Sustainability is the hottest topic in just about every industry these days, from fashion and beauty and beyond. As brands work to reduce their carbon footprint and curb the amount of waste and pollution they produce, they’re coming up with creative and earth-friendly ways to source the materials they use. Fragrances that use upcycled ingredients are just the latest in a wave of innovation in the clean beauty space, and is primed to be the next phase of responsible perfumery.
You may already be familiar with the term “upcycling,” or the creative reuse of waste materials to produce something new. Upcycling is not a new practice; in fact, the fashion industry is embracing it more frequently than ever, with brands using old garments, fabric scraps, and trimmings to create new garments and accessories. In recent years, it’s begun to trickle its way into the beauty world — but you might be wondering, how?
A lesser known upcycling practice is utilizing ingredients within the actual formula of a product, such as waste coffee grounds in body scrubs, or lanolin, a byproduct of wool washing, in moisturizers. Now, some of the most innovative perfumers in the world are starting to do the same for the scents they create, thus birthing a trend that may just be the next big movement in sustainable beauty.
Upcycled Fragrances: What Are They?
Upcycled fragrances are, essentially, fragrances that have been formulated with essences and other scent materials derived from waste and other byproducts. An upcycled fragrance can be as simple as one you create at home with a carrier oil and the leftover herbs, spices, and rinds of a fruit in your cupboard or fridge, but as you can probably guess, it’s much trickier for larger brands to use these techniques to create a sellable product, especially when you take factors like quantity and shelf life into consideration.
In general, how ingredients are sourced for fragrance has always been a pretty murky subject. Many are derived from natural sources such as flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, and resins, but due to demand and desirability, a number of plants like sandalwood and agarwood have been subject to over-farming and have even come close to extinction. Not to mention, throughout history, the beauty industry utilized animal-derived ingredients from musk deer, civet cats, whales, and beavers, though they’ve now mostly been replaced by synthetics.
Speaking of synthetics, most fragrances on the market — both cheap and luxury — contain a high amount of them in order to emulate a certain scent, whether it’s due to price, rarity, or it being unavailable in nature. Not all synthetics are necessarily bad, however, but many contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which, when spritzed, wreak havoc on the environment as they react with sunlight and other chemicals in the atmosphere. In fact, according to a 2018 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, VOCs emitted from consumer products like perfumes (as well as air fresheners, paints, and adhesives) contribute just as much pollution as petroleum emission from cars.
Hence, the growing popularity of upcycled natural ingredients. Not only does upcycling directly reduce the amount of waste produced during the manufacturing process since these materials are reused a second time, but as they become more widely used and available, they have the potential to cut back on the amount of new materials that need to be sourced, whether they’re farmed, harvested, or procured another way.
Upcycled Fragrances: How Are They Made?
On a larger scale, luxury brands like Etat Libre d’Orange and St. Rose each offer a fragrance in their scent collections that contains repurposed ingredients. Both fragrances were created by perfumers at Givaudan — one of the largest flavor and fragrance manufacturers in the world —which use materials like rose petals and cedarwood that had already been extracted for use in other fragrances; rather than being discarded as waste, they were extracted a second time.
Etat Libre d’Orange was the first to introduce a fragrance with these ingredients via its (very cheekily named) I Am Trash, which uses repurposed items like rose absolute, cedarwood atlas, and a number of different fruits. One of St. Rose’s newer launches, a scent named Vigilante, also uses these upcycled versions of rose absolute and cedarwood atlas.
“We’re no ecology gurus by any means, but common sense drove our initiative to use a raw material that was literally going to the bin,” says Olivier Mariotti, Managing Partner at Etat Libre d’Orange. “If that’s not sustainability, I don’t really know what is. Is it ecology? No, and it can’t be; our industry uses far too much carbon to produce and transport things, but picking up the petals of some roses in the trash of an ingredient producer and working on a way to use them again made a lot of sense for us.”
Smaller brands that don’t necessarily work with large fragrance houses have to be even more resourceful to remain sustainable. But not all repurposed waste necessarily comes from within the fragrance world — in fact, where some others are being sourced from is pretty unexpected, spanning a number of industries from spices to furniture.
Fragrance brand Ellis Brooklyn utilizes a number of upcycled materials in its Salt Eau de Parfum, including cardamom from leftover pods — “the less visually attractive, but still olfactively interesting” — from the spice industry, as well as cedarwood Virginia sawdust and chips leftover from the furniture industry. Founder Bee Shapiro, while aware of upcycling in scent creation, explains that her overall goal was to make sure her fragrances were as eco-friendly as possible, and upcycling ingredients only plays one role in it. “I more sought out whether a final fragrance was made with green or white chemistry, or what the total carbon footprint of the process was.” As a refresher, green chemistry is an approach that “uses renewable raw materials, eliminating waste, and avoiding the use of toxic and hazardous reagents and solvents in the manufacture and application of chemical products,” according to principles laid out in this 1998 paper by P.T. Anastas and J.C. Warner.
Aftelier Perfumes, a small brand known for its thoughtfully clean and sustainably constructed scents, has been sourcing a number of unique upcycled essences from small suppliers for the past 30 years, all of which founder Mandy Aftel says she likely wouldn’t have access to if she was a larger-scale company due to their limited availability.
A few of her fragrances use cedarwood and cypress bioabsolutes which are extracted from wood that had already been previously distilled for its essential oils. Rather than being deemed waste, the spent wood is distilled a second time by her oil supplier (or “twice cooked,” as she likes to refer to it), resulting in the uniquely scented bioabsolute. Additionally, she uses other ingredients such as sugi wood essential oil, which is distilled from the dead stumps and roots of the treasured Japanese sugi tree that would otherwise be trashed (which she sought out from a small Japanese supplier).
Wellness brand The Nue Co. also sources its cedarwood absolute used in its Forest Lungs fragrance from sawdust byproduct from the furniture industry. “Social and sourcing sustainability are a huge part of our mission as a business,” says founder Jules Miller. “Ultimately, we see our health as an ecosystem that’s reliant on the health of the environmental ecosystem around us. As a brand, we believe we have a part to play in reducing damaging waste, and exploring innovative ways we can do this is a priority for us.”
Upcycled Fragrances: Do They Smell As Good?
You might be thinking — do “trashed” ingredients actually smell good, especially if they’ve already been distilled once before? They do — in fact, in many ways they can smell even more interesting than they do in their original form. “At first I was concerned that there would be a diluted quality to them, but it’s exactly the opposite,” says Belinda Smith, founder of St. Rose. “Instead, the olfactory quality is unique and makes certain facets of the ingredient more intense, which is an amazing way to intentionally influence a composition into a certain direction.” For Aftel’s wood bioabsolutes, she enjoys that they have a unique smokier aspect to them.
For perfume formulators, upcycled ingredients present a unique opportunity to discover and play with new scent combinations, which will hopefully spark creativity for them and new scent possibilities for consumers. And considering that the first “modern” perfume using synthetic materials was created in Paris in 1889 — Aimé Guerlain, the son of perfumer Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, designed the scent, named Jicky — perhaps the burgeoning upcycled ingredient industry is a sign of the next wave of innovation within the fragrance world. Can the same be said for the larger push towards sustainability?
Upcycled Fragrances: Are They The Future Of Sustainable Beauty?
With brands both large and small now incorporating this technique into their scent creation, is it destined to be the next big trend in sustainable beauty? All of the experts seem to think so. “This technique is being applied to more and more ingredients and they’re appearing in more and more formulas,” says Mariotti. “It’s here to stay — it’s a new range of ingredients at the disposal of perfumers and creators, and it’s a trend for manufacturers to research further and incorporate into their offering. But in the end, like every trend, it’s up to the consumer and the developers to make it happen.”
Even so, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own distinct complications and complexities — much like many of the other sustainable trends seen in beauty and fashion. “I believe upcycled fragrances will catch on, but unfortunately I think it will also fall victim to sustainability greenwashing,” says Miller. “Using one upcycled ingredient in a formula does not immediately make your brand clean or sustainable — with much in this field, I fear it could become another buzz word.”
That said, committing to upcycled fragrances is one small step to take to make your beauty routine greener, but there are other factors that are just as, if not more, important to keep in mind when making a purchase. Is the brand using enough of these materials to call themselves sustainable, rather than using the term as a marketing ploy? Are the rest of the ingredients sourced sustainably? Are they, overall, trying to do right by the planet? Something to consider the next time you click “add to cart.”
Below, six upcycled fragrances from brands putting sustainability first that you can feel good about spritzing.
We only include products that have been independently selected by The Zoe Report’s editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.