How is the perfume industry connected to climate change?
This is a rather complicated situation because the perfume industry fuels climate change in its own way.
Unlike solid fragrances used by ancient Romans and Egyptians, the bottled liquid we spritz on before a day or night out contains up to 90 percent ethanol. The actual percentage can be lower but will depend on the type of fragrance it is.
Making ethanol is a time, land, and water-intensive process that requires harvesting and fermenting starch-based crops like corn, grain, and potatoes. These natural materials are then processed inside gigantic dry or wet mills – more often the latter as it is more cost-effective.
According to the low-carbon ethanol plant Attis Biofuels based in New York, producing 50 million gallons of ethanol emits around 150,000 tons of CO2. That said, ethanol is technically a renewable resource, as newly planted crops help to absorb these emissions as they grow.
So although perfume-making does emit its own greenhouse gases, it’s certainly not the most culpable industry in causing climate change. Regardless, it is an industry that is seriously starting to feel its effects.
Climate change’s effects on perfume-making have become most evident in Grasse, the fragrance capital of the world. Located in the South of France, the region is on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage sites.
Precious flowers grown for the world’s favourite perfume brands – such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel – have been supplied by its historically lush gardens.
But the unpredictable occurrence of heatwaves, drought, and excessive rainfall is reducing flower yields or preventing them from growing entirely.
The high temperatures of last summer in Europe saw Grasse lose over half of its homegrown harvest of jasmine, which currently sells at a higher price than gold. Rose petals also lost their quality, while other flowers like tuberose hardly grew at all.
A potential move towards synthetic scents?
This problem is relatable to the small number of suppliers globally.
Perfume lovers will know that vanilla is found in almost every bottle on store shelves. Its sweet yet warm aroma makes it a crucial ingredient in the majority of formulas found in the fragrance industry.
But workers in Madagascar, where vanilla is primarily sourced from, have already witnessed massive storms threaten the future strength and availability of their crop. Last year, a major cyclone reduced harvest yields by 30 percent, causing the price of vanilla to skyrocket.
For customers, climate change means the price of your favourite scent could rise steeply in coming years – unless producers find another way to replicate these rapidly disappearing ingredients.
Despite the fact that most consumers want ingredients in their everyday scents to be natural, brands could start turning to synthetic versions of the smells we know and love in order to keep costs down.
Although a love of perfumes may seem like a superficial motivation for joining the fight against climate change, the loss of knowledge, tradition, culture, and livelihoods of those working in the small but mighty perfume industry is a good reason to salvage the practice.