Sustainable scent supremos: the brands leading the clean fragrance revolution

Naomi May
·6 min read

Whether you’re a lifelong adherent to a signature scent or a perfume polygamist, there’s no denying the allure of a fragrance which holds the key to the touchstones of one’s life.

Whichever you identify as, fragrances are big business. According to research, the UK fragrance industry contributed £7 billion to the economy in 2018.

But there’s an issue in the scent-sphere. Current worries revolve around a class of chemicals called phthalates, which are used as plasticisers in fragrance. They’re the reason the potency of your favoured fragrance is able to linger.

Phthalates are believed to be an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) that can alter hormonal balance and potentially cause reproductive, developmental and other health issues. According to one study, exposure to phthalates can increase the risk of miscarriage, while other research found that links have been found to reproductive and genital defects, including lower sperm count and infertility.

In 2003, the EU moved to ban five phthalates in cosmetics. In 2018, EU agencies voted to remove a loophole that allowed four phthalates (DEHP, BBP, DBP and DIBP) that had been previously banned in consumer products.​

Alongside the issue of phthalates is the issue which makes fragrances decidedly non-vegan, there are myriad animal ingredients which feature as the focal point in some of the world's favourite fragrances.

Many of perfumery's most beguiling creations owe their sensuality to the use of animal ingredients: civet, a faecal paste extracted from the anal glands of the civet cat, is used in Chanel’s cult No. 5 perfume; castoreum, a leathery emission from the genital scent sacs of the castor beaver is used in Guerlain’s Shalimar perfume; while ambergris, which is a vomitous by-product of the digestive system of sperm whales, has rapidly become one of perfume’s most rare, and expensive, ingredients.

Some 57 per cent of shoppers would buy — or boycott — a brand depending on its ethical values, according to Mintel — a figure up 20 per cent on the previous year.

And so comes the idea of “clean perfume.” Much like clean beauty, clean fragrance is often touted as being free from “nasties” - certainly phthalates - and formulated so as to not irritate the skin. There is no clear-cut definition of what "clean" encapsulates, but a clean scent is believed to be vegan - and therefore animal and planet-friendly - and comprises sustainably-sourced ingredients.

Ffern produces just four fragrances a year (Ffern)
Ffern produces just four fragrances a year (Ffern)

Ffern is just one of the brands leading the "clean" charge. It is Somerset-based, gender-neutral and was founded in 2018 to coincide with the ethos of "restoring fragrance to its artisan past."

“For us it was less about “avoiding” certain ingredients and more about the fact that natural ingredients are beautiful and the fragrances they make are actually just much more interesting and complex and the stories behind them are more interesting,” Ffern’s CEO Owen Mears explains.

Ffern’s fragrances are blended in Brighton, bottled in Somerset and, unlike other perfume companies, it creates just four scents a year, each at the turn of the season, using seasonal ingredients. Mears adds, “At the heart of Ffern is a deep respect for natural ingredients and the natural world, that’s something that has always been very important to us.”

While Ffern’s fragrances shun phthalates (which Mears refers to as “the main culprits” when discussing synthetic scents), perfumes made of natural ingredients often evaporate quicker from the skin, thus lacking the pungency which other scents offer (the reason animal ingredients were included in fragrances for so many years was because of the staying-power they lent to perfumes.)

Kamila Aubre's clean scents are inspired by her love of literature (Kamila Aubre)
Kamila Aubre's clean scents are inspired by her love of literature (Kamila Aubre)

“You can match the staying power with a natural perfume, but the main variable is how heavy the base note ingredient is,” Mears states. “If it’s a heavy molecule that’s included in the natural perfume, then it will take a longer time to evaporate and so will be longer-lasting.”

Ffern employed the use of guaiac wood, which is native to Paraguay, in its Autumn20 and Winter20 scents (which are no longer available to buy, as they're produced in small batches for the brand's production ledger only.) Due to its heavy molecules, the use of guaiac wood enabled the scents to last longer on skin.

“It is one of the physically heaviest woods, but also has really heavy molecules, meaning it lasts longer on the skin,” Mears elaborates.

To experience a perfume in its most ballsy form, whether "clean" or not, it's important to note that dry skin absorbs perfume quicker, so always spray once you've moisturiser, or are just out of the shower. That way, your scent will last longer.

But sourcing sustainable, and therefore clean, ingredients, doesn’t come without its challenges.

New Zealander, and former winemaker, Frances Shoemack founded her clean fragrance brand Abel in 2013, in a bid to create “the world’s best natural perfume.”

After watching a video of perfumer and fellow New Zealander Isaac Sinclair waxing lyrical about the similarities between perfume and wine, Frances knew she'd found her Nose.

The pair now work together on creating Abel’s sustainable scents, which have garnered a now-cult following.

“Sustainability is like teenage sex; everyone’s talking about it, no one’s actually doing it!” Shoemack jokes. “Every time we produce - which is several times a year - we are finding new ways to increase sustainability and efficiencies, but it’s a grey area.”

While Abel, similarly to Ffern, only purchases ingredients from growers with sustainable practices, using natural ingredients doesn’t necessarily equate to sustainability.

Abel is the cult-clean fragrance brand which was founded in Amsterdam (Abel)
Abel is the cult-clean fragrance brand which was founded in Amsterdam (Abel)

Sandalwood, a common and natural ingredient often used in fragrances, is now almost extinct in the wild. The guaiac wood which Ffern has been experimenting with is sourced in Paraguay, so how can Ffern ensure that the practice of using it is in-keeping with its “clean” ethos?

“The way to make it as sustainable as you can is to take the oil and resin at the source of the plant,” Mears explains.

And that's not all. Beyond the formula itself, there is also an appetite for sustainable packaging. Ffern is the only clean fragrance brand which uses 100 per cent paper-based recyclable packaging.

Mears claims, “We wanted to strip back our bottles as much as possible so that they can just be put in the recycling, that’s a huge part of the business for us. It ties into the ethos of appreciating the natural.”

In a bid to decrease its carbon footprint, Abel exclusively ships its components by sea freight, even though it takes considerably longer.

“Airfreight generates 47 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as ocean freight, per ton-mile, so this is important for us,” Shoemack explains.

For Kamila Aubre, who launched her eponymous clean fragrance line in 2015, the beauty of her scents lies in the art of working with the natural.

Antwerp-based Aubre draws inspiration for her sustainable scents from her love of literature. Her best-selling Villanelle perfume (£125, shop it here) was inspired by “Villanelle of Spring Bells”, the poem by Keith Douglas.

Mears deftly summarises, “The history of fragrance-making is all about creativity and craftsmanship, instead of a commercial venture, we want to strip it back to the natural art form.”

If you've got a penchant for perfume, treat yourself to one of the sustainable scents in the gallery above and spritz away. Join the waiting list for Ffern's next fragrance here.

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