Sourcing Sustainable Essential Oils

Your favorite essential oils may be sourced from critically endangered plants; learn how to replace those oils with sustainable alternatives.

| May / June 2018

If we’re not careful, essential oil use could potentially become one of the largest modern sources of environmental damage and plant extinction. Producing just one 15-milliliter bottle of lavender essential oil takes approximately 3 pounds of lavender flowers; and producing a single 15-milliliter bottle of lemon essential oil takes nearly 50 lemons. Clearly, essential oils are an extremely concentrated product that require a massive amount of plant material to produce.

Because these precious oils are natural, generally safe, and effective, it’s fine to use them in small measures when they’re the best solution for a problem. However, as essential oils have gained popularity in our mainstream culture, we’ve left balance in the rearview mirror. Diffusers run all day in many homes simply to make the air smell better or to encourage a feeling of calm. In some of the worst cases of abuse, companies advise the use of these potent oils to flavor water. As our use of essential oils increases, we remain unaware of the demands we place on the plants themselves, as well as the communities and environments in which these plants grow.

Our consideration of this problem — and the steps we can take to remedy it — should begin in our own homes. We, the consumers, must support sustainably sourced essential oils and recognize that many endangered aromatics, including rosewood, sandalwood, and spikenard, need to be used cautiously and with respect.

Finding Substitutes for Endangered Aromatics

Some of our aromatic medicinals can be responsibly forest-grown, but producing them will take time, care, and money. It will also require a consumer who understands that a higher value must be placed on these resources. If you desire to use essential oils, you can do so in a more sustainable way by substituting more common aromatics for endangered ones.

Finding one essential oil to substitute for another of equal quality is a complex notion. Each oil is heavily nuanced and has a specific effect on the emotional, physical, and even the spiritual well-being. You’ll need to find an oil or oil combination to replace the aspect you need. You should do thorough research and take extra precautions when substituting, blending, and using your oils. If you want to avoid unintended consequences, seek the advice of a trained aromatherapy professional as well as a medical practitioner.

Spikenard (Nardostachys grandiflora & N. jatamansi)

Spikenard is a small plant that grows in the Himalayas, particularly Nepal. It’s very difficult to cultivate and therefore is typically wild-harvested. The part of the plant used for essential oils is its root, so when harvested, spikenard is not able to individually regenerate. This fact, combined with an increased demand for the plant, has contributed to its decline. Spikenard was banned from export from Nepal, but the popularity of the plant has ensured that smuggling continues. For example, Young Living — a popular essential oil company — was sentenced to pay $760,000 as part of a plea agreement for illegally trafficking spikenard and rosewood essential oil overseas.

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