Doing good in the world AND doing good for business: smelling and tasting a better world

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

12 March 2015

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Firmenich, a unique and wonderful company in Geneva who has a major footprint in the United States – in California and in my original home state of New Jersey.  Their Vice-Chairman of the Board, Patrick Firmenich, alongside their CEO, Gilbert Ghostine and, President for North America, David Shipman stepped me through what they do in the world of taste and smell.  It was truly one of the most sensorial days that I’ve had.

What impressed me most was that, instilled with a sense (or scents) of making the world a better place, they have found a way to address some of the world’s biggest problems through smell and taste AND make a profit.  There are many examples, but I’ll briefly share three that really stuck out in my mind (and nose and tastebuds).  They have to do with

  1. How do you help reduce disease through better sanitation?
  2. How do you help fight poverty by equipping communities to build sustainable economies?
  3. How do you increase health by reducing obesity?


1) Fighting bad smells in toilets:  One of their senior scientists – who had started his career as an apprentice at Firmenich – came to join us and, after sitting down at the table with us, pulled a few “pens” out of his pocket to pass around.  These were like Sharpie markers, but they were not for coloring.  Au contraire.  He passed around – essentially – fecal matter pens.  Now – when someone hands you something that you know is going to smell like… well… you know what – the question is – do you actually smell it?  Everyone else had crinkled their nose and said “eeeuuuwww” – so clearly, I knew what was coming.  But, alas, curiosity got the better of me and, having not ever held nor smelled a fecal matter pen, I had to do it myself.  I don’t need to do it again.

Based on its leading innovation in the area of mal-odour control, Firmenich received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to conduct further research in this area, as a means to improve hygiene and sanitation around the world.  It turns out that the smell in toilets is one of the reasons some of the 2.5 billion people who don’t use viable sanitation don’t use toilets and, thus, get exposed to and spread more disease.

So – Christian, who works on helping create excellent smells and tantalizing tastes now focuses on countering mal-odour from toilets.

2) Committed to Haiti: After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, there have been many efforts by aid organizations to not just help people in need, but to equip them to help themselves.  Firmenich identified an opportunity to do just that, as they made a commitment to improve the agriculture in Haiti. In particular, they chose to support vetiver farmers in southern Haiti to enhance their livelihoods, as vetiver, is one of the most beautiful ingredients used in perfumery. The project created such a positive impact that the Swiss government, through its Development and Co-operation Agency, decided to support it.  After 5 years, they have improved the living conditions of 30,000 farmers in the Debouchette Region and built a school where none existed, counting over 600 students today.   Also Firmenich filed  a commitment with the Clinton Global Initiative in 2010 and has been actively partnering with the Clinton Foundation ever since.  Together, they just started lime nurseries in order to reforest Haiti with fruit trees.

3) More sweet less sugar: Imagine, if you will, a video game in which the objective is for the hand to catch balls.  The longer the hand stays open, the more balls it catches.  However, the default in the game is for the hand to only be open 20% of the time – therefore, it misses a lot of the balls and is relatively inefficient.  To win the game, you need to increase the efficiency by keeping the hand open longer.  This is exactly what I learned happens with tastebuds and sugar.  Our taste buds are relatively inefficient so – in order to taste enough sweet – we have to consume a lot of sweet.  Firmenich has created a way to increase  efficiency and allow you to have a sweeter taste with less sugar intake.  They even did a taste test with me of an orange beverage – having me try the original version, a version with 50% less sugar, and finally a third version with 50% less sugar, plus their taste efficiency increasing solution.  I was amazed at how sweet the version with the 50% less sugar + their taste efficiency tasted!

What was clear to me is that, with their solution – more food producers will be able to bring down the sugars or sweeteners in their products – thus reducing obesity and increasing health!

Those are just 3 of the many ways in which Firmenich works hard to make the world a better place.  I didn’t even go into their focus on fighting climate change for which they’ve received many awards.  I’ll leave that to you to research.  I only know that my visit to them, in addition to giving me a heightened awareness of that which I consume, gave me a deep sense of faith that companies can have their cake (with less sweetener) and eat it too!  They can contribute to the bottom line AND to the well-being of the world.