Fragrance and skincare brand Haeckels is working on a biotech project that creates sustainable scents from the DNA of flowers lost to extinction
For a sector all about cleanliness, the beauty industry sure can make a mess of the planet. The production of palm oil, for example, is very harmful to the environment and is believed to be responsible for 8 per cent of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. Palm oil is found in 70 per cent of personal care products, according to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Meanwhile, essential oils, used in many beauty products as active ingredients and scent, are incredibly resource-heavy to produce. Rose, used in fragrance and skincare – is one of the most intensive with 48kg of rose needed to make 5ml of oil – or 242,000 rose petals. Jasmine is similarly intensive. Large-scale farms use huge volumes of water, while wild harvesting of ingredients can also be problematic, with trees like rosewood and cedar (another fragrance staple) listed as endangered species.
There is some effort going into helping to reduce this damage. Brands like BYBI and Up Circle use by-products from the food industry including strawberry seeds, blueberries and coffee grounds as ingredients. Forgo, a waterless skincare brand, sources cedar offcuts from the wood industry for fragrance, while brands including Weleda scrutinise their supply chains to ensure ethical farming.
Aiming to cut out farming altogether is skincare and fragrance brand Haeckels, who have partnered with Tetsuo Lin, a CSM student from Tokyo, on an ambitious new project. Exploring how innovations in biotechnology could lead to a more sustainable future for beauty, the two are attempting to engineer scents from flowers lost to extinction, by synthetically producing them from DNA. If successful, it could have major implications for future sustainable beauty products – cutting down massively on water, land and resource usage.
The project started as part of an initiative by east London creative studio Here, who connected brands with students from Material Futures – CSM’s MA programme which aims to fuel sustainability in fashion by creating novel materials. Showcased at an exhibit last week at London Craft Week, we spoke to Lin and Haeckels’ head of design Jessica Gregory to find out more about the project and its future.
‘Scent From Memory’ plans to bring back a range of scents from flora which have been lost to extinction…
Tetsuo Lin: I wanted to explore the possibilities of scent and design, I love the way smells evoke memories. I’d been researching perfume and found that due to the high environmental impact of certain ingredients, some perfumers are experimenting with new techniques with DNA from the plant, to reproduce the smell. I thought this was cool, and wanted to recreate a perfect rose scent in a lab. Then I was inspired by an exhibition about extinct flora and how they recreated those DNA – Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at 'Resurrecting the Sublime' in Paris.
How do you recreate a scent from DNA?
Tetsuo Lin: It’s called synthetic biology; it uses a tiny amount of DNA extracted from specimens and then analyses and predicts gene sequences that might encode enzymes that create the smell molecules. From this analysis, we learn what molecules the specimens produced. In other words, we can get the recipe, gather all the ingredients and mix them together to recreate the scent.
While this is something we haven't fully realised yet, you can bioengineer yeasts to fabricate the same enzyme in specimens, which means you can create the same smell of samples 100 percent with yeast – for instance, making a scent of rose without actual flower but only with yeast.
Has this successfully been done?
Jessica Gregory: Not commercially, to our knowledge. But it’s an amazing concept we believe is possible. Bringing back an extinct species is an attention-grabbing narrative, but if it works, there could be much wider applications for reducing impact. Engineering scents in this way could save waste and damage to ecosystems - as not all-natural ingredients are currently grown sustainably.
Comparable to growing ‘meat’ or ‘leather’ in a lab?
Jessica Gregory: Yes, exactly.
What was the inspiration behind the actual scents that you chose?
Tetsuo Lin: A herb called silphium, originally used in the Roman era. It had small yellow flowers and contained delicious-smelling sap, which became really valuable.
How does the climate crisis inform your work?
Jessica Gregory: Haeckels works to solve problems of waste, be it packaging or natural resources. Locally harvested seaweed (under license, so we don’t over-harvest) is the base for all our products. We’ve developed relationships with farmers in Sri Lanka for our essential oils so we have an understanding of sustainability throughout the supply chain. We’re always pushing; to have zero footprint, and to give back.
Most of the innovation in the beauty industry is performance-based, without an emphasis on sustainability. We’re trying to do both. Other brands don’t as it’s difficult and not profit-driven, but we’re taking risks for that outcome.
Tetsuo Lin: I worry about our environment. As a designer, you’d like to fix the situation, but being cautious not to cause more harm is a start. Everything is connected and ecosystems are complex, it’s very humbling.
What are the next steps for the project? Will we see the DNA fragrance on Haeckels’ shelves?
Jessica Gregory: We’re all about pushing boundaries and I believe this technology can work, so yes, we’d love to continue the conversation.