What if I told you that just because something is NATURAL doesn't mean it's better for the environment?
In 2014 I made the decision to take MIZU Brand all-natural.
From that point on, all new designs were created exclusively with natural ingredients; candles and perfumes scented with only pure, natural oils and all sewn goods created from natural fibers or vintage / deadstock materials that were not further contributing to the mass environmental impact of the textile industry.
In recent months, I’ve been taking a deeper look at my ingredients, really digging into my supply chain to see exactly where all of these natural ingredients are coming from. That research exposed a shameful secret.
The cost of natural
When you hear natural, you automatically assume that reigns supreme over anything synthetic- yes? I did, without question. Everything I've ever been taught assured me of this. But here’s a fact so obvious that it seems to be almost entirely overlooked; Natural products are a CROP.
This is why that’s important; It takes an enormous amount of resources ( land, soil, fertilizer, workers, equipment ) and energy ( fossil fuels ) to plant, grow, harvest and refine these raw plant materials into essential oils.
More so, These plants ( or crops ) are not infinite; They aren’t guaranteed to last forever. With the increasing demand for natural products, many are in danger of being exploited, over-harvested and some dangerously close to becoming extinct.
This is the problem we are now facing; sustainability.
What is sustainability?
Before we dive down this rabbit hole, It’s important to clearly define what sustainability is:
As defined from Miriam-Webster.com
2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods sustainable society
Bottom line: Think about the planet. Think of how your actions will effect the future.
To companies, sustainability means many different things, typically defined by how large of a business they are are and how much of a stance they are willing to take on the issue.
For MIZU brand, it means sourcing ingredients with this in mind:
- Will my current consumption of this ingredient make a significant impact to the survival of a species?
- Will my consumption of this ingredient / material produce a negative impact on the environment or community?
- How does my consumption of this ingredient / material have an effect on those who work to grow and harvest the raw material?
Sustainability vs natural?
In the recent decades, aromatherapy and all things natural have surged in popularity. This reconnection to the natural world is a great thing, but we need to recognize that some raw materials are beginning to show signs of being exploited. Crops such as Rosewood, Spikenard, Sandalwood, Mica, Palm oil and wax, are already earmarked as becoming endangered and creating sustainability issues around the globe. Their harvesting methods further contributing to things like deforestation and child labor and unfair wages.
Indian Sandalwood Tree
The Concern with Sandalwood
Let’s take Sandalwood Essential oil for example. These trees take, on average, 25 years to grow large enough to start producing the compounds to that create essential oils. To extract these oils, the trees must be killed, dug up and refined. The only parts of the sandalwood tree the contain compounds capable of producing essential oils are found in 2 small areas; the inner heartwood and roots.
This creates a low yield of essential oil, which then increases the overall price. Bad news for the consumer, yes, but even worse for the farmer ; high price and high demand has lead to tree poaching ( yes, that’s a thing ) and even murder over these sandalwood trees.
So what happens when all the 25 year old trees have been harvested ( & killed )?
A few things; Suppliers start adulterating their oils with synthetics or cheap fillers like canola oil and then sell it as pure sandalwood oil ( already, this a huge problem in today’s market )**. Prices increase dramatically ( an average of 25% a year! ). But, Most severely, Sandalwood trees are now becoming endangered. There are several species of sandalwood critically endangered in both it’s native region of India and Southeast Asia where harvesting has become illegal.
Fortunately the future of sandalwood is looking brighter. In recent years there have been plantation-grown sandalwood that has started to produce oils in both Hawaii and Australia. These plantations are largely regulated by government agencies and plant at least 1-3 trees for every one that is harvested. As part of my sustainability initiative, all sandalwood oils I use are now sourced from the ethically-harvested plantations in Australia.
Another example? Rose Essential oil.
On average it takes 10,000 POUNDS of rose petals to produce 1 kilo ( 2.2 lb ) of essential oil. Let’s break that down further: It takes about 30-50 roses to make 1 drop of essential oil. The preservation of the rose species may not be the biggest issue here ( the roses are typically not killed ), but the sheer amount of resources used to grow and refine all that plant matter, resulting in such a small amount of oil, is cause for concern.
** Guess what? The term “ natural “ does not have any legal definition in the United States.
This means little to no regulation and some products claiming be all natural, are often cut with synthetic ingredients to increase profits. This is why knowing and trusting you suppliers is so important.
Harvesting Mica in India
An Even Deeper Look;
A further look into the supply chain of some natural ingredients shows other really serious problems such as child labor, slave labor and unfair wages — all just boiling below the surface. When you’re living in a 1st world country, it’s hard to imagine, but these things STILL EXSIST.
Let’s look briefly at mica;
This natural mineral is widely used in the cosmetic industry ( think eyeshadows, makeups ), I don’t use this ingredient in any of my formulations, but it’s such a huge problem that it’s with discussing.
A large portion of mica is mined in India, where child labor is still very prevalent. A recent 2017 study by the Dutch NGO SOMO and Terre des Hommes Netherlands recently concluded that approximately 25% of the world’s mica ( !!! ) was mined in illegal mines, utilizing child labor. Children ( and adults ) employed in these illegal mines are typically unable to attend school and can only make up to 45% of the average wages of those employed at legal mines. Ethical and sustainable options are widely available, but with illegal operations like these so prevalent in the industry- how you really know where your Mica are coming from? Again, you have to know where your supplies are coming from.
This leads to my next question-
What is more important: Ethically sourced, sustainable ingredients or keeping things 100% Natural?
I’m dedicated to keep my products all-natural, with a renewed commitment to source sustainable ingredients. But with the above information now known, I won’t play ignorant and continue to think that all natural ingredients are created equal. Some oils are just more precious, and aren’t suitable to be used in EVERY product.
The case of Candles:
To scent a candle, an enormous amount of natural oil is required. The rate at which candles are used is rapid. It’s hard to continue thinking oils such as non-sustainably sourced sandalwood would be a good choice. On the flip side, oils such as peppermint come from a plant that is largely considered to be a weed by most gardeners. Peppermint leaves create an abundance of essential oil ( a high yield ), so It’s hard to imagine any sustainability issues with a plant that most people try, and fail, to eradicate from the garden beds. Again, not all essential oils are created equal.
So - what’s the solution?
With ALL this information now known, would it be better to substitute some of those very precious oils, such as sandalwood, for a more sustainable option… like a synthetic ingredient made in a lab?
The Frankenstein molecule.
Yes, a LOT of synthetics are bad for you, Their molecules are potentially carcinogenic, jigsawed together of random bits and pieces doing their best to replicate the rare nuances of natural materials. Recent estimates show that up to 95% of synthetic fragrances are petrol-derived.
BUT, before you write off synthetics completely, there have been some breakthroughs in the recent years. Most exciting is the ability for produce synthetics in a lab using microbes.
These molecules are created using a strain of yeast with sugar as their energy source - this means production without the use of any petroleum. This creates a cleaner, more nature-identical molecule, created in a process that puts much less strain on the environment. This field of biotech is still relativley new, with many fragrances still under development.
All this said, microbe-based fragrances are still considered synthetic ( they are made in a lab)... but even as a natural perfumer, this is an exciting field to watch for the future of sustainability in fragrances.
Read more about microbe-based biotech here
Among the host of sustainably issues that the natural industry is now facing; here’s another; Carbon Emissions.
The reality is, I ship heavy products. These heavy products take a lot of energy to ship, regardless of their destination. The immediate solution to this problem may be an easy one- woking to find a new courier and provide a carbon-neutral shipping option.
Another issue is being able to recycle your bottles. Those little amber glass bottles you thought you were recycling? Think again. Some cities, like NYC, can’t recycle your amber glass bottles because of residue oils that may be flammable. Sadly, many will ultimately they end up in the landfill.
- In 2019 I will be opening up a ‘REFILL’ shop to mizubrand.com — where you will have the option to send back your empty containers and have them cleaned, and refilled. ( make sure to sign up for our newsletter or follow us in Instagram to keep in the know ).
Further, you’d be surprised what you can ACTUALLY get away with recycling. Visit your town hall or contact your waste treatment center for a complete list of what your county can recycle, and what is actually tossed in the landfill. Guarantee you will learn something.
So this is the conclusion that I’ve reached:
Not all oils are created equal. Some essential oils are more precious and steps must be made to use them responsibly and appropriately.
Sustainability is a huge issue in the global market, and the word ‘ sustainability’ means different things to different companies.
To me, it means:
- Sourcing my ingredients ethically.
- Knowing which oils to use and which to use sparingly.
- Having relationships with my suppliers.
- Doing the research to know that the oils I am sourcing are not endangered or a product of slave labor.
As MIZU brand continues to grow, so will my ability to push for a more sustainable path forward. At my current size, I am unable to do things like visit every farm to inspect their process, but I am big enough to START making changes in the way I purchase ingredients and design my products, to create a more sustainable environment.
There are so many issues in this article that I haven’t even touched on. If you’d like to discuss more with me, or have suggestions for how I can better enforce sustainability in my products, please contact me. I would love to talk to you.
Here are changes I will be putting in place to make MIZU brand more sustainable in 2019;
I am committed to keeping all new products 100% Natural.
- SUSTAINABILITY : Revisit all formulations of all-natural products to see where sustainably / ethical issues are hiding. Source natural & sustainable alternatives when available.
- REFORMULATE: If no natural alternative is available for an ingredient that has been flagged with sustainability issues, I will be working to reformulate effected fragrances to omit use of that ingredient.
- ALL NATURAL: All Perfumes ( roll-ons and solids ), RITUAL Candles and fragrances, and New Products ( 2014 - ) will continue to be made 100% natural and synthetic free, with a renewed emphasis on sustainability sourced ingredients. I Especially believe it is important to keep all products used topically or internally to be synthetic free.
- CARBON EMISSIONS: Finding a Carbon Neutral Courier option to ship all orders
- REFILL OPTION: Creating an option to send back your used candle jars / perfume vials to be cleaned and re-filled.
- PLASTICS: Eliminate any new plastic from product packaging ( recycled, re-used or natural packaging only )
- RECYCLE: Eliminate paper waste wherever possible. This will mean no longer providing box packaging by default. These will still be available; you can request your box while adding any product to your cart.
I will be monitoring both the state of endangered crops and the progress of this new science of creating cleaner synthetic fragrance molecules from microbes. If these new molecules are non-toxic, clean burning, an non-petroluem derived, as well as meeting my sustainable criteria, I will, in some instances, be open to exploring the use of certain molecules in the future, exclusively for use in candles ( MIZU Brand perfumes will always be 100% Natural. ). The use of any synthetics will be clearly labeled.
EASY first steps for you to take:
Speak with your dollars. If sustainability is of concern for you, get to know the people you are buying from. Entire industries can be shaped by how consumers spend their money. The more you support sustainable companies, the more important this issue will become to the global market.
This brand is inspired by the natural world, so I want to take a stance to do my part to protect it.