Aromatherapy and Sustainability – Two Worlds Collide

If you're reading this, odds are you use essential oils and are mindful of the fragile state planet Earth is in. Thinking about just how fragile our planet is, can leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious; I know that is how I am left feeling! Thank goodness for the anxiety-reducing effects of lemon essential oil. My relationship with 'Citrus limon' is one I greatly value - especially as an aromatherapist. Our planet is built on the foundation of balanced relationships we have with other species. They in part, depend on us for their protection and preservation of resources, and we depend on them for food, clothing, shelter, and of course, essential oils as a form of medicine.

Unfortunately, many of these relationships aren't nurtured properly; in other words, an imbalance occurs when the demand for a resource (e.g. plant species, or part of a plant species) far outweighs the supply. This is the point when we begin to damage our relationships with plant and all animal species on Earth. And often times, we may not realize we're doing so. For example, did you know that when you buy rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora) essential oil from an unsustainable source, you may be contributing to the decline of the rosewood tree?

The essential oil of rosewood is the main reason the tree is overharvested. Consequently, it is now listed as an endangered species which means that there is a 20% probability of its extinction within 20 years or 5 generations (IUCN, 2016). As of this year, there are approximately 25 essential and carrier oil-bearing plants that are recognized as threatened species (Ablard, 2016). At least 9 of those are facing extinction primarily because the demand for their essential oils, which are mostly used by the perfume industry and by aromatherapists, outweigh the supply. Threatened plant species chiefly harvested for their essential oils are spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), sandalwood (Santalum album), guggul (Commophora wightii), agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis and A. rostrata spp.), rosewood (A. rosaeodora), atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) and sassafras (Ocotea pretiosa).

How do we begin to repair our relationship with these threatened essential oil-bearing plants so that we can continue to use their essential oils while not contributing further to their decline? One answer is that we can do our best to ensure that the oils we purchase and/or use from threatened plant species are being protected and preserved by techniques such as sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is a technique that integrates three main goals: 1) environmental health, 2) economic profitability and 3), social and economic equity. By meeting these three goals, the practice of sustainable agriculture helps to ensure plants, including essential and carrier oil-bearing plants, will continue to meet the needs of the present and future generations without negative effects.

When implementing this technique, we must take into consideration that sustainable agriculture is much more involved than just replanting a plant that has been removed for distillation. There should, for example, be an in-depth understanding of a tree's biology so that a tree and its future offspring are healthy, strong, and viable.  Without this level of knowledge, one might, for example, overlook the critical fact that sandalwood requires very specific host trees for its nutrients throughout its development.


Organizations that are serious about preserving and protecting species for future generations work with locals and also collaborate with biologists, farmers, environmentalists, geneticists, pedologists, hydrologists, chemical ecologists, distillers, and other specialists to create an ideal environment which closely simulates a plant's natural habitat, needs, and relationship to other species. For example, sustainable management of agarwood requires an understanding of the relationship it has to fungus and that it must be wounded first to produce an aromatic resin.

There are additional things to keep in mind when you want to examine whether a source of essential and carrier oil-bearing plants are being replanted, grown, harvested, and distilled in sustainable ways. Crop diversification, organic techniques (e.g. biological control agents), high-quality water, efficient energy sources, efficient water use, soil management, chemical profiles, plans for economic viability, research and development, diversified production opportunities, community outreach, and education are all important factors that are likely present in an ideal sustainable agriculture model (National Research Council Committee, 2010).

Be wary to purchase oils from businesses that aren't transparent about their practice of sustainability, or aren't implementing factors mentioned. Thankfully, organizations like Santanol (add link - and TFS Corporation Ltd (add link - are doing amazing work on replanting, growing, harvesting, and distilling sandalwood (S. album) by implementing quality and comprehensive levels of sustainable management practices, such as sustainable agriculture.  These companies provide a good model of what to look for in other companies committed to trying to rebuild a balanced relationship with species facing extinction.

Taking the information I've shared with you, and using it to make educated decisions about the essential and carrier oils you purchase and/or use, is the first step to rebuilding your relationship with those plant (and animal) species you greatly rely on. And if we all work together, we can begin to strengthen this fragile planet, live and heal in harmony, and inhale a lot less lemon essential oil!


Ablard, K. (2016). Conservation of Essential and Carrier Oil-Bearing Plants. [Accessed Nov. 11, 2016]

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). [Accessed November, 2016]

National Research Council Committee (2010). Toward Sustainable Agricultral Systems in the 21st Century. The National Academies Press.


A huge thank you to Dr. Kelly Ablard for her ongoing work in the sustainability and conservation of essential oil and carrier oil bearing plants!!