To stand for quality, you have to stand for responsibility. You simply cannot have one without the other.

A conversation with Firmenich’s Dr Bérangère Magarinos-Ruchat

Thursday, Nov 12 2020

Firmenich’s Dr Bérangère Magarinos-Ruchat is a firm believer in the power of collaboration. Chief Sustainability Officer at taste and fragrance creator Firmenich is thoroughly convinced that business is capable of driving social change. And she believes that much more in this field can be achieved in partnership than in isolation.

Firmenich is the world’s largest privately-owned perfume and taste company. Founded in Geneva in 1895, the family business has developed some of the world’s most well-known tastes, ingredients and fragrances, with a portfolio that spans synthetic, natural and biotech molecules. Specialities include seafood, citrus, vanilla and mint.

Lauded for its creativity and innovation, the 125-year-old multinational is also renowned for its commitment to sustainability. Firmenich has been a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact since 2008, and a LEAD signatory since 2019, and joined the Swiss Triple Impact network this year. The company also reinvests 10% of its annual revenue into research and development to explore renewable resources and sustainable sourcing.

In an interview to honour Firmenich’s new membership with the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley, Magarinos-Ruchat shared her views on corporate responsibility, sustainability and nutrition.

Dr Bérangère Magarinos-Ruchat has ample form when it comes to sustainability, having worked for many years at the UN and latterly as VP Sustainability Partnerships at Firmenich prior to her current role. In conversation, her enthusiasm and dedication to this mission, guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is palpably obvious. These 17 goals unite many of Firmenich’s concerns, from wellbeing to public health, to nutrition and climate change.

Creating tastes and aromas capable of evoking great emotions, Firmenich’s tastes and fragrances are consumed by four billion people every day. The company is propelled by its desire to make a positive impact in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world: for their customers and consumers, for society and the planet. In an interview to honour Firmenich’s membership of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley (SFNV), Magarinos-Ruchat spoke of all this and much more.

Dr Bérangère Magarinos-Ruchat

Chief Sustainability Officer at Firmenich

Call me Berry“, she says – aptly, given her position in a company whose first taste was a raspberry substitute.

At Firmenich we are driven by our mission to create positive emotions through taste and aromas. The tastes and fragrances we produce aim to enhance wellbeing. We have designed some of the most popular tastes out there – four billion consumers every day experience a moment of delight thanks to a Firmenich taste or fragrance.

Firmenich is a company driven by science. Our founders actually started out developing chemicals. We are 125 years old, but it was only in 1938 that the first Firmenich taste – a raspberry substitute – was created. We even won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1939! These scientific roots continue to inform the work we do today. We have just launched our first AI-created taste, a lightly grilled beef to use in plant-based meats.

We blend science with emotion. For more than 30 years, Firmenich has been working with world-leading experts and research institutions to enhance our understanding of the human senses of smell and taste, and the science that underpins the emotions that tastes and fragrances inspire in us. The work we do in this field allows us a deeper understanding of these emotions, so we can build pioneering tools and technologies for our customers.

We are 125 years old, but it was only in 1938 that the first Firmenich taste – a raspberry substitute – was created.

It is no coincidence that Switzerland is home to a wealth of science-driven businesses in our industry.

With its academic institutions, infrastructure and excellent research talent, the Swiss ecosystem is very conducive to these kinds of businesses emerging. We still lean on and draw from Switzerland’s favourable research environment today.

Our motto is ‘Doing good, naturally’. Nature is our inspiration and that is a distinctly Swiss notion that informs everything we do. Our Naturals range, which includes vanilla, cardamom and citrus, encompasses 170 different products sourced from over 40 countries. We cultivate strong supplier relationships and we are innovating at source by investing in technology that extracts the tastes more gently, and more efficiently. As a result, this actually means we can use fewer raw materials.

Source: Firmenich

The needs of our customers are rapidly evolving.

As COVID-19 has emerged, we have observed a change in food and beverage preferences. There has been a shift towards immunity-boosting benefits and natural tastes that enhance wellbeing, which we are responding to and providing for our customers.

We try to balance wellbeing and health with moments of pure enjoyment. We are constantly asking: how do we create foods that are better for the body but still taste fantastic? We are seeing a huge move towards that ethos, something that we have been championing for years. There is a push towards sugar and salt reduction, plant-based proteins and enhanced nutrition. We provide these benefits, while enveloping them in the overall taste experience through taste, texture and aromas. It is really about the whole experience.

One innovative area linked to our sustainability strategy is our work on green proteins. These have the potential to transform the global diet. We are particularly interested in making these plant-based meat alternatives taste delicious. If consumers fall in love with the product, changing to a more sustainable diet becomes much easier. When you explain the connection between what we eat and habitat loss, people are inspired to take action. Eating less meat is a fantastic way to do that. And we are more than happy to be part of that solution.

Nature is our inspiration and that is a distinctly Swiss notion that informs everything we do.

Source © CombyAVM, Unsplash, Firmenich

We are striving to strike a balance between healthy people and a healthy planet.

Obesity is the greatest burden on public health systems around the world. We are tackling this with new innovative tastes and ingredients that allow us to reduce sugar, but that still taste amazing. It is a breakthrough for nutrition, but also quite an achievement for sustainability. Using less sugar saves resources and water, as sugar cane is a very water-intensive crop.  We are striving to find solutions like this that have a double positive impact on people and the planet.

Your sustainable vision has to be built into your product from the beginning.

To stand for quality, you have to stand for responsibility. You simply cannot have one without the other. An unsustainable company will not thrive, whereas a resilient business can better weather a crisis. That has become more apparent than ever during the COVID-19 crisis. Companies that are socially engaged and climate resilient are faring much, much better during this pandemic.

We started our journey towards B Corp certification a few months ago. This will allow us to take our globally recognised environmental and social performance to a new level. However, our commitment to sustainability is not new. Firmenich has embodied this spirit for many years; in fact, we were ahead of the curve. It is not a story to win over customers, it is who we really are.

The business started its modern-day journey towards sustainability in 1991. Frédéric Firmenich signed the first International Chamber of Commerce Declaration on Sustainable Development, just before the word ‘sustainability’ was invented in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. For him, sustainability meant: what kind of planet are we going to transfer to the next generation? He wanted to pass down a company to his children that was a gift, not a problem.

Source ©

In the 1990s, a lot of companies were engaged in pollution and exploitation. At the end of the day this turned out to do more harm than good.

It damaged their reputations and cost them money. Firmenich saw the bigger picture. In those early days when sustainability was not something that customers and consumers were necessarily looking for, our family ownership gave us the freedom to make long-term decisions to do better. A mindset that is now so on trend.

You can do a lot of work on corporate sustainability without actually being sustainable. Companies can do the reporting, sign the commitments, pay their employees fairly, but if the products they sell are not sustainable, what is the point? Your sustainable vision can be built into your product from the beginning. Firmenich models end-to-end sustainability, from ethically sourcing vanilla from farmers in Madagascar all the way to creating our products and serving our consumers.

Today we find ourselves in an urgent and unprecedented situation. We have a global coronavirus pandemic, but obesity is a global pandemic of its own. There is a climate emergency. We are tackling these issues, but we cannot do it alone. Everything we have achieved so far has been in collaboration – with clients, academics, the Swiss government. SDG 17 is all about partnerships and, for us, the SFNV is a chance to engage in strong collaborative action, working with other diverse stakeholders to multiply our impact.

Firmenich’s membership to the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley is also an opportunity to leverage Switzerland as a hub for the future of food. It is an amazing chance to balance science and know-how, to pair startups with old companies. Firmenich as a company is 125 years old, right, and through the SFNV we will be engaging with startups, with young scientists, and I think some absolutely fascinating innovation is going to arise from these partnerships.

Its through partnership that we can ensure to work towards delivering a more sustainable and responsible food system. Now more than ever, food companies need to consider not only how to make food taste great but also better for our planet and people, at scale.

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