Essential oils-Art, Ethics, Trust & Adulteration

Distillation Woodcut
 The past few decades we have seen a burgeoning market in herbal health related products.   Natural/botanical perfumes and cosmetics, aromatherapy and massage therapy have all contributed  to a booming Western market and a consistent growth in our use of essential oils.
essential-oils-market
Courtesy of grandview research.com 

Along with this market growth, has come an increase, or at least increased awareness of adulteration routinely practiced by large-scale brokers, manufacturers, and marketers of essential oils.  Vast sums are invested  in marketing  and advertising , crafting assurances of purity and highest quality,  yet too often we hear of essential oils that are adulterated with less expensive materials and diluted with carrier oils to increase profits. Corporate trust, once found, is often fleeting.

In fact, from what I can tell, the art of adulteration has become so sophisticated, it is often impossible to detect foreign, less expensive materials, and diluents in essential oils even with the latest analytical technology. Like lucrative forgeries in any field, there seems to be just as much incentive to beat new tech as there is to develop it.

The hidden price of  essential oils

Besides a lingering doubt around purity, there is also a hidden price that comes with this increase in our demand for essential oils.  Ethics in trade, sustainability, social and environmental integrity can easily be compromised to bring us our natural aromatics while keeping the profit margin high and costs low.  Market growth is mirrored by higher volume production methods which can lead to over-harvesting in the wild, or mono-culture practices which displace indigenous plants and animals, reduce biodiversity, and invite the use of herbicides, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers. If not thoughtfully implemented these practices also have negative  local economic and cultural impact.

Monoculture-Spraying Soya
Monoculture-Spraying Soya

Disconcerting as this is, it is important to keep in  mind that this is a system we created. It is a global machine of commerce, designed, fueled and directed by us alone. It does exactly what we ask of it.  There are no puppet masters controlling the world, just us.

Armed with this knowledge, more of us are demanding transparency and higher standards from those who procure or manufacture for us. I believe we have a growing voice and influence on the system, though change is slow, we are adjusting our purchasing practices to support those who provide better quality products, higher standards of  ethics in business, production, manufacture, social and environmental accountability.  We in the West are perfectly positioned with our numbers, relative affluence, and privilege to make any changes we choose.

With global and instantaneous communication, the collection, collation and implementation of online data, each mouse click, query, preference and purchase we “input” online works to shape our global marketplace and direct our manufacturers and corporations. The internet is a pure form of global consensus and polling. Just like voting but not yet rigged. Every single click counts. Change could be swift if we all acted together.  This is important and doable, but sadly, will likely take time.

What do we do in the meantime?

Do we have an alternative, besides waiting for enough of us to decide to change the world? Many of us require consistent high-quality essential oils we can trust and use with a clean conscience, and we need them now.

Though the problems of ethics, sustainability, and trust in the corporate world may seem daunting, there is a fast-growing grassroots movement in the Western world that has evolved in part as a solution to the mess and mayhem we created with our industrial revolution, mass production shortcuts, and colonial philandering.

Local, small-scale, conscientious producers in a broad range of creative fields are part of a growing Western trend and are taking an increasing portion of the consumer market in many niche industries .

The number of small-scale farmers,  vintners, craft brewers,  apothecaries, perfumers,  niche craftspeople, and artisans is growing quickly in our culture, and we are increasingly supporting them.

I believe we support them because on some level we would rather invest in quality, craftsmanship, and ethics that reflect our ideals. If given a choice, we prefer to buy from the source and not deal with faceless corporations, myriad middlemen, and indifferent salespeople. Supporting our artists, artisans, craftspeople, small businesses and micro industries is another way we change the world one purchase at a time.

Out of this growing grassroots movement has emerged an alternative to mainstream,  mass-produced essential oils of questionable quality and ethics. These are our  artisan and small batch essential oil distillers.

“One of my mentors once told me the real way to ascertain authenticity is to see the growing plants, the still and ideally be present during distillation and obtain a sample fresh from the still.

Clearly one cannot do this every time for every oil on the list. But we believe that the contact to the actual producer is an indispensable element of every attempt to procuring authentic oils. In our experience adulteration never happens at the level of the producer. The know how to reconstruct, standardize or adjust essential oils is found in the big brokerages who often can sell essential oils for less than they cost at the source”             Kurt Schnaubelt-The human element-Addressing issues around the adulteration of essential oils.

Artisan essential oil distillers are always people with a passion and a focus on quality and craftsmanship. They are most often found tending their aromatic gardens or carefully collecting raw materials from their locale. Most  have a deep connection and relationship with the bio-region and in many cases steward the land fiercely. Like any craftsperson, their products are an extension of themselves, an expression of their values and ethics and fueled by a pride in quality and craftsmanship. Nothing mass-produced or impersonal can be found here. They are the wellspring and the source of these essential oils.

Ring botanicals DF
Douglas Fir distillation. Jessica Ring-Ring Botanicals Oregon

They have mastered their craft and honed it over the course of years if not decades. Their skill is evident in their practice and products, acknowledged by their peers and customers. Their sales grow not through heavy advertising, expensive packaging and marketing props, but from word of mouth and customer satisfaction.

Their products possess  quality and qualities that can never be reproduced on an industrial scale or purchased through a corporation.  Artisan distilled essential oils provide a benchmark for the quality and purity of mainstream essential oils.

A distillation of Rose-Jack Chaitman-Scents of kowing-Maui
A distillation of Rose byJack Chaitman-Scents of knowing-Maui

Artisan essential oil distillers are a vital part of our native aromatic and herbal arts, our indie perfume and aromatherapy communities.  These men and women make up an underground and grassroots movement that we have invoked and called into being with our need for transparency, quality, ethics and sustainable practices in our essential oil market.

Erik Zvonchenko & Dan Riegler-Viridis Genii 2016
Artisan distiller Erik Zvonchenko, (on the right), of Cascadia Terroir in Washington with one of his copper alembics. Distillation workshop Viridis Genii 2016

Though many would rather just be distilling and not bother with the stress of selling or marketing themselves, their products are available if you know where to find them. I will  provide links to some North American artisan distillers in the next few weeks so you can purchase their essential oils directly..

Dan

In the meantime here are some tips on evaluating your essential oils for signs of adulteration. From Prevention.com

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Hi I love your site. Alchemy is a favorite pastime of mine. However I am looking to apprentice under someone. I live in Washington State and am trying to find like minded people. I was hoping maybe you had some insight or suggestions or leads for that matter.
    Thanks so much.
    Collin

    Like

  2. Great Article Dan!
    Being a certified aromatherapist, I too have found the essential oil industry corrupt in more ways than I care to mention. I have been at a loss in attempting to locate prospective distillers here in Ontario, Canada and around the world. One place located here didnt even know what I meant when I asked what was the botanical name of the Lavender she claimed she had distilled. Thank you for sharing your great piece of writing.

    I am waiting for your list with great anticipation:)

    Like

    1. Thank you Carolyn and I apologize for the delay responding here. I am waiting for peer contributions to the upcoming post on artisan essential oil producers and sellers. The list is in the works still, so keep an eye on the blog for developments.
      Dan

      Like

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