Consider the bees: how L’Occitane are turning to nature to save the planet
Picture Provence and you probably see rows of vines and baked earth, a dazzle of sunlight on water and people seemingly at one with the landscape, whether eating lunch on the veranda or sitting quietly in the cool of the evening.
So how does L’Occitane en Provence, a business steeped in the poetry of the natural world, deal with the grim realities of climate change? We met with Adrien Geiger, L’Occitane’s first ever Group Sustainability Officer, to find out.
On paper, Adrien Geiger does not strike one as a natural environmentalist. By profession, he is an engineer, with an undergraduate degree from Somerville and an MBA from the Wharton School. He has also held a series of high-profiles roles at L’Occitane since joining the business in 2014, including Chief Customer Experience Officer and Chief Growth Officer, before assuming overall management of the brand at group level.
And yet, despite the engineering and the business acumen, Geiger is a lifelong advocate for sustainability. His first job was developing solar plants with French renewables firm Energies Nouvelle, and throughout his time at L’Occitane he has continued to drive environmental initiatives from behind the scenes. Most recently, he was instrumental in L’Occitane’s 2019 partnership with Plastic Odyssey, which sent a vessel powered by plastic waste collected from the ocean on a three-year journey along the most polluted coasts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Geiger’s commitment to sustainability went public in January 2020, when L’Occitane appointed him Group Sustainability Officer. Speaking via Zoom, he explains how the role feels like the culmination of a lifelong awareness of L’Occitane’s environmental values. ‘L’Occitane has always been a brand very committed to the environment, and I was born in a way with that commitment. I grew up being influenced by the founders of the business, especially Olivier Baussan, who has always been super committed to keeping nature at the heart of what we do.’
The other factor driving Geiger’s environmentalism is that he regards himself as part of the first generation to see climate change as a clear and present danger. ‘This is what people my age talk about, what we worry about for our kids, and I think we all feel an urgent sense of the need to do something positive about it for everyone’s sake.’
This sense of urgency perhaps explains L’Occitane’s hugely ambitious commitment to go carbon net-positive by 2030. Certainly it accounts for Geiger’s determination to look beyond the bombast of green politics and implement real, substantive change.
‘There’s a lot of semantics in this world of sustainability,’ Geiger admits, ‘and a lot of the targets companies are adopting simply don’t go far enough. Take off-setting, for example. There’s a real risk that we use it as an excuse to keep burning through carbon at the same unsustainable levels. The better thing for businesses to do – and what we want – is to reduce the overall amount of energy you consume and then off-set as well, so you have a net-positive impact.’
The question of how to go net-positive while remaining a global beauty business is one that seems, on the face of it, insoluble. But, with a certain poetic symmetry, Geiger and L’Occitane are looking for the answer in the same place that humans created the problem – the natural world.
‘When we talk as a group about tackling the environmental crisis, we always look to nature as a source of inspiration, because nature has accumulated within itself literally millions of years of R&D. For example, if humans try to create a material equivalent to wood, we use 100 times more energy than a tree to make it, and 1,000 times more energy to recycle it. But if you go into a forest, everything is recycled, nothing is wasted and you can last forever.’
You can probably hear the engineer talking here. Indeed, speaking to Geiger, it soon becomes clear that the analytical skills he acquired as an engineer are fundamental to his appreciation of the natural world in all its complexity. ‘The most important thing I got from my engineering studies is the ability to simplify any problem and make it solvable. That lets me give the teams clear priority on what we need to priorities in order to move forward. But, in turn, I have learned from this work is that often nature already has the most elegant solution.’
One example of a nature-based solution that Geiger advocates is the use of agroforestry to mitigate the damage caused by agriculture. What this means is that, instead of planting a single species of tree a million times to compensate for carbon emissions, you look at the local ecosystem to understand what you should plant in order to regenerate the soil, maintain biodiversity, reduce the risk of disease and capture carbon.
‘This type of planting is essential, because we cannot afford to kill the soil. That is important for us not only as a business which depends on natural ingredients to survive, but because it’s the right thing to do. Many businesses today have forgotten that every time you kill the soil, you’re taking out a loan that someone, somewhere is going to have to repay, because otherwise no one is going to be able to get food out of that land anymore.’
For a while, we discuss how things got so bad – was it the failure of Enlightenment economics to factor the environment into their models, or the supercharged discoveries of the Industrial Revolution which led us to break our connection with the natural world? Summing up, Adrien shares one of the most refreshingly blunt insights of our conversation, as well as one of its most salient concepts.
‘As long as we judge the success of a country, a business or any kind of system solely on the basis of its economic value, then we’re screwed. We also have to look at the value we can create for the environment and for society. And that’s why we talk a lot at L’Occitane about the triple bottom line.’
For the uninitiated, the triple bottom line is an economic framework devised by British author and sustainable entrepreneur John Wilkington, which suggests that the value of an enterprise should be measured by three criteria: economic value, social value and environmental value. But surely it isn’t easy to make a global business in tough economic conditions embrace any notion of value other than the economic one, when the accepted wisdom is that you must grow your market share or die?
‘That is definitely a challenge for all businesses today. The way I try to reconcile it for L’Occitane is by explaining that the source of our raw materials is nature, and it’s finite. So we cannot continue to believe that we will grow forever through production. I mean, there’s just no way. Instead, what most of us support is managed growth, in harmony with our environment. And that is super possible – just look at the artisans in France: their growth is limited by the size of their factories, but their businesses are healthy enough to survive and pass on their skills – and today artisans represent the most profitable sector of the French economy.’
One of the concepts Geiger and his colleagues use when trying to explain the concept of the triple bottom line is the example of bees. It’s more sensible than it sounds. ‘Wherever bees settle, they create value for the environment, because they help the flowers reproduce and they support the ecosystem by producing honey and all those other things which enable other species to develop. So for us at L’Occitane, the big question is how can we become bees to the environment, surviving on the land, but also giving the same value back to the entire ecosystem?’
Environmental sustainability is one way to replicate the example of the bees. The other way is by creating a culture that has a shared vision of living in harmony with the environment and restoring value wherever possible. The challenge here is trying to gain consensus on a plan when your community consists of 10,000 employees dispersed through multiple regions across the globe, each with its own brand identity, strategic objectives and plurality of individual politics and personalities.
‘It is tough,’ Geiger agrees, ‘but I think it’s worth it for two reasons. First, because I think we are all feeling this really painful schizophrenia today between how we are living and how we know we should be living – and I feel like we can help with that. Second, imagine the impact we will have if we persuade 10,000 people across the world to do one little thing each day to help the environment or their community, like a little hack or small action which doesn’t need to cost anything. Then imagine if each of those 10,000 people were to persuade one or two others also to do that little thing each day; very quickly, you will have hundreds of thousands of people making a major difference.’
Perhaps the most bittersweet ally in Geiger’s efforts to gain support for social initiatives, he adds, was Covid-19. ‘This pandemic has given humanity a brush with its own mortality. In response, people have a strong desire to know that what they’re doing has meaning. So, all of a sudden, we have got people from all across our business open to hearing about a type of value that goes beyond the bottom line. It’s a very sad way to gain support, but we mustn’t waste this opportunity, because doing something constructive to protect us from future crises gives us hope – and we all need that.’
This seems a good note on which to end – in the possibility of hope and meaningful change even at the heart of a multinational business. After all, if change can happen there, it can happen anywhere.