Is Vanilla a Sustainable Beauty Ingredient? Environmental and Ethical Concerns

Vanilla beans
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Long before reaching European elites in the 1500s, the creeping vine of vanilla grew wild in tropical forests across Mesoamerica. Nowadays, the majority of the world’s vanilla is grown on the small island of Madagascar and sold to a wide range of beauty and cosmetic brands around the world. 

However, the rising demand for vanilla poses several social and environmental concerns, including cases of child labor, deforestation, and the exploitation of farmers.

Did You Know?

Around 80% of the world's vanilla, commonly known as Bourbon vanilla, is produced in Madagascar, while smaller producers can be found in Indonesia, Mexico, Tahiti, and China. The scents and flavors vary from country to country, depending on the quality of soils, climate, curing methods, and species. 

How Is Vanilla Made?

La Reunion, vanilla
Hand pollination of a vanilla plant. Aldo Pavan / Getty Images

Nearly all of the vanilla produced commercially today is hand-pollinated using a technique invented in the 1840s. It can take up to five years from planting the vine to producing vanilla extract. 

The traditional, “natural” vanilla extract is generally produced by copping and percolating vanilla beans in steel containers with alcohol and water. It is kept in a cool place for 48 hours before it is filtered and stored.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) flavoring law, vanilla extract should contain at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans in every gallon of spirit for the product to be considered a pure vanilla extract.

Around 6 pounds of green vanilla beans are needed to produce 1 pound of processed vanilla, making it one of the most expensive and difficult spices to harvest in the world.

Nowadays, less than 1% of the total global market in vanilla flavor is actually sourced from vanilla beans, as most brands and products use artificial vanilla extract. The artificial extract contains synthetically prepared products like guaiacol from wood pulp, petroleum, and other chemicals. 

This technique comes from early 19th century scientists who discovered how to derive vanillin, the dominant component of vanilla flavoring, from less expensive sources. These include eugenol, a chemical compound found in clove oil, and lignin, which is found in plants, wood pulp, and even animal feces. 

Synthethic Vanilla

Vanillin is the primary component of the vanilla bean extract. Because of the scarcity and cost of natural vanilla, vanillin is now synthetically prepared using its predominant natural compounds. Look for eugenol, lignin, safrole, or guaiacol to identify synthetic vanilla in ingredients lists

Environmental Impact


There are several environmental concerns surrounding vanilla production, mainly related to deforestation and biodiversity loss. 

In Madagascar, the rising demand from global markets is forcing farmers to clear forests to make new fields. As a result, the island lost about one-fifth of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018, according to Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite imagery to detect deforestation.

The destruction of Madagascar’s forests is especially worrying, as they are home to 107 species of lemurs, a forest-dwelling primate found nowhere else on Earth. Nearly a third of them are now critically endangered, and most of the rest are considered threatened, largely because of deforestation in recent decades.

Climate Change

Most of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in the Sava region, a northeastern tropical forest area which usually experiences high annual levels of rainfall, ideal conditions for the vanilla plant. But climate change has created additional challenges for farmers in recent years. 

Extreme weather events are recurring, affecting their delicate crops and causing prices to surge on global markets. In 2017, Tropical Storm Enawo damaged about 30% of the island's vanilla production, sending prices soaring from $60 to about $400-$450 per kilogram in four years. 

Can Vanilla Be Ethically Sourced?

Drying Bourbon Vanilla
Pierre-Yves Babelon / Getty Images

Income Insecurity

Despite producing the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron, most vanilla farmers have to live on less than $2 per day. But their income security is even more complicated by the fact that vanilla production can be subject to weather conditions and variable demands from global markets, and it doesn’t provide a steady income throughout the year. 

Producers sell most of their harvests between May and September and often run out of savings by the following March or April. And as Rajao Jean, president of a farmers association in the Sava Region, told The Guardian, a single bad harvest can force farmers to sell land, animals, and possessions in an attempt to pay off their debt. 

Child Labor

In order to accelerate production and make ends meet, Malagasy farmers often employ children to plant, harvest, and sell vanilla beans. According to Fair Labor, approximately 20,000 children aged between 12 and 17 work in vanilla production in the Sava region of Madagascar, and children make up nearly 32% of the overall workforce. 

The organization conducted interviews with 80 children, aged between 9 and 15 years old, and nearly all of them confirmed they help their parents in vanilla fields outside of school hours. Boys as young as 12 years old were reported to be transporting heavy loads of vanilla beans and using knives and machetes during the production process.

“Vanilla Wars”

Known as the “vanilla wars,” the high economic value of vanilla has recently made farmers a target for crimes and thefts. 

In the village of Anjahana, on the outskirts of Madagascar's capital Antananarivo, extrajudicial killings related to vanilla have made headline news. According to a report in The Guardian, alleged gangsters sent farmers advance warning of raids demanding vanilla, but were rounded up and killed by local farmers. Such events have been reported in most of the key growing regions, and local communities have called for protection from armed police. 

Is Vanilla Cruelty Free?

The vast majority of the world’s vanilla doesn’t come in contact with animals, which means most of the vanilla we consume is cruelty free. However, the perfume-making industry has long used a chemical compound called castoreum, which comes from the anal glands of beavers and produces a musky vanilla scent due to the beaver’s unique diet of leaves and bark.

While castoreum was commonly used until the 20th century, the chemical compound is now banned in the perfume-making process. According to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, castoreum production still occurs, but it is rather small—about 132 kilograms (292 pounds) yearly. 

Look out for castoreum in the ingredient list to make sure your vanilla-scented beauty products are not derived from animals.

Sustainable Vanilla Alternatives 

In order to ensure brands and companies source their vanilla responsibly, the IDH Sustainable Vanilla Initiative joined forces with 28 companies, including Unilever, Symrise, and Givaudan. Their aim is to promote the long-term supply of high-quality, natural vanilla that is produced in a socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable way. 

The organization is working to grow the supply and market for sustainable and traceable vanilla, improve and sustain vanilla households' incomes, and address the concerns regarding child labor in vanilla production.

In 2017, another solidarity sourcing project called Livelihoods Fund was launched with the fragrance house Mane in Madagascar, alongside conservation organization Fanamby and the local farming communities. Luxury fashion house Armani, which uses Bourbon vanilla in many of its perfumes, has played a crucial role in developing this project. 

The brands are taking action on the ground to develop a sustainable, traceable, high-quality supply chain, which respects the integrity of natural ecosystems and contributes to improving the quality of life for farming communities in Madagascar.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is vanilla the same as extract?

    Vanilla extract and vanilla flavor are both made with real vanilla beans. The difference between the two is that vanilla flavor is not made with alcohol and therefore cannot be labeled as extract.

  • Are vanilla extracts vegan?

    Most of the vanilla extracts, including artificial ones, are suitable for vegans. However, some perfume brands still use castoreum to reproduce vanilla scents, a chemical compound which comes from the beaver’s anal glands. Look at your beauty products’ ingredients lists and be sure to avoid castoreum if you prefer vegan options.

  • How does vanilla affect the environment?

    There are several environmental concerns related to vanilla, which include deforestation, erosion of soil, and biodiversity loss.

  • What is the water footprint of vanilla?

    Vanilla has a relatively high water footprint compared to other foods. It takes up to 126,505 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of vanilla beans.