Business essential: How pioneering NZ therapeutic oils firm embedded sustainability ethos ‘before it was a thing’

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Founder Bo Hendgen at work on the lavender harvest.
Founder Bo Hendgen at work on the lavender harvest.

Related tags Essential oil Sustainability

There are few bigger industry buzzwords these days than sustainability, but one small New Zealand therapeutic oils firm can boast an impressive track record spanning more than three decades, having embarked on its mission ‘before sustainability was even a thing’.

Absolute Essential was founded in 1988 by natural health practitioner Dr Bo Hendgen to create a range of therapeutics that balanced efficacy with ethics.

Having gained a background in the category in France, her inspiration for the firm came from a trip hitchhiking across Africa in her late teens.

“I quickly saw how frankincense, for example, was creating great wealth for many overseas, but very often poverty and destruction for the local producers.

“I thought there must be a better way, so when i started to source my own supply chain, I was determined to understand how they treated their employees, what they paid them, what wealth does it create locally,” ​she said.

“Back then, no-one really knew what sustainability was, it wasn’t really ‘a thing’, but we knew what we wanted our to ethos to be.

“We have done so much checking and testing and asking so many questions, to the extent that some people really don’t like it, but it is how we have always operated.”

More than three decades on, and operating from Muriwai on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the firm produces a comprehensive range of therapeutic essential oils for a raft of health conditions.

It sources ingredients, either certified organic or wild grown, from 59 countries. It works directly with producers to support small-hold, eco-conscious farmers and businesses, and processes all raw materials at its own production facility.

And in May this year, the company became the first winner of trade body Natural Health Products New Zealand’s (NHPNZ) Corporate Social Responsibility Award.

“I almost didn’t apply because it was for corporate social responsibility, and I’m not corporate,” ​she added, “but then I thought better of it. We referred to work we have done over all those years because we have always been clear of our objectives."

In the intervening years, those aims have led to some impressive achievements.

In the early days there were very few sustainability benchmarks or accreditations, but the company quickly embraced the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which now underpin its strategy.

“We believe we are having an impact on 14 of the 17 goals, which is pretty impactful for a small business in a small country like Aotearoa New Zealand.”

It also produces an in-depth sustainability report in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards Global Reporting Initiative.

While this is no doubt important, Dr Hendgen clearly enjoys being ‘on the ground’ and making a difference to local communities.

Nepal initiative

For example, she has travelled to Nepal many times to meet with the growing local communities, cooperatives, and NGOs, as well as provide a considerable amount of support following the earthquakes of 2015 - both financially and by providing first aid and other hands-on support in remote villages.

“Since 2012 we have worked with Nepalese communities to establish the growing and harvesting wintergreen industry, which has provided an income to the women and elderly who remain in the villages, while the men leave the area for work.

“We are connected with the Community Forest User Group program to create a mutual alliance towards sustainable harvesting and direct community benefit. We contracted a nursery to grow seedlings which are then given to farmers to ensure the suitable botanical species are being planted and are GE-free.”

It also works with local education providers to teach the communities how to harvest the wintergreen sustainably to enhance growth and production, and provided a portable distillation unit to share between two dozen producers and ensured it was used effectively. This equipment is now wholly owned by the producers.

“My concept has always been trade, not aid,”​ she added.

Alongside these noble endeavours, Dr Hengden also overseas the day-to-day business operations of the company, which continues to punch above its weight with a small team of 11 people.

“Therapeutic oils can fall between the gaps of traditional supplements, natural health products and some of the cosmetic space,” ​she said. “It can be lonely, but we continue to be very successful, and products for anxiety, sleep , stress have been performing very well, along with those for respiratory disease, post-COVID.”

It has considerable online sales, is stocked by specialist retailers in New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, and also works with health professionals to educate how the oils can be integrated alongside traditional medicine and natural health products.

The global aromatherapy products market size is valued at USD2.3 billion (2021) and is projected to reach USD5.3 billion by 2031, growing at a CAGR of 9% .This growth is expected as a result of increased application and awareness among users as well as the development of more innovative products.

“We are working on several new products, but I can’t talk about them yet, and I’d also like to make it more practical and convenient for people to use the products.

“We know that once people try our products, they keep coming back, and that’s because they have the very best ingredients and are very effective,”​ she said.

One thing that won’t change, though, is its commitment to sustainability.

As the judging panel at NHPNZ noted: “For 34 years, Absolute Essential has steadily implemented projects every year from its sustainability plan to create a truly clean and conscious business selling products to make a difference. Sometimes this involves making choices despite the balance sheet….it has a very strong consistent ethos, embodying what it means to be a truly sustainable business.”

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