Climate crisis brings whiff of danger to French perfume capital
When heatwaves used to hit the French town of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, townspeople didn’t water their flowers. Instead, they marched along the town’s cobblestone streets, in a procession towards the church.
“They were calling for rain from the spirits,” says Carole Biancalana, a fourth-generation perfume flower producer whose grandmother participated in the rain ceremonies. “But I don’t think this procession would cut it in today’s climate.”
Since the 17th century, Grasse has been known worldwide for its fragrant flowers. Situated just inland from the French Riviera, Grasse enjoys a microclimate that allows fields of may rose, tuberose, lavender and jasmine to blossom. Today, the region produces flowers for some of the world’s biggest luxury brands, including Dior and Chanel, who spend significant amounts on raw materials from the region – Grasse’s jasmine sells for a higher price than gold.
Around the world, Grasse’s producers are recognised as leaders in the industry: in 2018, Unesco placed the region’s perfume culture on its intangible cultural heritage list.
But climate change is threatening this tradition. Extreme weather patterns such as droughts, heatwaves, and excessive rainfall have made growing flowers increasingly difficult. Last summer, Grasse faced extreme droughts, resulting in some producers losing nearly half of their harvest. High temperatures affect the future quality of roses and prohibit some flowers, such as tuberose, from growing. Biancalana felt these impacts directly: this year, her tuberose harvest dropped by 40%.
“The elders here keep telling us there are no more seasons,” says Biancalana, noting that winters are now warmer, with unseasonal cold spells in the spring. She jokes: “We can’t count on the spirits anymore.”
Grasse is not alone. Around the world, primary materials for perfumes are threatened by increasingly extreme weather patterns. Vanilla, a key material for the industry, has taken a particular hit. Grown primarily on the African continent, vanilla crops have been struck by heatwaves in recent years. In 2017, a cyclone in Madagascar destroyed 30% of crops, pushing the price to more than $600 (£502) a kilo.
“Climate change may not have an impact on the smell of perfume,” says Benoit Verdier, the co-founder of the custom perfume house Ex Nihilo Paris. “But it will affect the price.”
Ex Nihilo has watched the costs for raw materials like vanilla and saffron soar as a result of the limited supply caused by climate-induced droughts and disasters. Though they have not yet increased the price of their perfumes, rising costs for raw materials might force them to. As a result, they are considering turning towards synthetic alternatives.
“The romantic view of perfume is for it to be natural,” says Verdier. “There is mysticism around a place like Grasse, it gets people dreaming. But it isn’t always more sustainable.”
Crops for perfumes require a lot of water and land. Shipping raw materials around the world also results in significant carbon emissions. “It’s more sustainable to make perfume in the laboratory,” says Verdier.
Producers in Grasse disagree. “We actually consume very little water,” says Biancalana, noting that producers in the region use drip irrigation, which has historically accounted for only 5% of the region’s water use.
Producers in the region have made significant efforts to ensure their crops are environmentally friendly. In 2006, Biancalana founded Les Fleurs d’Exception du Pays de Grasse, an association that brings together producers from the region. One of their key mandates is that all producers be organic to ensure the protection of biodiversity, which they believe is one of their greatest weapons against climate change.
“What can we do, how can we adapt, who should we ask for support, what research needs to be done?” says Armelle Janody, the president of the association. “These are the questions we are asking.”
But to find answers, the association needs support. Currently, there have been few scientific studies on how climate change is impacting crops in the region.
“We are observing changes but we do not have scientific studies on what is objectively happening,” says Janody.
Leaders in the industry have already begun supporting local producers by investing in research and adaptation techniques, which they know is critical for their companies’ futures. But while producers welcome this support, some are wary of the potential strings attached.
“The question for us is how to have industry support without losing our autonomy and sovereignty,” says Janody, who fears companies could demand greater control over the means of production under the pretence of supporting climate adaptation.
“These brands want to associate their perfumes with our history and our heritage, yet they come in and want to change everything. We do not want to be servants to the industry.”
For producers, it’s not just their agricultural practices that are at stake: it’s their culture and way of life. The perfume industry has been at the beating heart of Grasse’s identity for centuries. Since 1946, the town has paid tribute to the region’s jasmine in an August ceremony that spans an entire weekend.
“This is so much more than just a job,” says Biancalana, whose family has been working the same fields for more than a hundred years. “We have a moral duty to our ancestors and to our territory. People here have always been ready to fight. That’s not going to change because of climate change.”