Ooh, That Smell

James Vallette | November 01, 2010

While researching fabrics, I recently stumbled upon a disturbing new development: companies are integrating scents into fibers, to "enhance consumer experiences."

This hits me on a personal level: I am quite sensitive to many perfumes.  While I can control my own home and office environment, these fragrances make travel kind of hazardous.  Air fresheners in conference centers and hotel rooms attack with no notice.  They blow out streams of scent that send me out the room, gasping for air.

Now some in the fabric industry are building these fragrances into clothing and even carpets.  A 2005 industry research document that kick-started this trend asserts, "The powerful influence of scent has been shown in consumer settings as well, as the presence of scents can influence shopping behavior and buying decisions."

A company called Scenterprises has capitalized on what Advertising Age called one of the top ten trends of this decade.  "By 'scent-branding' various properties such as hotels, casinos, spas, resorts and retail stores, it is possible to not only enhance the environment, but also to create an impactful ambient scent experience," boasts the company's website.

I can attest that yes, this is an "impactful ambient scent experience."  Thanks to this trend, I fear walking into some meeting, sitting down next to someone wearing grape-scented pants, or above a carpet that smells like an orange, and then feeling that too familiar tightening of the airway.

I realize this is just an acute hazard, as far as we know. These additives present short-term discomfort, but there are plenty of other ingredients that cause more serious, long-term impacts, on us and our environment -- phthalates, perfluorocarbons, formaldehyde, nonylphenol, naphthalene, and so on.

But this trend reinforces the prime imperative of The Pharos Project: full disclosure.  Material Safety Data Sheets, if they exist at all, tend to define only those ingredients that represent over one percent of a product's content.  These fragrances are embodied in fibers under this threshold.

Our planet is overcrowded with unneeded products that contain unnecessary ingredients, all designed to encourage consumers to separate dollars from their wallets.

As consumers, it is imperative to continue pressing manufacturers to tell all, everything, and let us decide whether we want or need to expose ourselves, or our guests, to these threats.  I don't buy industry's constant refrain, that their ingredients are proprietary. Competitors know what's in their products, and we deserve to, too.