Human Nature: Discovering Soulful Sustainability

Even as a child, Dr. Bérangère Magarinos-Ruchat knew that she wanted the world to be a better place. Growing up in a remote region in Switzerland, she remembers her house surrounded by nature. She loved playing in the nearby forest and taking long walks with her grandfather to find secret mushroom spots. Then she asked her parents to enroll her in the Swiss Nature Protection Club, La Ligue suisse pour la protection de la nature (today called Pro Natura). “The Club had a publication for children and I loved it,” explains Dr. Magarinos-Ruchat—whom everyone calls Berry. At 12 she published her first article in that journal. “It was about mushrooms!” she says. Her forest meant a lot to her, and she wanted to protect it.

Berry receiving Tilaka at Mahindra Pride School in Pune

Today as Chief Sustainability Officer at Firmenich, Berry has a chance to implement decisions that make a positive difference for millions of people around the world. The passion that inspired her childhood activities has remained just as vibrant, but its scope has grown. She studied Public Management at Syracuse University and then joined the United Nations, training UN staff on partnership management in more than 15 countries. She then led the Partners in Action Program at the United Nations System Staff College and worked for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. Contrary to those who believe that positive changes require actions outside the private sector, Berry realized early on that working directly with companies can result in concrete sustainable decisions.

Visiting a slum in Pune

Yet, despite the term’s ubiquity, “sustainability” can be a difficult concept to explain. Overused—or worse, reduced to a line in a mission statement, it risks becoming too fuzzy, too vague, too all-encompassing. How does one convince others—individuals or companies—to adapt sustainable habits and policies? Part of Berry’s success is in the strength of her message and its emotional appeal. She makes sustainability about personal stories. It’s about women who risk their safety because their homes don’t have adequate sanitation facilities. It’s about children who suffer from hygiene-related diseases and malnutrition. “Sustainability has been at the heart of my life for 25 years. More than a job, it is a passion,” says Berry.

Those who work with Berry remark on her ability to convey the urgency of action. “Berry has an effective way to reach out to others,” says Romain Laneyrie, Global Innovation Business Development Senior Manager. “And our industry, our society, all of us need a push to act. The direness of the situation in which we find ourselves can’t be overstated. We live in an era where human activities risk the destruction of our planet.”

Romain participated in a Doctors Without Borders mission in Chad and he saw how devastating the impact of environmental change has been on communities and nature. The mission lasted three months and was tasked with vaccinating children against measles. As a field administrator, he oversaw a program that resulted in more than 60,000 children being protected against a fatal disease. This experience convinced him that to make a difference and to inspire others, one had to show results. Also, as a finance expert who applied his skills to a humanitarian cause, he saw that one could make a personal contribution in a variety of creative ways.

Romain soon had another inspiring experience. So did Barbara Pezzetta and Laura Hanna. Based in Milan, Barbara is a Senior Account Manager Perfumery, while Laura is a Senior Executive Assistant in Perfumery & Ingredients in Dubai. Berry organized a ten-day trip to India in November 2019 for ten Firmenich employees, and Romain, Barbara and Laura were among the people who took part. What united the group was its commitment to making changes in their communities—and their passion. As part of the Firmenich 4 Society program, each team member was selected for their achievements in social projects beyond the immediate scope of their official responsibilities.

Exploring a slum in Pune

In India the team discovered sustainable farming projects with the company’s long-term partner, Jasmine Concrete. It explored the crowded urban neighborhoods where Firmenich, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was testing novel techniques to fight malodor and improve sanitation. For Berry, the goal was to show the results of the projects that she had been brokering for years and to give passionate people a chance to meet.

“Firmenich is large and if it were not for this trip, the ten of us aren’t likely to have spent this much time together and so intensely. The team made this trip unforgettable,” says Barbara. She was selected for her work to turn neglected land into green spaces for the whole community to enjoy, and she was eager to share her experience with others and to learn from them. “I was impressed by the diversity of the group and by our passion.”

Visiting organic jasmine plantation
Farmers selling lotus flower buds
Roses sold at Madurai flower market

“It all comes down to passion and connection, doesn’t it?” says Laura, agreeing with Barbara. “ After all, sustainability is all about the human factor. The decisions we make have such an impact on other people.” As a mother of three teenage daughters and an avid nature lover, Laura always thought about her habits when it came to water conservation or recycling as driven both by her desire to enjoy nature now—and most importantly, to preserve it for future generations. Devastated by the consequences of climate change, she was convinced that she had to act and to inspire others to do likewise, in any way she could.

“As Romain put it so well, you can make others passionate about sustainability by showing them the results,” Laura adds. “And we saw these results by meeting the jasmine farmers, families in the crowded settlements who had at last access to clean toilet facilities, and women who used the products developed by us. It’s one thing to read about such projects in a Sustainability Report, but seeing their outcomes for yourself is galvanizing. It was a humbling and emotional experience.”

For Berry, the trip to India was similarly meaningful, because it embodied so much of what she believed in. That it gave her colleagues a chance to see that Firmenich’s projects had a real impact on people’s lives was especially gratifying. The house made investments into sustainability quite early, whether it meant joining the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary initiative to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, or deciding, as Patrick Firmenich did, that all their new molecules should be biodegradable. For Berry, these decisions were made because sustainability is about taking actions in the present to protect the future for the next generation. “This notion of transmitting a positive legacy has always been deeply anchored in the culture of Firmenich as a family enterprise,” she explains.

A year after the trip, each team member continues to derive inspiration from it. Romain explores how innovative business solutions can be applied to sustainable development projects. Laura educates her community. Barbara is investigating circular economy strategies that benefit business, environment and society. Berry’s projects continue to evolve. Seeing changes and transformations inspired by her work stimulates her to set new goals.

It is clear that Berry’s early formative experiences have left indelible traces. When this self-professed fragrance addict is asked about the most vivid olfactory memory from her childhood, she responds that it is the scent of the forest. “That smell of mushrooms in the forest on a misty morning… It brings me straight to the long walks I was taking with my grandfather who showed me all the spots where mushrooms grew.” The passion that Berry felt as a young girl writing about mushrooms and eager to protect her forest has only grown stronger over the years. As the stories of Berry, Romain, Laura, Barbara—and of the Firmenich family—demonstrate, sustainability takes a conscious effort, but when that effort is driven by genuine conviction and passion, it becomes part of one’s human nature.

Romain Laneyrie
Right: Barbara Pezzetta welcomed with Tilaka
Laura Hanna smelling jasmine flowers