Natural perfumes: a good take ?
Brands are seizing on the "clean" and "natural" trends. Meaningful engagement or marketing gimmick?
At the time of climate emergency, one must be aware of its own consumption patterns to be more environmentally responsible and self-conscious about its carbon footprint. Travelling, hobbies, clothes and diet are our most analyzed habits, but what about perfume ? Is it one of those product whose impact is tremendous or one with a slight impact regarding our overall footprint ? Does it directly or indirectly affect our ecosystems ? Let’s take stock of the situation by studying the denomination « organic » et "natural", sometimes qualified or not and used by many brands.
Perfume’s carbon footprint
According to the environmental consultancy Carbone 4, carbon dioxide emissions from perfume purchase are up to 16kgCO2. By putting this figure in perspective, one could compare this purchase with the 137,8 km carbon emissions of a standard gas-powered car or with the consumption of 900g of beef.
To look deeper into it, we must be aware that the carbon emissions of a perfume is driven by two mains reasons :
- The transportation of a perfume packaging’s main components and the end product. The weight of the product goes hand in hand with its carbon footprint. It explained why brands are using thinner and thinner glass for flask perfume bottle – Let’s not be deluded, fuel savings are also savings.
- The production and the transportation of the perfume extract which is itself from a synthetic or a natural origin.
When it comes to natural or synthetic products, making an estimation or generalizing is another kettle of fish as each product is unique ! Notwithstanding, subsequent to a meeting with the marketing director of a well-known perfume brand who had asked a consultancy to assess the carbon footprint of their ranges. The results revealed that approximately 50% of the emissions were related to the transportation and conveyance of the packaging items and the end product and the remaining 50% to the 5% related to the natural materials in the composition.
If you think about it, it is quite obvious. The main principle of synthetical chemistry in the perfume industry is :
- To create molecules which does not exist in a natural state (e.g. the calone and its marine fragrance or the fragrance of the lily of the valley, which is a mute flower, i.e. which can not be extracted), or whose natural extraction is regulated or prohibited (e.g. the civet )
- To master to manufacturing process, including costs and the consistency of the result.
Nowadays, molecules like vanillin can be produced for a few dozen bucks per ton with highly energetic efficiency yields. On the other hand, the famous Madagascar vanilla bean costs a few hundred euro per kilo, which themselves only contained 2% of vanillin that must be extracted by distillation. Speaking of carbon footprint, the precious vanilla beans have to be shipped from Madagascar to Europe, not to mention the heating process it requires to extract the distillate.
Whether is it synthetic or natural vanillin extracted from vanilla beans, the molecule is itself exactly the same. Nevertheless, the extract from natural vanilla has much intensive scent given the many others components implied, unlike synthetic vanillin which will release a purer fragrance and “flatter”. This introduces a new dimension of olfaction.
Raw materials and olfaction
100% raw natural materials means that the creative possibilities for a perfumer are totally reduced. Where a typical perfume uses more than 500 raw materials, only over an hundred of them are available in a natural state. Biases are rife about these fragrances, which do not necessarily smell like dandelions and worms and can easily lead to subtil and unique creations. The olfactory wealth coming from natural materials can balance this restriction in opportunities and choice but you can say goodbye to the aldehydes which made Chanel n°5 famous or to the musk (now synthetic), a substance enhancing the lasting of your perfume. ( all day or all night !)
Another factor which can be considered is the evolution of perfume after the first mist. If a basic perfume will often have a head/ heart/basis relatively predictable evolution, a natural perfume will surprise you by developing itself through many olfactory variations. As perfume manufacturers are subject to the uncertainties of raw materials production - often changing in maturity and quality - the several production series (or "batch" in jargon) can represent different olfactory features. The high content of natural materials is the explanation put forward by the perfume brand Creed to justify the lack of consistency in its best-seller Aventus. Some enthusiasts fight over second-hand batches reputed to be smoky and full of citrus compared to others batch.
And you, what is your experience with natural perfumes ?