I believe that the debate on what constitutes a natural ingredient will never really close and that 10 years down the line, we will still argue on whether an essential oil derived from plant yet containing many aromatic molecules that can - for most - be reproduced in a lab through synthesis, is 100% natural or not. With these arguments in mind, I fail to see how anyone or any association can actually come up with a definition of 'natural' that will satisfy all.
The pandemic of Covid 19 has showed people like myself, who make it our ethics to only use the best quality extracted raw materials sourced from the countries of production, that the farming environment for these materials is at least fragile and at most challenging. The price of rose essential oil (the finer version of rose absolute) went two even three fold, due to issues with harvesting caused by shortage of workforce, difficulty accessing workplace, lack of tending the crops and so on... Now it is likely to increase even more because of the energy crisis. It is so sad that the palette of raw materials available to perfumers working with naturals is reducing by the year!
Here is the other conundrum: with households looking to reduce their costs and to cut down on small indulgences such as perfumes, how sustainable is using pure essential oils in perfumes? I feel that these successive crises have actually set the world back when it comes to protection of the environment. People cannot afford being environmentally-friendly any longer and embracing sustainability. And those who can afford it - the likes of the wealthiest such as Davos members and similar cult followers - just could not care less as their focus is on other darker matters. Besides, they do not matter to us who are trying to keep our businesses alive.
Back to the heart of the subject... We can conclude that there will not be a satisfying definition of 'natural' as many of the processes and molecules are closely related to chemistry. The question is 'how much chemistry are we willing to accept' in order to state that we use naturals.
For example, is headspace extraction natural? If we look at headspace process, the odour of the plant is captured in a device, using a inert gas such as hydrogen. In this sense, we can say this is a natural process. But then, the captured odour makes it way to a lab to be analysed through gas chromatography and reproduced through chemical processes, based on the results of that analysis. Here Nature and Science really do meet! So shouldn't we really call the ingredient derived from such a process 'of natural origin' rather than using the term 'synthetic or artificial'? The same question can apply to 'bio-tech' ingredients that are extracted through 'fermentation and/or funghi supports'.
At the end of the day, these processes have one thing in common: they help reduce our destruction of the environment. A flower in Thailand does not need to be cut, packed, put on a plane to become part of our palette. Headspace technology can allow it to be discovered and used by the creative perfumer. With travel becoming difficult, why should we be prevented from travelling through scents from the comfort of our home?
Things have come a long way since 2006 when I started my perfume collections using all natural essential oils. Believe me! I was a very loud voice in the advocacy of defining what is a 'natural'. The world evolves so we should evolve with it... and so should the words we use to be as transparent as possible to our clients. To me, the term 'raw material of natural origin' seems more appropriate in the 21st century world of scents.
What are your thoughts?