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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Faux Natural Perfumes. Masked Marauders Be Gone

You know what really grinds my gears?  Perfume lines that tout themselves as natural when they are not.  Big companies trying to capitalize on the green movement.  I've been investigating the proliferation of these "faux natural" perfumes as I like to call them, and I'm agog by how misleading the advertising copy is for many of these lines.  It makes me angry.  Angry enough to reference the t.v. show Family Guy (note episode when Peter becomes a cantankerous opinion news segment host a la Andy Rooney and starts every segment with, "Ya know what really grinds my gears?")  And yes I do live in Rhode Island.

You might wonder why I care so much.  I guess it's the injustice of the situation.  Unfair for the customer and unfair for the natural perfumer.  The customer believes they are buying a natural product.  I myself am a natural perfumer.  Someone who adores perfume, who has worked in the beauty industry for years.  I live, eat, breath, sleep, talk perfume (!) and even I was confused by some fragrances "natural" ad copy.  One needs a doctorate in reading between the lines to figure out if some of the fragrance lines are natural.  Consumers are led to believe through marketing and advertising that these perfumes may be one or all of the following: organic, natural, chemical free, environmentally friendly, etc.  These same consumers may be seeking a fragrance that won't aggravate their asthma, or wish to cut down on the amounts of chemicals and phthalates they apply to their skin.  Maybe they just prefer the idea of buying a natural perfume.  Regardless of their reason, they are being purposely misled.  That's what makes me angry--the capitalizing on the vagaries of labeling.  The purposeful intent to mislead the consumer.

After doing some extensive research on the crop of new "faux natural" perfume lines I've identified some tips for spotting the synthetics lurking among all the advertising copy and pretty flowered boxes.  The following four tips may help you identify a masked marauder.

  1. The perfume is clear, non-colored as in crystal clear.

Most real botanical perfumes are colored.  The beautiful liquid inside the bottle will most likely have a hue.  Plants and flowers rarely release their essences as neat, crystalline liquids.  Botanical essences are often sticky, resinous and darkly colored.  A perfectly clear colored perfume is most likely not a true natural botanical perfume.  Companies recognize that consumers connote clear colored liquids as clean, pure and natural, and hence a clear colored synthetic perfume is created and labelled "natural."

     2The perfume is inexpensive, as in cheap.

If you can purchase a three ounce spray bottle of the perfume for $32.00 then guess what?  It's probably not made completely from natural ingredients.

    3. The perfume box touts it's soy-based inks, 80% recycled paper content, recycled bottles, cruelty-free status, and pledge to offset all company travel by purchasing carbon credits.

 This barrage of eco-friendly bragging is akin to waving something sparkly in one hand so the consumer doesn't notice what's in your other hand: synthetic fragrance chemicals.  I see it as a sort of, "Quick!  Look over here!" type distraction for the potential buyer.  Who wouldn't assume the perfume is all-natural?  

Other misleading marketing tactics I noticed popping up on ingredient lists included: boastful claims of 100% natural corn-based alcohol (ugh, yeah--that's called EVERCLEAR folks), and listing essential and natural oils as ingredients.  This puzzles me.  Wouldn't essential and natural oils be one and the same?  Natural oils is code for SYNTHETICS.  How misleading! 

I mentioned earlier that these fragrance companies that unjustly portray themselves as natural hurt the natural perfumer as well.  Granted, I'm a small niche perfumer who will never compete with a company such as Pacifica for example.  However, I am somewhat directly affected by their claims.  I was recently at a fancy hotel where a  a trunk show was being hosted by a local fashion designer who is a very good friend of mine.  My friend just so happened to have appeared on a reality show recently and I was excited when he asked me to participate in the show by selling my perfume along with a few other clothing and jewelry designers.  I realized quickly that the clientele attending weren't my ideal customers as the crowd seemed evenly split between young gay men intently vying to get their picture taken with my designer friend and fashionistas tottering by on impossibly high heels scouring the clothing racks for the best deals.  

My table was eventually approached by a young woman who asked lots of questions regarding my ingredients and prices.  She eventually told me she thought my prices were too high.  I explained to her that the price of the botanicals I use are very costly and rare, and in comparison to traditional synthetic perfumes my profit margin was quite small.  I really should have remained silent.  She then told me disdainfully that she bought only organic perfume, and that her current scent Ruby Red Guava only cost $20.00.  I recognized the scent and carefully explained to her that the perfume she was wearing was not only NOT organic, it wasn't natural at all.  I told her that the guava scent was actually synthetic.  She frowned at me, and said in the manner of correcting a small child, "Nooo.  That's impossible.  It's sold at WHOLE FOODS."



JoanElaine said...

Great post! (I'm de-luking by the way...I have read your posts before but was too shy to comment)

It isn't just the big guys who are doing the greenwashing, I see it sometimes on Etsy too, but I cough that up to inexperience, not greed.

It seems many consumers have no idea what things really smell like. They think the forest smells like the pine candle they got at the department store, which is, according to the label, "natural".

So if they can get a "natural" candle for $5.00, it makes complete sense to them they can get a "natural" perfume for a few dollars more.

The Pacifica-wearing woman is missing out. I have your sampler set, plus a sample of your Musk Nouveau and I enjoy them very much. I'll be by your store to buy a bottle soon..just need to make up my mind which one!

Helena said...

I really like your posts as I think it needs to be said. We don't have Whole Foods here in Australia but I'm familiar with their premise. Probably a bit similar to The Body Shop that focus on ethical and green in their branding, but their perfume oils are far from natural. I've also seen a natural perfumer on Etsy get told off for having 'high' prices because the buyer "can get cheaper from Whole Foods".

I completely sympathise with your frustrations, although I have had the "inexpensive" rule come back to bite me. I sell natural perfumes as a hobby, which means say if I can afford to make a small bottle of natural perfume oil for $30, it doesn't bother me to sell it for $32. Of course, this kind of structure is completely unsustainable as a business, but not unreasonable for a hobbyist like myself. To my horror, I've been accused of green-washing because "if your perfumes are natural, then why are they so cheap?" There is no pleasing them all :).

Olive and Oud said...

I can't tell you how much I wish the word "natural" meant something legally. Even for soapmakers, it's hard to compete with people who label their synthetically-scented soaps as natural. Great post. I'm going to tweet it.-- Laura

Ambrosia said...

Well said hon'!
Over here in Oz we do have the same food stores that sell artificially scented "perfume oils" that buyers are quite certain are natural...
And the Body Shop....sigh...I like their products, used to like them more when they had more natural ingredients...but I recently had one of their own sales people try to tell me their perfume oils were completely natural. She even dragged out one of their store books that said "Woody Sandalwood has notes of musk, sandalwood and blackberry etc.."
She got really angry with me when I tried to explain to her that these so called "notes" were merely scent descriptions, and that there was no such thing as natural blackberry for starters...
stupidity just isn't curable.

Charna said...

Hi JoanElaine,

Thank you for your comments and de-lurking :) You are on point regarding the greenwashing on etsy. I noticed that as well, especially in the bath and beauty category. I see lots of "natural" perfumes selling for a few dollars on etsy with scents like Cotton Candy. Grrr

Charna said...

Too funny! Your comment made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

do pheromones work said...

I was looking for a gorgeous fragrances that fill your world with sensory pleasure even though I am not good for a fragrance descriptions but I wanted to have a perfume collections. Anyway,thank you so much for bringing up this so informative.


Tania said...

Great Post!
I've written a natural living website since 2009 and this same challenge can be seen in SO many areas of our life right now.

We are in the process of creating a natural perfume line and ALL of my samples have been colorful... my question is... in your experience are customers put off by the color? I'm thinking it will be worth using an opaque bottle so that customers are less put off by the color.

Curious to hear your experience.

Charna said...

Hi Tania,

Thank you for commenting. To my surprise, I have not gotten any negative feedback over the colors of my perfume. I have been asked if I "dye" the perfume and I explain that many natural essences contain color, hence the sometimes jewel tones of the perfume. I am suspicious of clear colored "natural" perfumes as most essences are far from clear!