As we all know, perfume people are passionate about plants. Rooted in this love of our fragrant and frondy friends, we're a proud partner of The Red List Project (TRLP), a non-profit that raises funding for plant conservation, specifically for efforts focused on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Plants®.
In 2019 we introduced TRLP Founder, Executive Director and Principal Scientist, Dr. Peggy Fiedler, to perfumer and neuroscientist, Dr. Spyros Drosopolous of Baruti. The two forged a partnership to create fragrances that represent the unique scents of critically threatened plants. Their first two releases are beautiful ambient room sprays: Palermo Violet is dedicated to the rare Italian Viola ucriana, and Portlandia is dedicated to the critically endangered Jamaican Portlandia platantha.
We were excited to speak with Spyros and Peggy as well as TRLP Director of Conservation Science, Dr. Vanessa Handley, to learn more about this important collaboration...
Q. Peggy, tell us a bit about your background and how you came to found The Red List Project.
A. Thanks Antonia, for this opportunity to speak to your customers. I'm a plant scientist who has always been dedicated to conservation. My dissertation work explored the nature of rarity in California's beloved mariposa lilies (Calochortus spp.) and after that I was appointed the foundation professor of Conservation Biology at San Francisco State University. Most recently, I had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of UC's Natural Reserve System, a globally unique suite of 41 protected areas dedicated to research, education, and public engagement.
During my professional journey, it became increasingly clear that plant conservation — particularly conservation for imperiled plants — is woefully underfunded. So with a few long-time colleagues, family and old friends, along with a professor in the graduate school at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), I founded the environmental non-profit, The Red List Project, in 2018.
TRLP is dedicated to working with the fragrance and flavor industry to generate significant funds to stem the tide of the sixth extinction for plants, and in so doing, provide unparalleled opportunities for educating the world on how important plants are in everyday life.
Q. What is the core mission of TRLP?
A. The Red List Project mission is to inspire plant conservation action and engagement on a global scale. We work not only with conservation partners around the globe, but also with consumer products partners. Our projects not only raise awareness of the exceptional threats to the planet's botanical heritage, but also raise funds for targeted conservation of threatened plants and the ecosystems in which they thrive.
Q. Why did you decide to focus on fragrance as a vehicle for raising awareness and funds?
A. We think that focusing on fragrances is an elegant and meaningful way to raise awareness about plant conservation. First, the sense of smell has the ability to transport a person to another world, distorting time and place in a cool way.
Second, capturing the scent of a plant — floral, wood, leaves — or the scent of an ecosystem, such as the transformative scent of the California chaparral, is a non-destructive way to capture the essence of a plant or place. The last thing we want to do is to cut down or dig up the last few individuals of a threatened species for our cause!
Third, the fragrance and flavors industry is a lucrative one. I was just researching current statistics about fragrances and fragrance market and learned that in North America, the 2020 value came in at 4.5 billion dollars. It is predicted that the global fragrance market will be $52.4 billion by 2025. These statistics give me hope that we can convince fragrance artists and global fragrance companies that even a small fraction of their profits dedicated to plant conservation would revolutionize conservation philanthropy.
Q. Spyros, you have a fascinating background as well. How was your experience as a scientist advantageous to this project?
A. I don’t know if advantageous is really the right word. I do think that the communication and all the field trips felt very natural because they were part of my upbringing (both my parents are biologists). My background also helped me in the sense that analytical thinking (breaking down a scent to its components and then building it up again in the lab) feels very natural.
[On one field trip, Spyros traveled to Mt Pizzuta in Sicily with a team of scientists from University of Palermo to experience the Viola ucriana in its natural habitat.]
Q. How did you approach the effort of recreating the fragrances of these specific endangered flowers?
A. Well, both projects were very different. The violet has a faint delicate smell so I had to make a “commercial” decision not to represent the flower by itself, because as a product I think it might not meet consumer expectations. I decided to dress the scent up in its natural habitat, meaning adding herbs and other notes also smelled during the trip. With the Portlandia it was different. The flowers have a pretty strong scent, which is also a very nice one, so here I recreated the scent of the living flowers as I experienced them.
Q. Why did you choose to create room sprays vs. perfumes?
A. I think that for me part of the project is creating awareness for the beauty of nature. A room spray that takes you to a certain place and makes you feel like you are standing next to the plant is more powerful than embedding an accord in a complex perfume, where you are less sure what you're smelling exactly. That being said, it doesn’t mean it will always be this way, but for now I want to familiarize our customers with the specific scents.
Q. Vanessa, we read that your work as a conservation biologist focuses on regional, community-based conservation efforts. Can you give us an example of a model project of this kind?
A. We have a project in southwest Madagascar that I think illustrates both the rationale and potential impact of community-based approaches. The southwest region is remote, beautiful and biodiverse — it is also one of the most impoverished in Madagascar and regional biodiversity is caught in the crosshairs.
In addition to environmental stress from the changing climate, the flora and fauna in this region are subject to increasingly severe extraction pressures. For example, huge swathes of native forest are being harvested for charcoal production, a local commodity that is the only income source for many families. To compound this poverty-driven practice, invasive plants are colonizing cleared areas and precluding regeneration of native species. And as this biodiversity declines, the communities themselves are left increasingly vulnerable.
Of course, excluding rural communities from the habitats on which they have long relied is neither just nor feasible. Holistic conservation strategies in which local people can both engage and benefit are the path forward, in Madagascar and comparable contexts around the globe.
Fortunately, our project partners are already taking this approach in the southwest [of Madagascar]. They are delineating key conservation areas and, in tandem, developing sustainable livelihood strategies in consultation with community members. These include creation of native plant nurseries for restoration, reduction of invasive species via microenterprises (i.e. production of jam from the fruit of an invasive cactus) and, in the longer-term, establishment of a protected area to be managed by — and to provide income for — the local community.
Q. You're also a Specialist within the IUCN Species Survival Commission. We'd love to know a bit more about this!
A. The IUCN SSC is an international network of scientists, policy makers and conservation practitioners working within focused Specialist Groups to advance conservation of biodiversity. The SSC has many outputs but a critical one is generating assessments of conservation status of species across the globe. These assessments are integrated within the IUCN Red List that TRLP and countless other entities rely on to track imperiled species and prioritize conservation projects.
Currently, I serve within the Cycad Specialist Group. Cycads are an ancient lineage of plants that have the dismal distinction of being the most imperiled on the planet. In addition to assessment, my colleagues and I are developing breeding and reintroduction strategies to (hopefully!) bring the most critically endangered species back from the brink of extinction.
Q. For each of you, what's your favorite fragrant plant and how would you describe its scent?
A. Peggy: Oh my! This a little like asking which is your favorite child! I know this isn't quite what you asked, but I don't have a favorite. I have ones I love, like gardenia, but who doesn't love it? I'm also quite partial to rich scent of sandalwood. My current love is the endangered Brunsfelsia jamaicensis. Its scent is a lovely soft white floral that we are hoping to team with the Ministry of Scent (Tigerlily's sister brand) on a commercially viable fragrance.
A. Spyros: Same here, though I am inclined to answer lemon blossom, but that’s only because I’m working on an accord right now and because I never met anyone who didn’t like the scent of lemon blossom. But at the end of the day I love vetiver, labdanum and rose oxide just as much as I love pepper, cinnamon or jasmine. :)
A. Vanessa: Agreed, I can’t pick just one and love all those already mentioned! I also enjoy fragrant foliage — kaffir lime, lemon verbena, Philotheca myoporoides, scented geranium, freshly chopped kale (trust me, so nice!). Many of these are surprisingly floral but offset by green notes which makes for lovely combinations. And I have to mention one more because I keep hoping a perfumer will rise to the challenge… I’m partial to the fragrance of Ternstroemia tepezapote. This is a small tree often encountered in southern Mexico. Its flowers have a musky perfume that is intriguing. Tropical spice with an overlay of barnyard… funky but in a good way!
Q. Peggy & Vanessa, what was it like working with Spyros?
A. Brilliant! Spyros has been a terrific fragrance partner, and we are incredibly grateful that Baruti believes in our work, understands the severity of the threat to our planet's botanical heritage, and wants to help. The three of us had so much fun smelling plants together at the local botanic gardens, discussing fragrances and the making of accords. His two ambient sprays, which represent our first collaboration, are elegant interpretations of two critically endangered species — we are confident that this project will be transformative for The Red List Project. We hope there are more collaborations ahead!
Q. What can people do to help with The Red List Project's conservation goals and/or with the IUCN?
A. The Red List Project is still a small operation. We are looking for donations to help our day-to-day operations, and also for people to help us get the word out. Both of these things can be accomplished by purchasing Spyros's lovely ambient sprays! But whatever people are comfortable with doing, we'll be grateful.
Explore the Baruti Collection
Learn more about The Red List Project