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Interview with Neil McFarlane, Firmenich

When did you start disclosing through CDP and why? – Trigger points

As a family-owned perfumery and taste company, with a long-term view, preserving the planet is embedded in our DNA. When you consider it takes 3.5 tons of rose petals to produce 1 kilo of rose essential oil, there is no other option than to treat nature responsibly. That’s why Firmenich has always taken a leading role to preserve the environment. 

“Sustainability is in our DNA as a family-owned company and embedded in our growth strategy with stretch goals to deliver impact across the company. Being recognized by CDP as a global environmental leader is an encouragement for my 7,600 colleagues across our 100 markets worldwide to keep on raising the bar!”, said Neil McFarlane, Senior Vice President Quality, Health, Safety & Environment.

For instance, in 1991 – one year before the Rio summit, making sustainability mainstream – Firmenich signed the first International Chamber of Commerce Business Charter for Sustainable Development and we have been committed to reducing our environmental impact ever since.

More recently, we were the first in our industry over ten years ago to voluntarily self-impose that all new molecules introduced into our Perfumers’ creation palette had to be biodegradable. We call it the “green gate”. Today, we are our industry’s pioneers in renewable “white biotech” ingredients.

With CDP, we took the same proactive voluntary approach to do what’s right for the planet.

When some of our customers started reporting to CDP ten years ago and asking for more information on our environmental footprint, Firmenich immediately disclosed data on our climate change initiatives.

Taking our environmental commitment very seriously, we did not aim to “just” share our data and rank in the middle of the peer group; we sought to continuously improve our performance, increase our transparency, and reach excellence.

In 2009, we first publicly reported to CDP Climate Change; in 2015, we were the first in our industry to disclose our water impact; and two years later we expanded our reach by joining the forests program.


“This year we are immensely proud to be one of only two companies globally to have achieved CDP’s triple ‘A’ ranking in climate change, water security, and forests. Three decades after our first public environmental commitment, we continue to lead real change in sustainable business”, adds McFarlane. “We are delighted to see our suppliers engage in the same journey as we have taken over the past decade, and are supporting them in this endeavor.”

With our pioneering spirit, we were the first perfume and taste company to engage our suppliers to also disclose to CDP in 2016. This year we proudly feature on CDP’s Supply Chain Leader Board, for actively working with our suppliers to make a bigger difference together.

We chose CDP to foster transparency in our supply chain while at the same time streamlining the reporting process. Environmental change depends, to a large extent, on companies sharing comparable data to benchmark each other, set new goals, track progress, and continuously scale up impact together.  

How important is setting stretch goals / goal setting?

 “With or without the CDP ranking, we are determined to keep stretching our goals, to make them as ambitious as we can, and then execute against these higher targets”, says Neil McFarlane, Senior Vice President Quality, Health, Safety & Environment.

Coming out of COP 21, when we realized the urgency of keeping our planet well below 2 degrees and ideally limiting the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, together with our CEO we decided to take a bolder approach and set ourselves our most ambitious environmental goals.

For instance, we committed to operate with 100% renewable electricity across our operations worldwide by 2020.

We are making this happen in a number of ways:

  • We invest in renewable energy installations across our sites where it makes sense, such as solar panels.

  • We switch to renewable electricity sources wherever possible. To give you an example, in Switzerland, where we operate three manufacturing plants, we use 100% hydropower – from water. It costs more than other electricity sources but it’s worth it as it advances our goals.

  • We invest in energy efficiency programs across our sites to optimize our footprint. For instance, last year we were ranked in the top 5 companies in Geneva with the most significant energy consumption reduction.

  • Any new plant we build is designed to operate according to the highest sustainability standards, such as our most recent plant in Zhangjiagang, in China.  

By doing this systematically around the world, today we operate with 80% renewable electricity and are well on our way to meeting our target of 100% by 2020.

This required setting audacious goals, prioritizing and investing in the right areas to make them happen, and rigorously delivering against them.

Can you tell us more about your goals?

Our goal is to ultimately become carbon-neutral.

Taking an end-to-end approach, Firmenich has committed to verifiable goals for 2020, 2030, and 2050 covering greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, water usage, raw materials sourcing, and chemicals & waste reduction.

Most importantly, our targets are science-based, tracked, and disclosed annually.

How is CDP integrated in your operations & supply chain?

Our Quality, Health, Safety & Environment, Purchasing and Supply Chain teams all use CDP to drive environmental excellence across our business and, crucially, measure progress using third-party verification.

Our “Leadership” and “A” rankings with CDP push us to do more. We are now asking suppliers representing more than 60% of our expenditure to disclose their climate change impact through CDP. We also request a select group to share with CDP their initiatives to preserve water and forests.

Our ambition is to act as a catalyst in our supply chain. The wider goal must be to help create lasting improvements throughout our industry, from raw materials to final products.

By requesting environmental disclosure throughout our supply chain, we aim to identify areas for improvement, and opportunities to collaborate with our suppliers to cut greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and deforestation.

Neil McFarlane

Neil McFarlane is the Senior Vice President for global Quality, Health, Safety, and Environment (QHSE) at Firmenich. He has over 30 years’ experience in QHSE, 20 of which were in the specialty chemicals industry at an international level. Neil is passionate about QHSE excellence and a strong advocate that significant business value and long-term operational performance can be achieved through improved and sustained QHS&E practices.