While humans used to make bonfires outside under the stars to cook and keep warm, we now choose to have controlled small fires in our own homes - purely for pleasure. Candles provide mood-lighting and, if fragranced, can fill a room with wonderful aromas. Most of us will use candles for relaxation, and as an escape from our modern LED-lit day.
Many of us don’t question how sustainable our candles are. Fire and wax is surely natural, right? Unfortunately the reality is a little more complicated.
The candle market was valued at 7 Billion USD in 2020 and is projected to reach over 10 Billion USD by 2028, growing at a growth rate of 5.26% per year. (3) The primary market for candles is Europe, followed by North America and Asia. This means that a lot of candles are being consumed, and it therefore absolutely matters what the environmental impact of candle production is.
Currently the vast majority of candles are produced using paraffin, followed by beeswax, soy wax, and palm wax. (3)
Paraffin is derived from petroleum or coal - fossil fuels - non-renewable resources. It is created as a by-product of processing and refining fuel. This wax would be extracted even if there were no commercial use for it. This means that it is abundant and is sold very cheaply. The abundance and price of paraffin has enabled the candle-making industry to grow into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today.
Paraffin is ideal for use in candle-making - it burns slowly, and holds colours and fragrances well. While paraffin has all the ideal qualities of a candle wax, the environmental aspect must be considered.
Paraffin is considered bad for the environment, as it is derived from petroleum. Petroleum is a finite-resource - once petroleum is used up it is gone forever and cannot be recreated. Plant-based waxes, on the other hand, can be regrown. The extraction of petroleum also harms ecosystems through drilling, transport, and oil leaks. Paraffin is also not biodegradable, and does considerable harm to wildlife and ecosystems in the process.
It must also be noted that paraffin is particularly bad for indoor air quality and your health - my article about fine particulate matter released by candles is here.
Stearin Wax and Palm Wax
Stearin candles are made of animal fats or tropical plant oils such as palm or coconut. The majority of stearin wax is derived from palm oil, also called palm stearin or palm wax. While stearin wax is made from renewable resources, there are however serious environmental concerns regarding the production of palm oil. Oil palms can only be grown in monocultures, which destroys the local biodiversity. It is not possible for local wildlife to live in monocultures due to the lack of food sources. Due to palm oil’s popularity, mostly for cooking and cosmetics, it has contributed to significant destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Coconuts on the other hand are grown in mixed-use farms, and are much better for biodiversity. Waxes from tropical areas should however be avoided, if possible, due to the long transport routes to Europe.
Stearin can also be made of animal fats - a by-product of the meat industry. In this case, vegans may want to avoid candles made of animal fats.
Soy wax is widely seen as a sustainable wax, although this depends on how regional the soy was produced. The US and Brazil are the world’s top producers of soy, followed by Argentina and China. There is a worry that soy production is a cause of rainforest deforestation in South America. While this is a valid environmental worry, the vast majority of soy is used in animal feed, 77% (1), - not candlemaking. Human food consumption of soy is just under 20% (3) of all soy production. Using soy for candle-making therefore has an insignificant ecological impact. Reducing meat consumption would be the greatest driver in reducing deforestation due to growing soy.
When buying candles in Europe, European soy wax should be used, to avoid long transport routes and the associated carbon footprint. Germany produces 99 thousand tonnes of soy per year, whereas Brazil produces 121 million tonnes and the United States produces 112 million tonnes. (2)
Beeswax is considered sustainable, however it is also not considered vegan. Beeswax is harvested from beehives managed by a beekeeper. Bees produce more honey than they need in order to grow larvae and have enough food, honey, to survive during winter. In order to take some of the hive away to make honey and beeswax, hives are separated into two areas - one part that will remain over winter, and the part that is taken away by the beekeeper. The hive is separated with a grate that the worker bees can pass through, but the queen cannot. The worker bees will produce honey through the whole hive, whereas the queen bee can only lay eggs and produce larvae in a part of the hive. The part of the hive without larvae, which contains the surplus honeycomb, is taken away by the beekeeper. The bees can perfectly survive winter with the honey that they are left with. Even though no bees are harmed during the harvesting of beeswax and honey, many vegans consider these to be a by-product of a living being, and therefore not vegan.
One practice that some beekeepers use is to clip the queen’s wings, to prevent her from flying away. If she flies away in search of a new place to create a hive, the bee colony will follow her, which is called swarming. Swarming is a normal and healthy instinct which keeps the colony moving and healthy. Clipping the queen’s wings also has a second function - it allows the beekeeper to identify the current active queen. It is however acknowledged within the beekeeping community that this measure can only delay swarming, as it is possible for a newly produced queen to fly away and take the colony with her. There are also other methods to mark the active queen for identification. It is currently unclear if the queen experiences pain by her wings being cut, and what effect her lack of flight and movement has on the complex communications and behaviours within the colony.
Rapeseed is the worldwide third highest production of vegetable oil behind palm and soy. Top producing countries are Canada, China, India and Germany and France. The EU produces 30% of the world’s rapeseed.
While rapeseed is considered sustainable, it must be considered what ecological impact rapeseed production has on the environment. Rapeseed production was projected to continually grow in the next few years, due to an increased need for biodiesel (4) and meat production for an increasing population, which led to a worry that this could lead to deforestation within the EU. Since this time, trends have started to change. While the trends of arable land in the next decade is complex to analyse, it seems that this worry is no longer justified, due to the overall reduction in meat consumption, as well as a move away from diesel transportation, and therefore biodiesel consumption, within the EU. These trends will in fact alleviate pressure to increase arable, and forest land is expected to grow in Europe within the next decade, even overtaking the amount of arable land. (3)
Locally-produced rapeseed wax, along with local soy wax, is therefore the most sustainable candle wax which can be used in Europe.
Candle fragrances can be made of either essential oils or fragrance oil. Fragrance oil can either be a natural - an essential oil mixed with a carrier oil - or a synthetic aroma based on petroleum.
Essential oils are natural and plant-based. The question of sustainability comes from how the plants that are used for the oils are farmed. The use of pesticides and farming practices is typically intransparent for essential oils - this information is often not provided to the customer and farmers make full-use of this lack of oversight and produce crops as cheaply as possible. One plant of particular concern is the frankincense tree, which is currently endangered due to over-exploitation. (5) Another concern is the long transport routes of many essential oils. The most sustainable essential oil is a regionally produced oil which comes from sustainable farming practices.
Companies are not required to list the ingredients in fragrance oil. While natural fragrance oils are generally open about their ingredients, and list the essential oil and carrier-oil which they used, synthetic fragrance oils do not list their ingredients. Synthetic fragrances are typically created in a laboratory, and are based on petroleum - a non-renewable resource. While a natural fragrance oil can be sustainable, if sourced sustainably, any fragrance containing petroleum, or where the ingredients are not declared, is not sustainable.
Here are my top tips for a sustainable candle:
- The candle should be made of plant wax or beeswax.
- The wax should be sourced as regionally as possible - in Europe this is local rapeseed, soy, or beeswax.
- Farming and production practices should be taken into account, especially for beeswax and essential oils.
- Avoid using scented candles.
- If using a scented candle, avoid synthetic fragrances, and ensure that essential oils are sustainably and regionally sourced - avoiding frankincense completely.