Are essential oils sustainable?

Aromatherapy and greenwashing

The commodification of aromatherapy brings issues of gender, health, beauty, and sexuality to bear on issues of the environment, the health of the planet, medicine, and modernity. Through the extensive range and mainstream ubiquity of aromatherapy products, the personal is made political, and the individual is encouraged to assume greater responsibility for both through acts of consumption.1

The above comment by Kimberly J. Lau, author of New Age Capitalism – Making Money East of Eden is a not-so subtle criticism of the aromatherapy industry and, as users of essential oils, some of you may not agree with Lau.

She is, in general, very critical of the way the wellness industry and New Age modalities have been marketed and promoted as being a ‘green industry.’

Lau does not waste any time in her criticism of aromatherapy, suggesting that marketing aromatherapy is essentially ‘greenwashing’.

… “aromatherapy has jumped on the bandwagon of the ‘save the earth’ green movement” and insinuated itself in popular discourse and public consciousness as a logical rider. The association seems as simple as plants=green=earth=friendly.1

Personally, I think it is unfair that she has singled out ‘aromatherapy’ and those businesses associated with ‘new age’ movement, as her criticisms are relevant to so many corporations that are involved in ‘greenwashing’.

However, she does have a point, as many highly sought-after aromatic plants used for natural products are traditionally wild-harvested, and this has placed significant stress on their availability. Many plants from which essential oils are extracted are now listed as threatened and endangered.1

Wild harvested plants

The increasing demand for essential oils has led to many wild species being domesticated and systematically cultivated; however, some plant species used for essential oil production are still harvested from the wild because:2

• many plants and plant products are used for the subsistence of rural populations.
• small quantities of the respective species are required for the essential oil industry, which is making the cost of cultivation prohibitive.
• some species are difficult to cultivate because of slow growth rate or the requirement of a special microclimate
• market uncertainties or political circumstances do not allow investment in long-term cultivation.
• the market desire for ‘wildcrafted’ material.

For example, almost all oregano worldwide comes from wild harvested plants.
Many of us may prefer essential oils from wild harvested plants; however, it is imperative that the harvesting of wild plants for commercial purposes is regulated to ensure long-term sustainability – to prevent overharvesting or loss of habitat.3
International organisations such as IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), WWF/ TRAFFIC and World Health Organisation (WHO) have launched together the convention on biological diversity, the global strategy for plant conservation, and the guidelines for sustainable use of biodiversity. These guidelines provide the herbal and essential oil industry with specific guidelines to ensure sustainable sourcing practices.2
Phillips, author of a very thought-provoking article in Perfumer & Flavorist Journal, entitled The Future of Natural in the Fragrance Industry, asks if rare and endangered aromatic plants can be saved from extinction. He is concerned at the number of endangered plants.4

Endangered aromatic plants

Unfortunately, the essential oil industry does not have a good track record in sustainably managing those plants that are wild harvested. These plants tend to be slower growing trees such as agarwood, Atlas cedarwood, rosewood or sandalwood. These plants are now on the threatened or vulnerable species list according to the website.

• Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) – India
(Listed as vulnerable)
The species in present in plantations which has eased some pressure on wild population but illegal harvest and trading still occurs. The species is commercially exhausted in some sites in India and much of Indonesia.5

• Australian sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) – Australia
(Listed as vulnerable)
Harvesting of this species is entirely destructive with the entire tree and roots being removed. The species has low regeneration and is a hemi-parasitic with a very slow growth rate.6

• Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) – Morocco
(Listed as endangered species)
Decline of up to 75% in area of occupancy has occurred between 1940 and 1982. Recent droughts have led to further declines in many regions of Morocco. Without proper control measures in place the decline is likely to continue.7

• Agarwood (Aquilaria) – Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDF, Thailand
(Listed as critically endangered)
All species of agarwood are critically endangered. All species are threatened by heavy exploitation for agarwood. Most wild stands have either been logged or are under severe threat. In Cambodia, A. crassna is described as being very rare in natural forests. In Vietnam population declines of over 80% were reported. More than 10,000 hectares of A. crassna plantations have been established in Vietnam.8

• Guaiacum officinale (Lignum vitae) – East Indies, South America.
(Listed as endangered species)
This species has been over exploited for timber and medicinal uses. It is considered rare and close to extinction in most countries it is native to.9

• Jatamansi, Indian Nard. (Nardostachys jatamansi) – Himalayas
(Listed as critically endangered)
During harvest the entire plant is uprooted. This species is also threatened by over-grazing, habitat loss and deforestation. Wild collection is unsustainable and has resulted in at least 80% decline in the last 10 years.10

• Rosewood, Bois de rose, Pau-rosa. (Aniba rosaeodora) – Brazil
(Listed as endangered species)
The species is threated in the wild. In many countries of South America, stocks were exhausted in the early 1900s at which point the trade moved to the Brazilian state of Pará. The species is however thought to only persist in much of its range in sites that are inaccessible to harvesters. More conservation action is required to prevent extinction of the species in the wild, including the development of plantations, establishing alternative livelihoods and producing conservation collections of the species.11

• Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) – Japan and Taiwan.
(Listed as near threatened in Japan and vulnerable in Taiwan)
In Japan the species is not considered threatened. Perhaps because of the large plantations that exist.12

• Blue Mallee Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus pleurocarpa) – Southern coastal region of Western Australia
(Listed as a vulnerable species)
The natural habitat has declined due to land clearing associated with agriculture and pastoralism.13

• Immortelle (Helichrysum italicum) – South Europe
(Listed as least concern)
the total number of plants in the wild has not been estimated. It appears to be a common plant along the Mediterranean coast.14

 It is interesting to know that most Australian native species at one stage were wild harvested; however, most are now plantation grown. 

Cultivated aromatic plants

Schnaubelt reminds us that prior to World War I, lavender oil was produced almost exclusively from wild plants growing in the French and Italian Alps.15

He explains that given the extreme poverty of the soil in the higher elevations of Provence and the dire economic situation after WWI, the local farmers looked for a cash crop that could produce extra income. They found that cash crop in lavender, which thrives at the higher altitudes of Provence.15

Williams explains that in its natural habitat the Melaleuca alternifolia tree grew in remote swampy locations that made it extremely difficult to harvest the leaf for the production of the essential oil.16

The development of a reliable source of supply was the only way to overcome these challenges. In the late 1970s, cultivation of the tree was undertaken by Thursday Plantation. This subsequent development of sophisticated oil extraction processes and reliable chemotypes of the plant were essential to developing a successful industry. Tea tree oil has now progressively gained a remarkable level of support from pharmacological and clinical research. This has occurred through selective breeding in which only those plants that produce the right ratio of essential oil constituents are propagated. In this case tea tree now has the higher terpinen-4-ol and lower 1,8-cineole.16

Fragonia oil, which so many of us love, is another example of a plant that underwent extensive selective breeding to produce an essential oil which the aromatherapy industry prefers.3
Manuka oil, is another essential oil that is produced from leaves that are harvested from trees that are growing in the wild.3
Cultivation of essential oil-bearing plants offers some advantages over wild harvest for the production of essential oils:2

• Avoidance of admixtures and adulterations by reliable botanical identification.
• Better control of harvesting volumes.
• Ability to select genotypes with desirable traits, especially quality.
• Controlled influence of the plant material and on postharvest handling.

However, it also requires the availability of arable land, a strategy for screening the most suitable chemotypes, developing the most appropriate propagation methods, being aware of potential pests and diseases, and developing the appropriate cultivation methods for the plant being cultivated.2

While cultivation offers a number of advantages it does have some challenges:

• availability of land
• development of propagation methods
• creating a monoculture which is more sensitive to pests and diseases
• the potential need to use herbicides and pesticides.

In the third edition of The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, I provide many examples where genetic variation and plant breeding have been used to produce essential oil plants with higher yields.3
Keep in mind that almost all of the domesticated food-bearing and decorative plants nowadays have undergone genetic selection and plant breeding.3

The difference between cultivated and wild crafted plants?

We should also reflect on the words of Stephen Harrold Buhner who compares the subtle qualities of domesticated and wild harvest plant.
His book Sacred plant medicine – the wisdom in native American herbalism, is wonderful for anyone who wants to reconnect with the more subtle qualities of plants in healing:

The domesticated plants are beautiful and respond well to human caring but they lack a certain vitality and strength. Many people have remarked on the lack of resistance of domesticated crops to disease.17 

He goes on to explain that it is possible to feel this weakness in the domesticated plants. The domestication of plants has certainly made them more vulnerable and reliant on our care.17
He stated that there is a great difference between the wild and the tame in making medicine and in establishing a sacred relationship with the plant. The wild plants possess a power and intelligence that is lost in the domesticated varieties.17

I agree with Buhner when he states:

The person hunting a wild plant is dependent on the wild plant populations and their whims from season to season. With the plants grown on a farm, under the dominion of man, there is a tendency to think of them as owned property. Because the farmer owns and controls the crop, the balance of power is changed. He no longer goes to the wild and receives the giveaway of food and medicine. The wild now comes to him and grows at his whim and caprice. It is tamed.17

He does have a point, but is it still possible to obtain essential oils from wild harvest plant?
The answer is yes, but they are becoming more and more rare.

The future

In one of my webinars later this year, I will talk about rare Japanese essential oils such as sanshō and kuramoji. These are incredibly stunning essential oils, and they are produced from plants that are harvested from the wild. The harvesting of these plants is very carefully managed by the local communities. These oils have not undergone the same commercialisation pathway that essential oils such as lavender or tea tree have undergone. As a result, they are very expensive and rare.

Which brings me to an interesting paper recently published in Perfumer & Flavorist Journal The future of naturals in the fragrance industry, in which the author questions whether the essential oil industry can remain sustainable.4
Phillips explains while we have seen technological developments in the field of extraction, analysis and fragrance formulation have become ever-more sophisticated. The technology used to cultivate and harvest aromatic plants is not very different to what it was 100 years ago. Planting, cultivating and harvesting many aromatic plants still involves large amounts of labour.4

Phillips also claims the cost of producing essential oils that cannot be mechanised will continue to rise as labour becomes more and more scarce. Phillips is also concerned that while distillation is one of the world’s oldest professions, there are very few training centres for distillation engineers or recognised diploma courses in the art and science of distillation of aromatic substances.4

Distillation requires significant amount of energy, and sadly the majority of stills in developing countries are extremely inefficient in terms of heat and use of spent waste.4
We also need to be better informed as to the agronomic and environmental characteristics of natural ingredients. Phillips states that aromatic materials will have a long-term sustainable future while others will continue to become increasingly expensive and rare.4

He explains that only where mechanisation has been cost-effectively employed as in the case of lavender and chamomile can the industry expect to see sustainable, affordable natural florals.4

Phillips also asks whether unhealthy or dangerous solvents can be replaced. He claims that the use of chemical solvents to extract aromatic ingredients from many flowers and plants is an increasing concern for the industry from both a marketing and environmental point of view. He states that not only are the risks of fire and explosions elevated in factories using certain solvents, but health hazards exist for both the workers and the consumers if some types of solvents are not properly eliminated. Furthermore, the disposal of solvent waste continues to pose a growing cost and risk. He claims that the essential oil industry needs to invest a lot more in research to develop green solvents to replace petrochemical-based solvents such as hexane.4

One of the most exciting developments has been the cultivation of Santalum album in Australia. While this is a tree that is now listed as vulnerable in its native habitat in India, thanks to the ingenuity of Australian primary producers, Santalum album oil is once again readily available.3

We need to seriously begin supporting agro-foresty investments such as Australian Santalum album to ensure the long-term sustainability of some of these threatened species.

Organic farming practices

Back in 2006, I stated that sourcing certified organic oils was a struggle and those certified organic essential oils that were available were very rare and expensive.3
I am pleased to say that part of this statement is no longer true. An increased demand for certified organic produce means that more certified organic essential oils are readily available. However, in most cases, certified organic oils are still considerably more expensive than non-organic essential oils. The higher price reflects the true and fair price to produce the certified organic oils.3

IFOAM – Organics International states that organic agriculture must be based on:3

• The principle of health – organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
• The principle of ecology – organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
• The principle of fairness – organic agriculture should build relationships that ensure fairness with regards to the common environment and life opportunities.
• The principle of care – organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and wellbeing of current and future generations and the environment.

These principles of organic agriculture serve to inspire the organic movement in its full diversity. The Australian Certified Organic (ACO) lists many reasons why certified organic practices should be supported:3

• reduces chemical runoff and residues into our drinking water, waterways and coastal areas
• restores soil for productive cropland and secure the future of Australian agriculture
• increases the resilience of farms during drought
• increases biodiversity and save disappearing native animal habitats
• safeguards the integrity of our food
• captures CO2 into the soil in the form of humus
• reduces greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

The demise of Indian sandalwood

I have spoken and written extensively about the demise of Indian Sandalwood and the challenges of wild harvesting Australian Santalum spicatum. In a paper that I presented at the International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA) conference in London, 2019, I spoke about the innovative practices of Australian producers in creating a sustainable Santalum album industry from cultivated sandalwood trees. This is truly innovative as the cultivation of Santalum album is extremely challenging.

To find out more about the state of the sandalwood industry please refer to my blog – How Australia is creating a long-term sustainable future for one of the world’s most precious essential oils – sandalwood.

In my paper I refer to a very important paper presented by Erza D. Rashkow, Perfumed the axe that laid it low: the endangerment of sandalwood in Southern India.

While many factors were involved in the demise of the Indian sandalwood tree, the biggest demise facing sandalwood oil came in the twentieth century with the establishment of industrial scale distillation factories. Rashkow also states that the popularity of aromatherapy and a desire to live a more natural lifestyle coupled with an utter lack of awareness of the environmental impacts also led to the decimation of sandalwood trees.

In my sandalwood blog, I spoke of strategies being implemented in Western Australia to ensure the long-term sustainability of Santalum spicatum in the wild.

However, since writing this in 2019, a very recent 2022 report on ABC rural news warned that the Western Australia native sandalwood industry could collapse under the weight of increased market supply and overharvesting of wild stocks. Calls have been made to further reduce the annual harvest quota of wild sandalwood to risk depletion of wild trees. As plantation wood becomes available it will reduce the reliance on wild harvested wood.19


I am optimistic that Australia is leading the way in ensuring the sustainability of essential oils such as sandalwood and agarwood. We are now sustainably producing these precious and rare essential oils from plantation trees.
The future aromatic plant cultivation must also include supporting certified organic farmers who are responsible for practicing a far more sustainable option for protecting the environment for future generations.
We may need to go one step further and follow the advice of Masanobu Fukuoka, author of books such as One-Straw Revolution and The Natural Way of Farming, if we are truly serious about protecting the long sustainability of the environment.


Santalum album plantation in Kununurra, Australia.


Fukuoka asks for major changes to our farming practices. Its not in the scope of this presentation to outline his method for natural farming; however, his method is far more holistic and far more sustainable than any other form of farming.

Natural farming, the true and original form of agriculture, is the methodless method of nature, the unmoving way of Bodhidharma. Although appearing fragile and vulnerable, it is potent for it brings victory unfought; it is a Buddhist way of farming that is boundless and yielding, and leaves the soil, the plants, and the insects to themselves.20


  1. Lau KJ. New Age Capitalism – making money east of Eden. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 2000.
  2. Franz C, Novak J. Sources of essential oils. In Baser KHC, Buchbauer G. eds. Handbook of essential oils – science, technology and applications. 2nd edn. CRC Press, Boca Raton, 2016: 43-86.
  3. Phillips LD. The future of naturals in the fragrance industry. Perfumer & Flavorists, 2015;40:24-34.
  4. Battaglia S. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy – Volume I, Foundations & Materia Medica. Third edn, Black Pepper Creative, Brisbane, 20 18.
  15. Schnaubelt K. The healing intelligence of essential oils. – the science of aromatherapy. Healing Art Press, Rochester, 2011.
  16. Williams C. Medicinal plants in Australia – Vol. 2. Gums, resins, tannins and essential oil. Rosenburg Publishing, Dural, 2011.
  17. Buhner SH. Sacred plant medicine – the wisdom in native American herbalism. Bear & Company, Rochester, 2006.
  18. Rashkow E. Perfumed the axe that laid it low: The endangerment of sandalwood in southern India. Indian Economic & Social History Review, 2014, (51);1:41-70 , DOI: 10.1177/0019464613515553
  20. Fukuoko M. The natural way of farming: the theory and practice of green philosophy. Japan Publications, 1986.


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