Over 1,000 new fragrances are launched every year, and the perfume industry has a surprisingly large environmental impact for its size. However, updated practices from legendary perfume brands, along with a new generation of sustainable startups, are changing the landscape for the fragrance industry. 

Environmental Impacts of the Fragrance Industry

Many of the most famous fragrance ingredients and components have a huge environmental impact. Some of the biggest effects are felt in perfume ingredients like: 

  • Sandalwood. Sandalwood is one of the world’s most valuable tree species, and the fragrance is used in a huge array of scented products. Sandalwood trees take 20 years or more to mature, and the entire tree must be felled in order to extract the most fragrant oils from the heartwood. Sandalwood is also a parasitic tree, requiring nutrients and protection from the host tree. Because sandalwood takes so long to mature, and requires delicate conditions to grow, decades of over-harvesting have threatened natural sandalwood production. Sustainable sandalwood requires careful replanting, sustained care, and staggered harvesting to protect the plant and its natural environment. In addition, like other agricultural products, sandalwood has not always been grown with eco-friendly methods, including natural fertilizers and water conservation. 
  • Agarwood. The unique fragrance of agarwood has made it one of the most precious oils in the world, with prices up to 73K Euro per liter. Unusually, natural and healthy agarwood trees do not have the fragrant resin: instead, the scent is produced as a stress response when the heartwood is infected with a certain parasitic mold. Because the fragrant resin is so incredibly valuable, and it is impossible to detect infected trees from healthy ones, harvesters cut down healthy trees as well as infected ones. In nature, only about 7 out of 100 agarwood trees has this fragrant sap, but demant has led to over-harvesting and made the species critically endangered in most of its natural range. 
  • Animal-based fixatives. A fixative is a compound that equalizes vapor pressures in perfume. By stabilizing these pressures, fixatives preserve the fragrant volatile oils in perfume, making them last longer in the bottle and on the skin when worn. Without fixatives, the delicate balance of fragrance compounds in perfume may quickly change in the bottle, and quickly dissipate on the skin. Many of the most effective fixatives are animal-based pheromones, often derived from musk deer, muskrats, and civets. As consumers are increasingly demanding cruelty-free products, most fragrance companies have transitioned to synthetic fixatives, which are also more consistent and economical to produce. 
  • Ethanol. Ethanol is the number one ingredient in every type of fragrance, because it is an odorless compound used to carry and disperse the fragrance of the perfume. Ethanol is also widely used in a huge range of products and for a wide variety of purposes, and the large-scale production of ethanol has led to many environmental concerns. While it is possible to sustainably produce ethanol, it is usually not sustainably created or distributed.   
  • Packaging. Perfumes are often sold as prestige products, and brands distinguish themselves with unique bottles and packaging that creates a luxurious experience. However, many traditional packaging practices are not environmentally friendly: the packaging is much larger than necessary for the amount of product, packaging materials are often carbon-intensive and may be difficult to recycle, and the price of single-use luxury packaging contributes to a large percentage of consumer and environmental costs for every bottle.  

The Mystery of the Fragrance Industry

Because fragrance is ethereal, individual, and intangible, and the perfume industry is highly profitable and incredibly competitive, fragrance brands are notoriously secretive about their processes and formulas. There are three primary reasons for this obfuscation:

  1. Artistic work. Perfumery is an art form, where the sum is more than its parts. The process of creating a fragrance is like any other creative work: listing the pigments used doesn’t describe the differences between Starry Night and The Mona Lisa, for example. Furthermore, the way a person perceives a fragrance is a highly individual experience, colored by memory, culture, and context. A fragrance is so individual and subjective that its essence cannot be captured by an ingredient list. 
  2. Copyright and patent. It is extremely difficult to copyright a fragrance, and current intellectual property protections designed for other types of inventions pose specific challenges to the fragrance industry. For most products, the inventor obtains a copyright by disclosing and publishing their exact components and processes, which prevents other people from using that formula for the duration of the copyright protection. However, most copyrights expire after a period of time, allowing the formula to enter the public domain. In the fragrance industry, most products gain prestige and value over time: a formula is more valuable after 10-20 years than it was when it was created. For this reason, most perfume companies prefer to patent “captives”: unique fragrance molecules they have developed with their R&D investment, rather than patenting complete fragrance formulas. 
  3. Knock-offs and simulations. The recent accessibility and accuracy of Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry technologies has enabled the reverse-engineering of fragrances and the ability to create knock-off “smell alike” versions of luxury perfumes. It also allows companies that may have previously purchased individual fragrance compounds and components from suppliers to instead duplicate these fragrances in their own labs. Recent decades have seen an increasing number of lawsuits related to these technologies and ownership of fragrances, but the legal guidelines are still unclear and changing rapidly.   

This desire for secrecy and mystery in the perfume industry naturally creates conflict with today’s consumers, who value traceability, transparency, and disclosure in their products, with an even higher demand for transparency in personal care products. People want to know what they are putting on their bodies, and that they are making ethical choices for themselves and the planet. 

The world of perfumes and fragrances is complex and exciting, combining the rarest and most valuable compounds in nature with cutting edge laboratory sciences and groundbreaking research. However, as we seek to build a more sustainable and equitable world, it is faced with unique challenges that require innovative solutions. If your perfume brand is looking for the talent that will take your company into the future, contact grapefrute, and stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where we take a close look at the future of fragrance.