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Essential oils and sustainability: Challenges, opportunities, solutions

Written by Ellen Rowland

Essential oils and biodiversity crisis

With the rising popularity of essential oils in recent years, increasing biodiversity losses worldwide, and the very real impacts of climate change becoming ever clearer and more urgent, talk within the aromatherapy community has turned towards the sustainability of essential oils. There are questions to be asked surrounding the environmental and social impacts of using these precious medicines. How sustainable actually is this natural form of medicine? Are there steps we can take to mitigate the impacts of essential oil use? Are there other factors at play that influence sustainability?

First, it’s important to put this into context. Of around 350,000 scientifically-known and documented vascular plants (1), those that are known to be medicinal represent roughly 25,790 and of those, around 1500 are aromatic, which is approximately 6% of all known plants. About four hundred species of aromatic medicinal plants are commonly traded for aromatherapy purposes worldwide, which includes essential oils, absolutes, and hydrosols (2).

The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi (SOTWPF) report published by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2020 states that two in five plants are threatened with extinction. This means 40% of all recorded plant species, and should ring alarm bells for everyone, as human-led practices such as agriculture, climate change and biological resource use are amongst the primary reasons for this threat (3).

10% of aromatic plants are currently listed as threatened according to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (4).[1] Practices such as deforestation, clearing and using plants with no or unsustainable plant regeneration practices, monocropping and overharvesting wild species all contribute to the unsustainable production and use of essential oils, and therefore increase the likelihood of more species being added to the red list of endangered species. Simultaneously, these practices damage the biodiverse ecosystems which support the growth of our aromatic plants in the first place. The approach of destroying whole areas of forest to harvest just one aromatic tree does not make sense from a biodiversity standpoint, but there are adaptations we can implement in farming and production of essential oils which can reduce and mitigate the harmful effects of these practices.


[1] Galia, F. (2021). #13: Conservation and Sustainability of Aromatic Medicinal Plants with Dr. Kelly Ablard. [podcast] An Aromatic Life. Available at: <https://open.spotify.com/episode/4HBsd3PDhwJTzFZHkD7KJe> [Accessed 12th May 2022].

I am the founder of AmberLuna Apothecary, a social enterprise aiming to make natural wellbeing accessible to all through aromatherapy and herbalism talks, workshops, digital content and holistic therapies. I am a professional Aromatherapist, Massage Therapist, Facialist and Communications Specialist at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I am also a keen gardener, plant lover and herbalist-in-training in my spare time.

Ellen Rowland

I am the founder of AmberLuna Apothecary, a social enterprise aiming to make natural wellbeing accessible to all through aromatherapy and herbalism talks, workshops, digital content and holistic therapies. I am a professional Aromatherapist, Massage Therapist, Facialist and Communications Specialist at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I am also a keen gardener, plant lover and herbalist-in-training in my spare time.

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