Growing consumer interest in sustainability is giving birth to ideas and products that could be a threat to the naturals industry. There is no need to fear – this is a huge opportunity to show the world why naturals matter and how they could make an impact.

Over the last decade, sustainability has gone from boring corporate jargon to a must-have Instagram hot topic for influencers and business people alike to shout about; albeit, one from which confusion still flows in rivers of alternative facts. Definitions may vary, but all understandings of what sustainable living should be prophesy a future where the things that are alive on earth at the moment can keep on living, live happily, and live for a long time. Inevitably, people, money, and nature are involved in these visions – sprouting policy that stimulates local economies, safeguards health as well as jobs and ensures productive and good quality growth conditions within the world’s variety of ecosystems.

The World Commission on Environment and Development explicate sustainability as ‘a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations’ whilst the United Nations, back in a 1987 report, termed it as ‘a balancing act … [meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations’.  Finally, the public, particularly the young global public, are getting behind these ideas.

That said, there is also cause to question the direction today’s cultural landscape will pull the fight for sustainability and what new threats it puts up for businesses in general, and businesses in the fragrance industry in particular. This essay offers a scrutinising overview of what challenges lie ahead for players in the field of natural oils (and by extension F&F houses and brands) in terms of sustainability, addressing in turn which opportunities must be seized today to capitalise on sustainability’s newfound fame on social media.


As of the beginning of 2019, sustainability is cool for young people – a Masdar report presented to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2016 found that 40% of Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2015) report climate change as their top priority whilst 81% believe the private sector should lead the way in shifting to cleaner technology (as reported by Thrive Global).  This is having a notable impact on purchasing habits – Fuse Marketing report that 26% of Gen Z have boycotted a company that supports issues contrary to their own whilst Business News Daily states that ‘consumer interest in these principles could create huge economic opportunities for businesses, with a value of up to $12 trillion by 2030’, following estimates from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission. 

As a result of this sea change in priorities for tomorrow’s biggest consumer group, sustainability is no longer solely the domain of good-willed start-ups and NGOs; the largest companies in the world have acknowledged its

mainstream currency and have invested time and money into the philosophy of sustainable production such as L’Oréal who have committed to a 60% reduction in water consumption per finished product by 2020 from a 2005 baseline. 

There is no doubt that the change of storyline that front-line consumers are asking for, exemplified by the recent youth demonstrations in Belgium (featuring tens of thousands of children that skipped school to protest against

political complacency for climate change), are a positive step towards practice change for those that ardently support sustainability initiatives.  There is a pronounced modulation from the more radical and ideologically motivated calls for a fantasy ‘green’ world in the 1990s, arguably out of touch with both the cultural mood and

science of the time, to a more measured evidence-based strategy that demands full transparency of corporate intentions and responsibilities with real results, not just marketing. All of this has been happening while some major politicians and opinion-makers still deny the existence of global warming, despite overwhelming evidence of its existence.

There is a distinct edge of narcissism about the neo-sustainability movement. It is certainly a little bit about helping the world, but it is also a lot about egos and company wallets. People do want to be involved, but they also want to be able to share their involvement on Facebook, and they want faces and figures to go along with their on-show altruism. This changes the game and how it is played. The eco conversation and also eco business will go to the companies that not only act ethically and fruitfully in sustainable endeavours but those that also communicate their efforts clearly, confidently, and with an element of participation to rouse followers’ hearts and pockets.


On the flip side, greenwashing is still a problem – the act of ‘falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations’, in the words of Scientific American. On top of that, it is difficult even for experts to work out and agree on what truly is the most sustainable path for a production process, let alone for everyday consumers to filter all the information bombarding them and make an informed choice. The current vegan lifestyle trend is synonymous with sustainability but even this could change soon. Take recent analysis from freelance journalist Tony Naylor writing in the Guardian about the food industry from an article entitled ‘Why everything you know about sustainable eating is probably wrong’:

Pre-shipping, the carbon created by a litre of semi-skimmed [milk] is far higher than that of almond milk … “But what people don’t know is the environmental damage almond plantations are doing in California, and the water cost. It takes a bonkers 1,611 US gallons (6,098 litres) to produce 1 litre of almond milk,” says the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Pete Hemingway.

Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California, which has been in severe drought for most of this decade. Hemingway describes a situation in which farmers are ripping up relatively biodiverse citrus groves to feed rocketing demand for almonds, creating a monoculture fed by increasingly deep-water wells that threaten state-wide subsidence issues.

The same problem potentially lies ahead for the naturals industry. Natural perfume and flavour materials are equated with respect for the earth and its atmosphere, but there is a risk that direct-to-consumer marketing for synthetic alternatives will be persuasive enough to initiate a rapid cascade in opinion towards eco-friendly chemicals over labour-intensive naturals. A 2016 piece by journalist Alexandra Pechman offers that

The trend toward a minimalist aesthetic in fragrance can, however, be more harmful than it appears, particularly when it comes to flowers. The struggle major companies face is how to sustainably produce what is inherently an unsustainable product, especially as consumers demand more and more raw materials. 

A 2015 research paper by scientist Torsten Kulke looked at work from the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) that assessed the sustainability of ‘fragrance raw materials, two of which are petrochemically derived, two of which are based on renewable feedstocks and one of which is a natural essential oil, namely patchouli’, reviewing water use and global warming CO2 equivalents per kg of fragrance material.  Analysis showed that ‘patchouli’s footprint is one and three orders of magnitude higher than comparable fragrance materials obtained from renewable or petrochemical resources, respectively’. The principal reason for this was the high water usage from crop irrigation and steam distillation.

But does that matter? And does it matter more than the local jobs and culture that would be lost if science labs ruled over farms? What is more sustainable – an amazingly ‘green’ synthetic product that helps only a handful of scientists or a natural commodity that enables fringe communities all over the world to profit from their environment? If a chemicals laboratory employs many local people with good salaries, but land is left barren and agriculture ignored, how does that affect an agricultural country’s GDP or diversity of its flora and fauna? Kulke asks the same questions in response to the data, arguing that Fostering income, education and production efficiencies improves livelihood resilience of these rural communities, which in themselves often have far more sustainable living patterns than those in industrial or urban settings. Here lies the biggest opportunity in sustainable natural production, sharing the socioeconomic value and encouraging communities to maintain overall more sustainable living habits versus their industrial peers … the fragrance industry is about emotions; thus, natural feedstocks, selected qualities and defined origins play a big role in communication strategies for consumers, customers and NGOs alike … In the global context, the fragrance industry is comparatively small, with an estimated annual consumption of 500,000 metric tons of fragrance materials, representing about 0.0033% of global crude oil output for its manufacture.

One must then decide, what is more important – CO2 emissions, water wastage, land use and biodiversity, plastic and chemical pollution, or the livelihoods of almond farmers? It is not easy to reach the balance that sustainability requires.

“Sustainable” means different things to different groups…

“Sustainable” means different things to different groups, reflecting their commercial, environmental and socioeconomic priorities. Over the past decade we have seen many initiatives by both the private and public sectors, including NGOs and civil society stakeholders, aimed at making essential oils and other natural ingredient production more “sustainable”.

  • To some it is providing growers with a more attractive and stable income by raising productivity and capacity
  • To others, it is improving both the global and local environment through agro-forestry, organic certification, reducing negative impacts on biodiversity, enhancing carbon sequestration, and soil and water conservation
  • And for others, it is ensuring commercial longevity by facilitating a secure, consistent, traceable, ethical supply of high-quality product



At the end of the day, it has to be taken into account that sustainability is a very emotional topic. There may be readers that scoff at some of the ideas presented here, or others that praise them. Ultimately, this is a positive – achievement only takes place with enabled minds. If you are a naturals producer, there is a big opportunity to start stating the case that naturals are the only way forward for sustainability in the fragrance industry. To prove this to customers and end consumers alike, producers must take on-the-ground action, giving agency to the very bottom of the supply chain and those that are affected the most from climate change and pricing structures – the farmers themselves. It is of no use talking about the new climate groups your company has just enrolled in if there is not one extra shovel, greenhouse, or recycling bin on the local field.

Sector and industry stakeholders would benefit from a systematic assessment of their commercial, environmental and socio-economic priorities to try to establish what greater sustainability means and how it can be achieved for them and their business. Above all, sustainability starts with yourself – your personal habits and way of approaching life day-to-day. By discouraging greenwashing and committing to real changes in policy as opposed to just Facebooking about them, the naturals industry will be able to cement itself as the true option for a sustainable fragrance product that is also beautiful to the nose – hitting all three essential sustainability marks with excellence: economy, people, and environment.

Eddie Bulliqi