulated rate of harvesting is less than 5% of the population of the particular plant. These numbers are sacrosanct and need to be respected to ensure the survival of the plant species. As far as controlled environment harvesting is concerned, concentrating on plants that are indigenous to the region, and giving soil enough time to replenish, are important factors to consider. For the industry to survive and receive continuous and quality supply of essential oils, we need to support agro-forestry.

The sustainability circle cannot be complete without an active participation from the consumer. Considering a drop of essential oil is the result of numerous plants, the wise usage of the product becomes important. As a rapidly growing market the essential oils industry is responsible for numerous livelihoods, businesses, and consumers. But with this growth comes the burden of leading by example, and not letting its core element – THE ENVIRONMENT – suffer. Sustainability is a team exercise and all players need to perform their tasks with 100 percent commitment to emerge victorious. It will require time, planning, and the willingness to give up short term goals for long term benefits. But it is certainly not an impossible task. We have been making consistent progress on this front with the aid of our partners and technical advances.

We witness the planet making an attempt to heal. It is happening organically due to the unfortunate circumstances and we are compelled to learn from the current trend. The steps we take today will define the way the planet reacts omorrow. A conscious decision to adopt sustainable practices is the need of the hour. Since we cannot survive alone in this vast ocean, we need to join hands in the quest to save our planet.