Perhaps best known for its sweet, rich scent, sandalwood has a darker side. One of smuggling, kidnap and intrigue.
Sandalwood has been coveted for millennia, forming the main stay of rituals across much of Asia where it’s burnt for incense. It also finds its way into Western consumer products, such as fine fragrance, cosmetics and flavours.
Its popularity is perhaps most unrivalled in India, where Indian sandalwood (Santal album) is indigenous. The sandalwood tree is special in that it only grows parasitically, latching onto the roots of several different plants as it grows. Usually a tree in the wild will need around 25 years to develop the valuable heartwood in the centre of the trunk and therefore be mature enough for harvest. With its value ever increasing, it’s often viewed in India to be an excellent investment; like gold or property, it never goes down.
Unfortunately, natural stocks of sandalwood have begun to dwindle and sandalwood growing schemes in India are few and far between.
In 2004, to better understand the problems that sandalwood faced, Lush buyers travelled to India, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Australia. Their journey unearthed the shocking story of Veerappan, a sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher notorious for violence, kidnapping, and murder. One outcome of the trip was the creation of graphic novel On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers, which reveals the unsavoury nature of the sandalwood trade and draws attention to the complexity and importance of supply chains.
Recounting the trip, head buyer Simon Constantine, explained: ‘We found sources that were sustainable and ethical but felt that this wasn’t enough. We needed to find a way to pique people’s interest in the source of raw materials. Why is it that someone like Veerappan can operate a reign of terror for over 30 years, supplying product to Western cosmetics, perfume and flavour companies, without any recognition or disgust?’
‘In an effort to draw further attention, we dreamt up the idea of a graphic novel to piece this story together and use several products to promote it.’
Now, sandalwood is found across the product range and is particularly beloved in skincare thanks to its soothing, antibacterial properties. It’s also found in perfumes, used as a base note and fixative (to help the perfume warm and develop on the skin for longer). Every last drop of sandalwood added to the product and perfume blends is sourced sustainably from areas such as New Caledonia from wild but sustainably managed trees. Here, the local government grants quotas for harvesting every year and saplings are regularly replanted.
There are still potentially many more Veerappans out there, across many supply chains, lurking in the shadows. Shining a light into these corners hopes to expose corruption and alternative models of business, ensuring that you can buy products without any uncomfortable surprises.