As The Moodie Davitt Report launches a new eNewsletter, Sustainability Curated, in association with L’Occitane Group, Sustainability Officer and Director of the L’Occitane en Provence Brand Adrien Geiger assesses how we can take inspiration from the natural world.
What we have to learn from the natural world
The damage already inflicted on Nature is huge, and in recent years alone we have seen an alarming drop in biodiversity, writes Adrien Geiger. Between 1970 and 2012, over half of vertebrates have vanished from our planet. The biologist Gilles Bœuf warns that in coming years we will have lost between 500,000 to 1 million species. He uses Germany as an example, stating that in just 27 years “75% of flying animals will be gone”.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been warning persistently that the “unprecedented” rate of species extinction is 100 to 1,000 times greater than it was just a few centuries ago and continues to accelerate today .
The health of the natural world is essential to our existence on this planet. For most of us this goes without saying, however, it is worth remembering exactly why. Nature not only maintains the balance of life on Earth but also provides us with solutions to an infinite number of problems that we face every day.
Nature has always been the fundamental resource for the human race and there are few if any inventions that are not in some way indebted to Nature. It was the American researcher Janine M. Benyus who encapsulated that truth with the term “biomimicry” in 1977 and brought the concept up to date in her work Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. She describes it as: “A process of innovation, which calls for the transfer and adaptation of the principles and strategies developed by living organisms and ecosystems, in order to produce goods and services in a sustainable way, and to make human societies compatible with the biosphere.”
Inspiration from the natural world at L’Occitane
We find inspiration by observing Nature and her virtuous mechanisms, tried and tested over hundreds and thousands of years.
This is in effect, biomimicry, or what Emmanuelle Pouydebat (Research Director at CNRS and MNHN, author of When animals and plants inspire us) and others might more poetically – and in our case more accurately, call bio-inspiration.
Some organisations have already grasped the importance of this and are making it their main focus. When it comes to the cosmetics and well-being, L’Occitane has always looked to Nature for inspiration. We are motivated not just by the natural benefits contained in the extracts of plants and flowers etc. but also by the ingenuity, intelligence and adaptability of the natural world.
A great example of that is what we do with the Corsican ‘Immortelle’ flower – known for its remarkable longevity and the fact that it never wilts, even after being picked. This extraordinary flower has provided the inspiration for our products aimed at combating the visible signs of ageing. It’s no surprise that we now have an entire department within our R&D laboratory dedicated to researching the benefits of these natural ingredients. Our Director of Scientific Innovation, Pascal Portes says (see quote below):
From the observation of the immortal’s exceptional adaptability to a dry and very sunny environment, our researchers have identified its extraordinary antioxidant properties and put them to use in our anti-ageing skincare line, ‘Immortelle’. We have discovered that it’s now possible to extract a 100% natural alternative to synthetic retinol. It’s amazing to note that the Immortelle flower held the key to effective retinol anti-ageing long before the chemists of the 20th century.
We observe Nature closely also to learn how to evolve both our methods and our products to perpetually aim towards more efficiency in terms of impact. What we call the ‘circular economy’ and try to implement in our value chains is the fundamental modus operandi of Nature in which there is no ‘waste’ as such. A dead leaf is a source of nutrition for the soil which is itself living, inhabited by all sorts of essential micro-organisms which are essential to the healthy functioning of the ecosystem. This is what we did once more with the Immortelle flower. Our new immortelle extract comes from a second plant extraction made from plant waste from the first distillation carried out to obtain the essential oil.
Natural systems, our model for resilience
During the current global crisis, we’ve often found ourselves talking about the importance of resilience. In truth this isn’t necessarily anything new: the crisis has shone a spotlight on the importance of endurance and adaptation within organisations, something the natural world has been doing since the very beginning of it all.
In this respect, bees are particularly interesting. L’Occitane has somewhat modelled its multi-local methods on those of bees. Wherever bees go they enhance: the land and its surrounding wild life (in particular the plants they pollenate); themselves (with the production of honey, the life of the hive), and the surrounding ecosystem that develops (which we could describe as an economy if we pursue the human metaphor) with the biomass and vegetables that come from plants they have pollinated.
It is the multi-local model by definition, inherent to bees, and it is this that we are exploring on a human scale in the L’Occitane model: in Provence, Burkina Faso, Brazil and Corsica … where we are developing our activity with the Nature / Human / Land triptych.
Our approach is one we like to call ‘biosystems’: virtuous ecosystems, which are both natural and human. Our ambition is to create economic, environmental and societal value for all the territories where we are present. We are building lasting, fruitful relationships with our producers from Provence to Burkina Faso via Brazil. We have been working hand in hand for years, sometimes decades, using fair trade methods and supporting family farming.
Using Nature to protect Nature
The damage mentioned above – we now know – is caused mainly by the use of pesticides and intensive monocultures. These techniques go against Nature and prevent the creation of Nature’s own mechanisms.
Our choice is the opposite. We have decided to work with local, indigenous species in an ancestral way, listening to the lessons of Nature because generally Nature is rarely mistaken.
At L’Occitane, this principle is deeply enrooted as we develop our supply of vegetal raw materials from which most of our essences and active ingredients are derived. In this way, we are heavily involved in agro-ecology and organic farming – in particular in our cultivation of Verbena, Immortelle, Shea.
Agro-ecology is inspired by Nature insofar as it relies on the support network that plants and living beings offer each other, or the Earth to create autonomous systems that are capable of protecting themselves. Agro-ecology borrows from autonomous balanced ecosystems such as forests to produce biodiversity and support local producers.
With the help of our dedicated team, made up of agricultural engineers and also our technical partners working daily in the field, we are also involved in the development of agroforestry.
We pay special attention to the choice of species, to their diversity, to the use of species and varieties in territories where we cultivate them, so as not to damage the biodiversity, but to regenerate it, enrich it, and allow the virtuous mechanisms of Nature to function optimally.
Two examples that we are particularly proud of:
- We plant living hedges on the farms of our producers to – amongst other benefits – enrich the biodiversity (insects, butterflies and bats find a habitat here), protect and drain the soil more intelligently, so that it is richer and more alive thanks to the healthier organic matter, reduce temperature variations and eventually even create a microclimate.
- As Nature constantly relies on diversity, we apply this same notion to our crops, valuing the genetic diversity of our plants above all. Each lavender and Immortelle plant is different, so that in the event of a pest or disease we can be sure that at least some of the crop will survive having become more resilient.
As part of our mission to support biodiversity – and forests in particular – so that Nature can continue to protect us and play its necessary role in our ecosystems we are also implicated in different initiatives that go beyond the agricultural field and on our farms. For example, we have contributed to the reintroduction of almond trees in Provence – which had practically disappeared in the 1960s in favour of more profitable crops – in particular by co-creating an inter-professional association, France Almond, and by setting the objective of replanting 2,000 hectares of trees.
We are also proud that L’Occitane was among the very first signatories of the Business for Nature call-to-action (https://www.businessfornature.org/). In addition, we have deepened our commitment to ambitious coalitions such as One Planet for Biodiversity, an initiative led by Danone, bringing together companies that are particularly committed to regenerating biodiversity.
Our Group, that has been growing through decades, owes its resilience to our original connection with Nature and its long-standing attachment to bio-inspiration. This heritage is almost like a gift for our future and we hope that the number of those who appreciate its value will carry on growing.
Bio-inspiration is a subject I truly enjoy talking about because it is one that needs to be shared and made more accessible, so that our urge to protect it becomes instinctual. After all, Nature holds very many of the solutions to our ills.
And in these unusual times, pivotal for the future of our civilisation, I am convinced – perhaps even more so than before if that’s possible – that there is everything to gain from turning to Nature.
I would be very happy to continue the discussion with any who wish to, to share ideas and our “bio-inspirations”.
Note: The Moodie Davitt Report this week launches the latest in its Curated series of newsletters, in association with L’Occitane. These will feature a selection of stories on key issues around sustainability in travel retail and beyond. Please email Sinead@MoodieDavittReport.com to subscribe.
*Illustrations by Julien Croyal.
Notes and sources
 To listen to the talk on France Inter from May 2019, follow this link: https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/la-une-de-la-science/la-une-de-la-science-06-mai-2019
 The IPBES report from 2019 can be read here : https://ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment-Fr
 Le Monde, Dans le Morvan, la bataille contre la monoculture de pins Douglas s’organise, July 2020