Whether your signature perfume has notes of sweet tonka bean or smoky vetiver, it’s mostly alcohol—specifically, ethanol, which is cheap, has no smell, and evaporates quickly when warmed by your skin, ensuring an even release of the fragrance oils it carries. Over 90% of a scent can consist of ethanol, depending on the type of fragrance you buy.
Typically, ethanol is made by the time, land, and water-intensive process of harvesting and fermenting starch-based crops like corn, grain, and potatoes. Ethanol plants also emit an immense volume of carbon dioxide—a typical operation that makes 50 million gallons of ethanol will produce around 150,000 metric tons of CO2, according to American low carbon ethanol plant Attis Biofuels.
Air Company is trying to change the way ethanol—and therefore perfume—is made. At its facility in New York, machines distil pure ethanol from a mixture of water and alcohol converted from carbon dioxide, which was captured before entering the Earth’s atmosphere and sourced from traditional perfume production. The product then goes into spirits, hand sanitizers, and the brand’s namesake unisex scent, Air Eau de Parfum. With notes of orange peel, jasmine, and tobacco, it’s marketed as the world’s first fragrance made from air.
Ethanol and fragrance producers are just part of the picture when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, but the circularity of Air Company’s supply chain is undeniably satisfying. “All industries producing these alcohols are emitting billions of tons…of CO2. We’re removing it from the atmosphere,” says cofounder and CEO Gregory Constantine.
But as with many consumer goods, the fragrance industry’s environmental issues are convoluted. They extend far beyond ethanol into areas including sourcing, packaging and distribution. The good news is that a growing number of companies are making efforts to innovate and improve transparency. And consumer awareness around both sustainability and greenwashing are on the rise.
It’s too early to say whether these startups and initiatives are making a dent in the wider industry’s outputs—and helping it weather future obstacles as natural resources come under further strain—but it’s also too late not to care.
“All industries producing these alcohols are emitting billions of tons…of CO2. We’re removing it from the atmosphere.”
Fragrance is a small world. It’s a complex monopoly dominated by giants like Givaudan, International Flavours & Fragrances (IFF) and Firmenich, which control most of the market when it comes to producing and composing fragrances under widely-known brand names. They are also active in sourcing and selling ingredients to the industry through wholesale agents. These agents source ingredients from suppliers and sell them to perfumers, some of whom will work with smaller independent brands to develop and compose their products. IFF, for example, sources over 9,000 raw materials from more than 2,200 companies, according to a 2013 Guardian story.
When it comes to fragrance giants, many have launched environment and community-minded initiatives; Givaudan, for example, partnered with Conservation International in 2007 to support the tonka bean harvesting communities in Venezuela, and is committed to “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE)” principles when sourcing palm oil. But as with any sustainability efforts by major corporations, it’s hard to ignore the importance of profits, as well as PR perks, these initiatives may bring.
“When companies start off small and they bake in these values and ideas from early on, it’s so much easier to have them embedded in a company, rather than when you have to care about these things because the world’s telling you to,” says Phway Su Aye, CEO and creative director of Gabar, a perfume brand rooted in the natural beauty of Myanmar. “There’s a lot of genuine desire to change the industry, but there [are] a lot of economic incentives at play.”
The intricacy of the fragrance supply chain makes it difficult for brands to monitor practices, while allowing many to limit their accountability on issues from endangered species and deforestation to exploitation of farming communities. In a 2021 article, fragrance journalist and blogger Victoria Frolova details the plight of frankincense, which can be extracted from Boswellia trees found in North Africa, Western Africa, India, Oman, and Yemen, and is the sole source of income for many locals. Rising demand and armed conflicts have made policing overharvesting difficult, and conservationists predict 50% of the wild Boswellia forests could disappear in years.
Frolova interviewed several fragrance brands selling scents containing frankincense and found that some weren’t aware of the ingredient’s proximity to extinction, while others trusted suppliers to “trace the origin of their materials” and therefore weren’t aware of where their ingredients came from. But “it’s up to the perfume companies to press them for sourcing information,” Frolova writes.
The power brands have to improve practices through their vast supply chains is significant, especially in light of perfume’s profit margins. “The actual fragrance oil itself costs very little in comparison to the end price,” says Aye.
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When it came to launching Gabar in 2020, Aye and her cofounder Su Zar Wai Hnin knew that they wanted to put their money towards reducing their impact on the environment and giving back. They enlisted Ruth Mastenbroek, an English perfumer who has developed countless scents for top brands as well as her own, in-house line, making their priorities clear.
Rather than using cheaper ready-made packaging options, the brand apportioned a chunk of their costs to custom packaging by Black Ink Projects, which designed vessels using recycled materials that customers would want to keep, rather than throw out. In the wake of the 2021 Myanmar coup, Gabar began donating 10% of proceeds to Prospect Burma, a charity funding scholarships for young Burmese.
But doing things differently isn’t easy. Brands have control—should they choose to exert it—over the perfumers and intermediaries they hire, the packaging they use, as well as harvesters they ultimately source from, but options are limited and alternatives costly. “Because the fragrance industry is so narrow, you don’t have that much choice; there are a few people controlling the supply chain,” says Aye, who for Gabar’s upcoming release decided to go directly to a supplier in India. Having a tighter, directly-managed supply chain is more transparent and impactful, but she realized juggling logistics, quality control, and consistency can be a headache for smaller teams.
However, it’s possible. “The biggest lesson is it’s really on the brands to do the work,” says Aye, and this applies to everything from asking wholesalers where ingredients come from, to deciding what to invest their money in, whether that’s marketing or packaging. “There’s a ripple effect and bigger companies will follow.” Air Company’s Constantine is also optimistic that as smaller brands develop and champion innovative solutions to various touchpoints of the supply chain, bigger corporations will be more inclined to integrate them into their pipelines as well.
“Because the fragrance industry is so narrow, you don’t have that much choice; there are a few people controlling the supply chain.”
And when it comes to touchpoints, there are plenty more. One that is crucial for eco-conscious brands and illustrates the complexity of sustainability in the field is the discourse around natural and synthetic ingredients. Mastenbroek, who developed Gabar’s three fragrances, uses around 300 natural ingredients regularly, and 3,000 or so synthetic ones. As synthetics are made in labs in large quantities—while naturals are time-consuming, vulnerable to inconsistent harvests and natural disasters—the price of synthetic ingredients is often much lower than natural equivalents.
Synthetics have a bad reputation. They contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which, according to a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), create the same level of petrochemical air pollution as petroleum emissions from cars. According to British charity The Soil Association, the production of synthetic fragrances results in more toxic waste than certified natural materials. So when Aye approached Mastenbroek, she was adamant that the brand’s fragrances be fully natural. She soon realized that the distinction wasn’t black and white.
“These kinds of ingredients are a drop in the ocean compared to what is used on fuel,” says Mastenbroek, adding that a supermarket orange’s rind will potentially boast plenty more VOCs than a typical perfume. Moreover, making essential oils is resource intensive, requiring vast quantities of plant material, water, and land.
Natural oils are more likely to be allergenic and synthetics can also be used to extend the longevity of a scent on the skin, Mastenbroek added. The fact that synthetic ingredients are heavily controlled in the EU—and that there are globally recognized IFRA guidelines on safe use—helped further convince Aye that Gabar was better suited to a balanced approach. Not to mention that as climate change accelerates, natural ingredients, many of which originate from warmer climates, are becoming less dependable. (In 2016, Hebrew University of Jerusalem PhD student Alon Cna’ani’s research even suggested that higher temperatures lead to a decrease in the production of floral scents.)
The natural-synthetic divide is also to thank for the low costs of materials—the rise of synthetics has driven down the price of natural ingredients, which has a domino effect on farmers. For Aye, this is all the more reason to support suppliers, and one of the brand’s goals is to build up Myanmar’s perfumery economy in a transparent, ethical way. It’s an ongoing balancing act: Gabar is currently unable to source from Myanmar due to ongoing political unrest, and doing so would result in a drastically larger carbon footprint. But it could also provide a livelihood for locals and contribute to a ripple effect among other brands.
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Like Gabar and Air Company, fragrance brands have choices. Sustainability isn’t the same for every company: within a wider definition of the buzzword, there’s everything from reducing carbon emissions to using reusable packaging to fostering a positive internal culture.
As the world crashes and burns, it’s reassuring that up-and-coming brands are finding new ways to create a product that humans have used for thousands of years. Technologies like vertical farming could have an incredible impact on the availability of natural ingredients, Mastenbroek notes. As is the case with any innovation, the cost at the outset will be high and limit its use to high-end fragrance development, but processes will become more accessible over time.
“There are so many unknowns, and still so many ways to challenge nature to give up its secrets,” says Mastenbroek.