A Pause for Thought on Earth Day 2022.
Ironically, the biggest challenge facing our industry might be its gargantuan speed of growth. In 2020, the size of the global aromatherapy market was estimated at USD 1.6 billion. Its trajectory of growth is steep, predicted to escalate at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.6% from 2021 to 2028, as more therapeutic uses are uncovered. On one hand, for an industry that had fought hard for credibility, this is marvelous, but when some of our most important essential oils come from slow growing, hard to replace botanicals, this can be very worrying.
When the first aromatherapists qualified back in the early 90s and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, we all learned the powerful healing abilities of Cedarwood Atlas. Tremendous for skin care and for calming negative thoughts, it was a go to oil for all. There were no concerns about its future. In her paper about the sustainability of Cedarwood, Dr Kelly Ablard described how, even as recently as in 1998, it was categorized as having been of “Least concern”. Just 15 years later, the decline in species was so dire that it gained a classification of “Endangered”
To gain such a grading requires the species to have lost half its specimens in the last ten years, or three generations, or to have fewer than 2500 adult species left.
To be clear, it’s not all about aromatherapy. Cedar is a very important construction material, powerfully weather resistant, it is easy to build with, without polluting either the air or water, so not all the blame lies at essential oil’s door. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, it is no longer ethically or financially sound to use cedarwood atlas if you can avoid it.
Dr Ablard recommends five different species, classed as being of “Least concern” which make excellent substitutions. These are
1) Himalayan cedar (C. deodara), distributed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Kashmir, and Nepal;
2) Texas cedar (J. ashei), distributed in central USA and Mexico;
3) Virginian cedar (J. virginiana), distributed in central and eastern USA;
4) Western red cedar (T. plicata), distributed in western USA and Canada; and
5) Eastern white cedar (T. occidentalis) distributed in eastern USA and Canada.
Species that are categorized by the IUCN as Least Concern have a very low risk of extinction, but should still be sustainably managed. Speaking from a conservation standpoint, it is recommended that using oils and extracts from these plants whenever possible would be the most ethically sound decision.
At Vinevida, we stock Himalayan cedarwood, which will be the next oil of the month. Look out for our new look newsletter that will give you loads of ideas of how to use it.
There are many ethical concerns of using essential oils that stretch even further than whether a crop is sustainable or not.
Production costs of an essential oil can be ridiculously high. We are familiar with how many petals are needed to make a drop of rose essential oil, and perhaps how biologically mean a plant may be with its oil (Melissa has a yield of 0.03%!) but what about the sheer volume of water required to make an oil. The cost of wages (in places unlikely to pay minimum wage), fuel prices to transport it, packaging especially for tiny bottles! The human cost might be much higher than you think.
In 2015, author Elizabeth Ashley was asked to lecture for the International Federation of Aromatherapists in Beijing. She relates:
“As speakers, we were treated like royalty. One evening we were taken to a restaurant reputed to be the world’s best for Peking Duck. I would say that claim may be true, because it was delicious! A young boy and girl joined our party, aged around eight or nine, I would say. They were students at an orphanage that the IFA sponsored in Nepal. These gorgeous children were thrilled to spend time with us.
I learned that they were not orphans in the way you and I might consider them, as they did, in fact, have parents. Nepal is one of the poorest places on Earth and most people make their living wage by collecting medicinal plants to be sold out of the country. The children lived in the orphanage for many months whilst their parents worked away.
Located high up on the side of a mountain in the Himalayas, there is very little respite from the sun. The children’s skins are marked from its scorching rays.
Years later, I wrote a book about Spikenard essential oil that had been incredibly healing after I had undergone a terrible horror in my life. It was quite hard to assimilate on one hand, extolling the incredible effects of this amazing oil that had been my salvation against terrifying fear, and the time these people were taken away from their children. The “jatamansi” plant is tiny, and hundreds are needed to create the oil. I felt very conflicted about the trade off.”
Frankincense is probably one of the most touted essential oils we have. Who wouldn’t want the gorgeous relaxation properties of the oil, how it slows the breath, to help respiratory complaints, and takes our minds into a more spiritual place?
The problem being, that in years gone by elders protected the trees, and knew when to best tap them for resin. Now, the wisdom keepers are gone and trees are continually tapped until they cannot survive. Experts are concerned that if we continue at the speed we are, there will be no frankincense left by 2050.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s been used for at least 5000 years, but it will be our time on Earth that finishes it.
That feels outrageously shameful and sad to me.
It’s not all bad. Some really good work is being done.
Vetiver, for example, may be one of the most important plants on Earth today. Where most plants spread their roots outwards, the vetiver grass plunges deeply down into the Earth, often as deep as 8 meters.
This has profound benefits. First, it can draw up water from ways down below the surface. In many parts of Asia, vetiver is grown around the bases of fruit trees, so they can have a better supply of groundwater. Improving crops for farmers and helping some of the world’s poorest communities.
At the other end of the spectrum, it helps massive global construction companies too. Planted onto the edges of cliffs, it prevents soil eroding, and falling into coral reefs, thereby protecting them. The plant is also even capable of phytoremediation, cleaning the soil of heavy metals and pollution, even nuclear waste.
Perhaps the loveliest vetiver comes from Haiti; a country facing dire economic challenges. Vetiver, being one of the most desirable ingredients of the fragrance industry, can be sold for a pretty penny. In many cases, roots are sold off young to pay for hospital treatments or other crises.
A global fair trade initiative has been introduced to encourage the farmers to leave the roots longer to mature, and to replace soil where the roots have been salvaged from. In return for adhering to certain parameters, the essential oils and perfumery industry are contributing to building schools and better road systems.
Sandalwood, too. In the 1990s, use was restricted, because of the dire state of the trees in India. Similarly to Cedarwood, the beauty of the oil had been its downfall. Today, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to source superb quality Sandalwood essential oil from Australia. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the farmers there who spent time learning how to raise a non-indigenous crop and protect it for generations to come.
Research and experimentation are our greatest allies. Perhaps the accomplishment we should be most proud of is the integration of jojoba. Prior to the 1970’s, thousands of whales were being killed each year to obtain spermaceti wax to make soap and toiletries. Jojoba was identified as having virtually the same chemical composition (it is actually a wax rather than an oil) and replacing it eventually led to a global ban on whale hunting.
So, today, here on Earth Day 2022, what can each one of us do?
1. Be mindful of what you are using.
Employ a new mindset when using an essential oil. Try to observe it from a shamanistic point of view like the tribes who use the trees themselves. Know that it has a spirit. Bring that to mind as you use that drop of oil. Think of the tree and the cost to the plant, to the environment, and to the people who have produced it for you. Call it to mind, in gratitude, every time you use a drop. Say a little prayer, if needs be, but never ever use a drop of oil without reflecting where it came from. There is a saying that the first time someone took something from a plant without asking for permission, was the beginning of our fall from grace.
2. Know the cost to the plant.
Carrots naturally produce seeds each year. People can eat carrots too, of course. Compare that to the cost of a Palo Santo tree that takes 60 years to grow, must die and then rot on the forest floor to develop a heartwood to make oil.
3. Don’t collect, for the sake of collecting.
Learn the many applications of an oil and use it wisely. If you must have five oils to do the same job, ensure they are easy to produce from sustainable crops.
4. Buy local if you can.
Lavender is grown and distilled in hundreds of countries. Orange is grown in the US! There is an argument for some oils having better chemistry when they are grown somewhere specific (Corsican helichrysum will be the best skin healer because of its high levels of neryl acetate, for example, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. Likewise buy larger amounts with less packaging and lower carbon footprint, if it is cost effective and you think you will use the oil in a timely manner.
5. Know what the end of a shelf life actually means.
Citrus oils, for example, will deteriorate very quickly because the monoterpenes oxidize. When this happens, the smell alters a little, but the main problem will be that they are more likely to irritate the skin. These are still great for fragrancing rooms and using in diffusers. Their capacity to clean will be a little affected, but not much. Use THESE to clean with. The majority of oils will be fine for far longer, five or six years usually. Please don’t just throw them away!
Happy Earth Day and thanks for taking the time to reflect.