The Environmental Impact of Essential Oils
4 Million Gallons...
That’s how much demand there is for essential oils today. Think about that for a minute. That’s more than 6 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of essential oil. That’s a lot of essential oil we are consuming as humans on this planet. And this demand is predicted to grow +9% every year!
If you’re reading this, you’re probably using essential oils, or maybe you’re thinking about using them. You can buy essential oils pretty much everywhere now - I mean they’re even at my local grocery store. Many choose to buy online - Amazon alone has more than 200,000 choices. And chances are you know somebody who is selling them too.
We buy essential oils because we know they can support us in many ways. They are natural and “easy to understand”. There are thousands of DIY recipes to choose from, and let’s face it, they make us feel good.
So, what is the impact this demand is having on our natural resources?
Firstly, it’s important to understand how much plant material goes into a bottle of essential oil. For example, it takes 30-50 roses to produce a single drop of Rose oil (Rosa × damascena). If there are 600 drops of essential oil in a 1 oz (30 ml) bottle, that means it took 18,000 to 30,000 roses to fill that bottle. Or take, for example, lavender essential oil. It takes 63 lbs of lavender flowers to produce a 13oz bottle of lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia). And for the coveted Immortal/Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), you need more than 66 pounds of plant material, including flowers, leaves, and twigs, to yield just a little over 2oz of essential oil.
It’s clear that one drop of essential oil is highly concentrated and requires a lot of natural resources. This is why we only need a few drops to support the effects we’re after.
In fact, when you’re holding a bottle of essential oil, it’s important to think about what went into producing it—the amount of plant material in every drop, the dedication the farmers and distillers put into growing and harvesting the plants, and the art of distillation itself. Not to mention the distance the oil may have travelled from distiller to distributor and finally to the end-user.
So, what can we do to ensure that we are using essential oils in a sustainable way while still enjoying the benefits that they provide.
Here are 6 things to ask yourself when buying and using essential oils:
1. Is the essential oil I’m considering on the Species “At Risk” and “To Watch” list?
United Plant Savers keeps an updated list of those medicinal plants which are being monitored and they feel are currently most sensitive to the impact of human activities. It is best to avoid these oils, or use them sparingly. One option is to consider using an essential oil that has similar properties to what you are looking to achieve. Depending on your intention, this can be either based on the chemical composition or maybe just the aroma profile.
2. Can I buy an essential oil directly from a local farmer or distiller?
Sometimes you just need to look around your own extended community and you’ll be surprised to find how many small farms grow and harvest wonderful oils like lavender, melissa, orange, peppermint, etc. Every country has its own native species and there are so many beneficial essential oils to choose from just in your own circumference. Ask yourself, does your lavender oil necessarily have to come from France if you live on the West Coast of the United States? We have so many wonderful farms up and down the coast that can supply us with beautiful and beneficial oils. I imagine your community does as well. You just have to look for them. And how fun it can be to visit and see first-hand how they grow and produce their oil.
3. If an essential oil I need is only produced in a country far from where I live, is the farmer/ the distiller/ the distributor using sustainable practices, including community development?
There are many essential oils that we just can’t get locally. For instance, Frankincense is an oil that is grown and produced mostly in Somalia/Somaliland and Oman. Frankincense is an extremely beneficial oil and supports us in so many ways, so we want to use it, but we need to think about who we are buying from. The cfess is a wonderful organization that looks at the environmental, social and political impact of frankincense trade and there are several essential oil suppliers that partner with them.
4. Is your favorite essential oil supplier open about where they are buying from?
The more transparent the company you are buying from is with you, the more informed you are, and the better your choice to buy or not to buy will be. Although most companies won’t reveal the exact source of their supply, many do offer general information as to whether or not the farmers are using sustainable practices, including whether the plants are organically certified and/or sustainably wildcrafted.
5. How far removed is your essential oil supplier from the farmer who grows the plants?
Chances are, the larger the company, the further away they are from the farmer who grew the plant that produced the oil in the bottle. Consider how many middlemen may be involved in the soil-to-oil process. Smaller essential oil companies are much more likely to be connected to the farmers and distillers. They may have a smaller selection of oils, but the oils they do have, they at least know where they are coming from. Your local grocery store doesn’t know the farmer that made that oil. They probably don’t even know the distiller. With just a little bit of mindful research, you can find the right company to buy from. The key is being mindful and taking the time to care.
6. Do I have to use so much?
Essential oils are highly concentrated and a little goes a long way. Try using just the smallest amount and see if that gives you the support you need. You’ll be surprised to find many times it does. If not, add more - a drop at a time - until you find the sweet spot that’s still within safe use.
We all love our essential oils and making just a few adjustments and mental mindshifts can go a long way in helping our planet.