We started Blue Ridge Aromatics to offer an alternative to the largely opaque, and sometimes downright shady, business as usual essential oil industry.
In this article, we discuss the troublesome essential oil industry and how we are trying to build a different business model focused on sustainability, authenticity and radical transparency.
Lifecycle of a Bottle of “Lavender” Essential Oil
Let us first look at the lifecycle of an average retail bottle of essential oil, in reverse, using Lavender as an example. Lavender is possibly the most well-known essential oil and is likely the first essential oil a person encounters.
So, “Jenny” is in her home, holding a bottle of Lavender essential oil. The bottle definitely displays “Lavender” and probably says some variation of the following: “100% Pure, Therapeutic Grade, Lavandula angustifolia.” Jenny heard that Lavender helps heal minor burns so she applies it to her arm where she accidentally bumped her hot cast iron skillet. She feels a mild tingling or cooling on the burn.
Jenny bought that $10 half oz (15ml) bottle from a major retailer.
The retailer bought that bottle in a big lot from a large US-based essential oil distributor/brand for something like 50% off; so it’s $5.
That distributor bottled and labeled the Lavender oil out of a 181 kg drum that they bought for $10,000 from an international bulk supplier. The drum can fill 13,880 x 15 ml bottles. So their cost is $0.72 for the oil and maybe another $0.50 for the bottle, cap and label. Let’s assume the distributor had that batch analyzed for $150. That adds another $0.01 per bottle, so their cost on the 15ml bottle is $1.23.
Shady distributors have the chance to dilute the essential oil or adulterate it with cheap synthetic chemicals before bottling and labeling. They also have the chance to label the cheaper Lavandula x intermedia (Lavandin) as L. angustifolia (“true” Lavender). It usually takes an experienced nose and/or chemical analysis to identify adulteration or species mis-identification.
The bulk supplier purchased and most likely combined separate batches from various distilleries/farms in developing nations. Let’s assume they paid the distillery at Alibaba prices (“French Origin Lavender Oil,” shipped from China, $35/kg); so their cost per drum is $6,300; each bottle is therefore $0.45. Now that price paid to the distilleries may be optimistic since bulk suppliers would leverage large buys and repeat business; especially in lesser developed countries without an established market.
Again, the bulk supplier has an opportunity for species mis-representation, adulteration or dilution. Additionally, they may be combining batches of varying quality, age and geographic source to achieve a more uniform product. At this point in the cycle, the consumer (Jenny) is shielded from transparency by layer upon layer of middlemen. It should also be noted that the actual average bulk price for true French Lavender oil is more like $250/kg so the incentive to cheat is high and that Alibaba oil is probably not French Lavender.
So now we are at the source: The distillery/farm. They have received $6,300 for 181 kg of their Lavender essential oil, which sounds pretty nice if you are in a developing nation. However, at a decent yield of 1.5%, that 181 kg of essential oil would have started out as 12,067 kg of lavender flower stalks. Sources suggest that one might produce about 455 kg of true lavender flower stalks per acre, so the whole drum of essential oil would require around 26.5 acres of farmland. If you think about the amount of labor, machinery and consumables (like fuel, water, pesticides and fertilizers) it might take to cultivate 26.5 acres, that $6,300 is a lot less exciting. Even if labor is as cheap as $10/day in developing nations, it must be hard to be successful (even just one employee working every week day would be over $2,500 per year). If they are growing Lavandin, the essential oil they are able to produce per acre is more than double.
With the most to lose and the greatest chance of getting caught (due to likely chemical analysis down the line), it is probably unlikely that many distilleries would misrepresent or adulterate their essential oils. However, the use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides is much more difficult to confirm with so many layers of middlemen between the distillery and the consumer. Traditional chemical analysis is not precise enough to detect pesticide levels in essential oils and expensive pesticide analyses are not common practice in the industry. There is also the problem of leaded gasoline still in use or recently discontinued in many developing nations. The lead particles in the exhaust of equipment and vehicles easily find their way into water runoff and (even organic) cultivation fields; where they can hang out for decades.
Now, let us return to Jenny and her skillet burn. Unfortunately, it has been reported that a large percentage of Lavender oil on the market is mis-labeled Lavandin oil. As it happens, Lavandin smells very much like Lavender but it contains a relatively high percentage of camphor. Camphor is actually harmful to burns. That mild tingling is actually the camphor in her Lavandin oil further damaging her skin.
If you compare the situation described above to recent discoveries about the global Honey industry, you will notice striking similarities!
What about MLMs?
This problem of adulteration and misrepresentation is widespread across many products in the essential oil industry; which is one reason for the rise of Multi Level Marketing (MLM) essential oil companies. Most of these companies (admirably) place quality in their premier value proposition and own the process, from farm to bottle. They also implement in-house and third-party testing. Some even have trademarked internal “certifications” to attempt to differentiate their products and (unfortunately) discredit other brands that produce/distribute high-quality essential oils.
The MLM business model demands an exceptionally high price and much of the companies’ messaging is subject to the ole’ telephone game (being passed from one untrained “consultant” to another and potentially mutating in the process). In our opinion, the MLM business model itself leads to product/health claim misrepresentation and distrust. It was so bad in 2014, the FDA issued warnings to the two biggest MLM essential oil companies (#1, #2).
We are not trying to say that these companies’ essential oils are low-quality. In fact, we are saying the opposite; it has been our experience that these companies’ products are indeed high-quality. But the MLM model and high prices are not for everyone and, in our opinion, it has led to even more distrust in the industry on the whole. What was once a trusted brand moniker (“Therapeutic Grade”) is now used by most large brands to describe even the lowest-quality essential oils. This is why we call our essential oils “Artisan distilled” or “Artisan quality” rather than “Therapeutic Quality” as that phrase has lost its meaning. In truth, there is no established essential oil grading system.
There is growing concern among herbalists and conservationists about the sustainability of essential oils. Since they take so much plant material to make, wild-harvested (aka wild-crafted) essential oils can be especially devastating to species’ populations. For example, 181 kg of Fraser Fir essential oil would require roughly 1,300 medium-sized trees that are between 15 and 40 years old! In its native southern high-elevation range, that would devastate a single population and with prolonged exploitation, it would lead to rapid extinction of wild populations. This scale of devastation can currently be seen manifesting itself with Frankincense and Sandlewood among others.
As in the Lavender/Lavandin example, most essential oils are produced in developing nations that often lack comprehensive environmental regulations. So the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and mis-managed water resources is ubiquitous. Certified Organic cultivation helps mitigate some of these risks but, due to the nature of the industry described above, we kind of just have to trust that the distributors were given accurate information and the bulk suppliers are honorable when they say a particular lot or batch is certified organic.
There is also the issue of food shortages in developing nations, where domestic food crops are replaced with more lucrative essential oil crops for foreign markets.
So, What Can We Do About This?
If you are still reading this, we appreciate your patience and concern about the issues we are raising. It can all be a little depressing and make one question whether they should use essential oils at all. But please bear with us as this is where it gets positive!
As stated at the beginning of this article, Blue Ridge Aromatics was started out of a desire to build a new model for the essential oil industry; a model based on Sustainability, Authenticity and Radical Transparency. Let’s address these, one at a time.
We believe that there is so much waste in the world, there is no need to threaten wild populations of plants. Logging and forestry generate tremendous amounts of tree waste that could be distilled for essential oils. While our scale is not large enough yet to take advantage of that, we instead work with local landscaping and tree care companies. We also take advantage of the occasional destructive forces of nature; harvesting from storm-damaged trees. We don’t practice wild-harvesting of threatened species like the Fraser Fir, instead developing a relationship with a Christmas tree farmer that has 100 acres of cultivated Fraser Firs that haven’t been sprayed or groomed for 10+ years.
We can also reduce the use of farmland for essential oil crops by using “waste” plant material from other commercial processes. Our Lemon, Lime and Ginger essential oils are great examples! We have partnered with a local beverage maker to source their “waste” juiced organic citrus peels. Our Ginger oil is also made from the waste from a beverage maker. They juice super fresh, organic Ginger roots in Peru and we distill the flash-frozen “waste” Ginger pulp that results from that process. Additionally, we partner with farmers to source “ugly” or weather-damaged aromatic crops that would otherwise be composted. Some examples of previous batches sourced this way are: German Chamomile, Lemon Balm and Holy Basil. This use of “waste” plant products also helps us to be more price-competitive with much bigger brands.
For the batches that we cultivate (African Blue Basil and Lemon Balm at this time), we use biodynamic growing practices. This means no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or chemicals of any kind are applied to our plants. Weed control is with the use of landscape fabric (weed barriers) rather than machinery or chemicals. Once a row is established, it is not tilled so that the natural biome of the soil is supported year-over-year. Native flowers and plants are allowed to grow closely to crops in order to maintain diversity and invite natural pest-controlling predatory insects. We use gravity-fed spring water right out of the mountain to irrigate our plants. Spent distillation materials are used as mulch or composted to add to our rows to replenish nutrients when needed.
In the interest of packaging sustainability, we use minimalistic and recycled materials where possible and eco-friendly packaging materials. We want to provide the highest quality essential oils at the lowest price that we can so why make our customers pay for fancy packaging?
Lastly, we believe that a better model for the industry is one of distributed production (the same argument is often brought up for food production). We should be buying our essential oils from small to medium scale distillers or distributors that buy direct from distillers. This way, there is less motivation for industrialized production levels that 1) have little or no concern for the species or environment, and 2) continually and artificially drive down the price and quality of essential oils in a commodity market. There is no legitimate reason that any essential oil that takes 10-20 lbs of herbs to make should be as cheap as $5 a bottle (ahem, Peppermint). This practice defers environmental costs to future generations and encourages wasteful use of these precious botanical treasures. Distributed production can also lead to the discovery of new essential oils that may be able to replace oils from threatened species.
Authenticity begins at the source. The chemistry and aroma of essential oils can vary significantly between different species of the same genus. Lavender and Lavandin are a great example but there are so many more. It should be a requirement that essential oil bottles list the accurate botanical name of the species they are made from as well as where and how the plants were grown, yet many brands don’t. The species represented should be backed up with trace-ability to the actual plants that made that batch, maybe with the use of photos and plant vouchers. If we can do it, so should a much larger company with far greater resources.
Another authenticity practice should be in the quality of essential oil sold. That is a broad statement that is hard to backup but here are some examples of times that we have chosen not to sell an essential oil that we distilled:
- Cascarilla Bark (Croton eluteria) – We were super excited about a batch of Cascarilla Bark that we imported from the Bahamas and distilled. It is an extremely valuable and moderately rare essential oil primarily used in perfumery. We had the resulting essential oil analyzed and discovered that it contained BHA, a synthetic preservative. Despite having sunk costs into the import, production and analysis, we could not in good conscience sell it to the public.
- One of our Ginger batches (Zingiber officinale) – At over 140 lbs, this was our biggest Ginger batch yet at that time. This supplier was unable to flash-freeze the juiced roots, which were combined in too large of a storage container after juicing and therefore couldn’t be cooled fast enough to stop fermentation from starting. We distilled the batch anyway in hopes that we caught it in time and the oil quality would not be affected. It was. There was a note of ammonia in the resulting oil that we noticed but others did not unless compared side-to-side with a different batch. We did not sell that batch, instead using it liberally to make surface cleaners for our workshop. While we probably could have sold it to the tune of several hundred dollars, we decided that would be inauthentic and not representative of the model we are trying to promote.
- Aging our essential oils – This is an interesting topic that not many essential oil users know about. We could write a whole article about this (and probably will in the future) but will try to keep it brief here. Like in the production of Wine and Spirits, sulfur comes into play in essential oil distilling as well. Sulfur compounds are created and picked up by steam during distillation and are therefore present (“still notes”) in a fresh batch of essential oil. These sulfur compounds are foul-smelling but like in wine, evaporate out of solution over time. There are ways to speed up this aging (like with copper and/or oxidation) but this can result in the alteration of the chemical makeup of the essential oil. So we refrain from artificial aging of our essential oils, instead patiently waiting for them to reach their true-to-plant aroma in a sealed bottle. For some species, this can take several months post distillation. For bulk suppliers that receive an essential oil batch that is not properly aged, their choice would likely be to mix that batch into another one that smells better. Long story short, our policy is that we will not sell an essential oil that doesn’t smell just like a concentrated form of the plant it came from. It’s truly amazing how many essential oils out there smell only kindof like the plant.
For basically all of the industry problems mentioned above, transparency is key. In its simplest form, transparency means providing the customer with the information to make an informed decision; such as the botanical name, growing region and conditions (is it wild-crafted, organic, biodynamic?). In all honesty, transparency is bound to be easier for Blue Ridge Aromatics than it is for much larger companies sourcing essential oils from all over the world.
Chemical analysis is another important aspect of transparency for an essential oil company. The Certificates of Analysis (COAs) provided by testing labs can be difficult to understand if one isn’t trained in chemistry. This is changing over time as labs are realizing that these COAs aren’t just for the brands anymore. However, we think it is important to realize that a GC/MS is not the end-all be-all to trust a product unless it was verifiably performed on a sealed retail bottle. Otherwise, the analysis could be performed at any time during the product’s lifecycle and adulteration could happen after the analysis. We are working toward providing COAs for all of our products; however, the cost is often too much for our smaller batches that may only be worth 1-2x the cost of the analysis. So we try to make up for that with greater transparency in other areas.
So we take transparency several steps further by keeping detailed batch records, photos of our harvests, and providing batch information on our website and bottles. Lastly, in an industry first, we try to help our customers understand the prices and intrinsic values of our products by putting directly on the bottle, exactly how much and what parts of the plant were used to make that bottle of essential oil.
It’s not easy to be a conscious consumer. Most of the time we have very little knowledge about the sourcing and production process of the products we buy. One might also find an artisan distiller they love (like us) but their product variety can’t meet all of one’s needs. So it can really be a lot of work to ethically source a large variety of essential oils. However, we can flip the script on this increasingly opaque industry by finding several smaller brands that we like and demanding more transparency from essential oil brands in general by voting with our dollars.
At Blue Ridge Aromatics, we make amazing essential oils with great care and attention to quality, sustainability, authenticity and transparency. But we will never be able to offer the vast variety of species that a distributor can. Despite the industry problems, there are awesome essential oil distributors and bulk suppliers that source direct from ethical distillers and care about these issues. In a future post, we will go ahead and list some that we have come across in the artisan distillers’ community.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to share your questions, comments, concerns, suggestions or criticisms either by contacting us directly, or below in the comments section!