Friday, May 1, 2009

Fragrance and The Sensory Police

Here is the text of a letter I sent to Jeb Gleason-Allured, Editor of the trade publication "Perfumer and Flavorist," this morning.

"I once knew a man who insisted that his newspaper be delivered to him without any scented products; no scent strips in the “Style” section; no samples of dryer strips, no little boxes of scented detergent. This particular newspaper accommodated him, albeit at additional expense, until budget cuts forced them to discontinue the “odorless” edition. After that, he cancelled his subscription.

Here’s the punch line: due to a war injury, he was almost completely without a sense of smell. It wasn’t the scents themselves that bothered him. He could barely smell these scented products at all. It was an issue of control.

This, in my opinion, is the crux of the anti-fragrance crusade. It’s not about chemicals. It’s about control. In a world that appears to have lost its moorings, there are people who will use whatever they can afford -- whether that be hysteria, activism, letter-writing, bad science, mitigation or, ultimately, litigation -- to attempt to regain some control over the anomie and perilousness of modern life.

This is a battle the fragrance industry can’t win. As Denyse Beaulieu, editor of the prominent scent blog "Grain de Musc" so gracefully points out, these people don't just want fragrance to be chemically neutral. They want it to be gone.

In the case of fine fragrance, an entire industry’s willingness to bend to the will of this no-scents crowd can never be anything more than a stopgap measure, because, no matter what is done to accommodate them, it won’t be enough. Apparently, the European Union is highly concerned with the idea of placating these people. I lived in pre-EU Europe, and found the laissez-faire attitude there refreshing. In the U.S. we’ve been dealing with these we-know-what’s-best-for-everyone types -- let’s call them the Sensory Police -- for a long time. It saddens me to think that this is now spreading across a continent with a longstanding tradition of individuals simply putting up with one another. And that an ancient art may fall victim to them, as an industry apparently is not willing to put up any sort of fight to protect its own heritage and future.

In short, as Ms. Beaulieu also points out, the fragrance industry is about to shoot itself in the foot.

There are thousands of active fragrance bloggers, consumers and collectors who are outraged over this. There is a significant section of the blogosphere devoted to the pleasures and wonders of fragrance. These are some of the most cultured, cosmopolitan and intelligent people I’ve ever met. It is a shame that no one has thought to consider their presence as any sort of anti-fragrance hysteria countermeasure.

By engaging in the secretive practices of the last few years in particular -- the reformulating of classic scents which are then sold in the original packaging with no mention of any reworking -- the mainstream fragrance industry has alienated its own most enthusiastic supporters.

There is little point in going into things like lethal products (cigarettes, for example) still being available everywhere; the benefits of patentable synthetic molecules, the simple solution of cautionary labeling, as is done with so many products, and so on; there is discussion about this all over the fragrance blogosphere, and I invite fragrance-industry professionals to explore it. Here is the point: are you purposefully deceiving customers? If so, why? Now that you know the perfume blogosphere exists, wouldn't it be better to engage it in some way?

Do you actually believe that taking out a few substances that might cause a rash in a tiny group of people is going to placate the Sensory Police?

I very much doubt it.

I think the time has come to lift the veil.

Thanks for your consideration.

Patricia Borow

editor, "OlfactaRama" ("

If you are concerned about this issue, and would like to participate by writing to the editor of "Perfume and Flavorist," the email address is Denyse Beaulieu's letter is featured on her blog, Grain de Musc (link to the left.)

The image is the painting "American Gothic," by Grant Wood, from Wikimedia.

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