Winner | Asian Digital Media Awards 2020

Scents and sustainability: Do the ESG credentials of the flavours and fragrances industry stink?

Notorious for animal testing and unsustainable sourcing, a first sector-wide report highlights the progress the flavours and fragrances industry has made in sustainability, aided by activists, consumer demand and biotechnology.

A US$30 billion sector that has long worn a stinky reputation for unsustainable sourcing and animal testing seems to be waking up to pressure to change.   

In June, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and International Organization of the Flavor Industry (IOFI) jointly published the first sector-wide sustainability report. It outlines the industry’s “state of play” in five areas — responsible sourcing, environmental footprint, employee well-being, product safety, and transparency and partnerships — which the IFRA-IOFI Sustainability Charter hopes to drive better practices. 

The charter, launched in July 2020, now has 126 signatories including big players like the two Swiss giants Givaudan and Firmenich, Germany’s Symrise, New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances, and Takasago from Japan.

The IFRA-IOFI report tells of mixed progress for the sector.

It found that only about one in five firms has developed roadmaps to reduce their emissions and fewer still are developing new business models to increase efficiency. 

In terms of environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting, nine of the 101 companies surveyed use internationally recognised standards like United Nations Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative, while 18 firms do so with noted contributions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

More than half the firms reported having a responsible sourcing strategy in place, 36 of which use internationally recognised evaluation tools like EcoVadis, SMETA and ISO 26000. 41 to 56 companies also said they measure and track their energy or water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and take waste reduction measures. 

The report only provided aggregated data and did not compare the practices of individual companies. But past incidences of unsustainable practices by individual brands are well documented.

Links to animal testing

In 2019, Robertet — the ninth largest F&F company in the world — was found to have participated in an experiment where it analysed a flavour extract while experimenters from another company induced obesity in 30 mice by feeding them a high-fat diet, gave the extract to a group of the mice, starved them, injected them with glucose, and repeatedly took their blood before dissecting them. After discussions with PETA, Robertet subsequently banned all animal testing, unless the law explicitly required it in countries such as China. 

“Avoiding animal tests that aren’t explicitly required by law is a global trend, and a growing number of consumers are looking to support companies that don’t participate in these tests. The tide is turning for the flavours and fragrances industry as well,” said Jason Baker, senior vice president at animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in a statement shared with Eco-Business

Making real progress on this front are German chemicals producer BASF and Swiss F&F giant Givaudan, which have developed the world’s first animal-free toxicity test approved by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This new approach uses three non-animal tests — instead of one test on an animal — to determine if a product in development causes allergic reactions to the skin. The Institute for In Vitro Sciences and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials is also looking into the development of a non-animal assessment test for potential respiratory allergens.

One of the biggest hurdles in Asia Pacific is that the Chinese government still requires tests on animals for certain cosmetics and personal-care products, many of which contain flavours and fragrances.

Jason Baker, senior vice president, PETA

As pressure has mounted on F&F companies to improve their practices, a string of commitments has been announced to alleviate biodiversity loss, reduce emissions, incorporate more sustainable packaging, encourage digital traceability of its natural ingredients, and increase overall transparency in their supply chain

Firmenich, for example, launched its sustainability measurement tool EcoScent Compass that grades fragrances on green properties like biodegradability, environmental footprint and social impact, in a bid to “offer consumers the transparency they expect and deserve”.

In Asia, however, there’s still more to be done.

“One of the biggest hurdles in Asia Pacific is that the Chinese government still requires tests on animals for certain cosmetics and personal-care products, many of which contain flavours and fragrances,” Baker said.

Sustained efforts by organisations like PETA and Humane Society International have been rewarded in China’s recent announcement to allow companies to market most imported “general” cosmetics and personal-care products without animal testing, if they take certain steps and qualify for an exemption.

Baker added: “Many brands have already shown an interest in taking advantage of this new route to sell in China without animal testing. However, tests on animals are still required for imported general cosmetics if the exemption isn’t granted and for all special cosmetics.”

Biotech: The new frontier

Biotechnology, or bioengineering, is helping the F&F industry lighten its environmental and social impact. 

For as long as two decades, top F&F firms have partnered with biotechnology companies behind the scenes, but recent acquisitions and investments by BASF, Firmenich, Givaudan, and Takasago have made these partnerships more public. 

On the fragrance side, collaborations like the one between biotech company Conagen and innovation partner Blue California have led to the creation of sustainable musk, while flavourists backed by Givaudan have their sights set on improving the taste and texture of plant-based meat alternatives

Advances in biotech are bolstered by increasing consumer demand for more natural, healthier and sustainable products, but industry experts emphasise that robust regulations need to be in place to prevent companies from greenwashing. 

Louie D’Amico, president of IOFI and president of taste and wellbeing at Givaudan, hopes that sector-wide initiatives like the IFRA-IOFI Sustainability Charter can provide a “harmonised approach” to address the varying regulatory frameworks, especially in Asia Pacifc.

IOFI public affairs projects manager and sustainability lead Maxime Marchal says the industry needs to build a more responsive and inclusive sustainability agenda. “It is not a static process because you are always impacted by the outside world. We are a part of nature; we take from nature and transform it into commercial goods. If there are any changes [in the external environment] it will always force us to revisit our approach.”

Most popular

View all news

Industry Spotlight

View all

Feature Series

View all
Asia Pacific's Hub For Collaboration On Sustainable Development
An Eco-Business initiative
The SDG Co