The Starting Point: Vanilla Sustainability in
Seeking supply stability, ethical procurement practices, improved quality and more in
one of the world’s most important and challenging sourcing regions.
“Vanilla is too important to manage like a typical ingredientcategory,”says Oliver Nembach,business development director at Symrise, during a recent
visit to the company’s Holzminden, Germany, headquarters.
“It’s a make-it-or-break-it tonality for us,” he adds.
Vanilla is responsible for more than 20% of sweet flavor turnover for the company. By backwardly integrating vanilla, and
connecting sales and business operations in the process, the
company has sought to create sustainable profit for the entire
value chain. Without sustainability, the supply stream comes
under pressure, threatening markets even as vanilla’s popularity continues to grow as ice cream and dairy desserts reach a
growing number of emerging markets.
In discussing the intensive process of securing a sustainable supply of vanilla from Madagascar, Nembach is joined by
Stephan Sielaff, senior vice president of global operations, flavor
and nutrition, and Clemens Tenge, director of corporate communications. They explain that Symrise sources about 10,000
ingredients from approximately 100 countries, often in locations
with delicate social, political and/or ecological environments.
And so the concept of sustainability has evolved from a separate
program to an integrated part of the company’s overall corporate strategy. This requires it to act as a responsible employer,
ingredient procurer and efficient operator. Sustainability has
also challenged the company to focus on profitability, backward integration and portfolio diversification. In the context of
vanilla, the sustainability strategy began with a product managing approach, but grew to include partnerships throughout the
value chain, including select customers.
Vanilla: a Shared Value Approach
The company began its backward integration of Madagascan
vanilla several years ago with the integration of Aromatics
Madagascar S.a.r.L. The Symrise team says it became more
engaged locally and soon realized that understanding the needs
of the growers and other stakeholders required a presence “on
This “shared value approach” directly engaged smallholder
farms. Traditionally, these growers might produce about 300 kg
of green vanilla beans each year, which, following processing by
a collector, might yield 50 kg of dried black vanilla beans for cur-
ing. The result, even in good markets, was a small income. By
selling the beans to a collector, the proceeds were being split, and
then split again with a middleman who would deliver the black
Between the blossoming of the vanilla flowers and the time the farmers receive
their money from the sale of the green beans is more than a year; pricing can
change drastically in that time and encourage premature harvesting or even
replacement of vanilla with other, more economically stable crops.
beans to exporters for final curing. Only then would a typical
flavor or food manufacturer come in contact with the product.
This extended, low-transparency value chain has numerous
inherent downsides, including a lack of traceability. Under this
system, flavor and food manufacturers must rely on certifications to verify the ethical sourcing status of the final product.
Without transparency and backward integration, the team says,
it is very difficult to influence the ethical status or quality of any
Nembach, Sielaff and Tenge explain that taking possession of
green vanilla beans directly from smallholder farmers allows for
better quality and value to the growing communities. In addition,
it provides improved value for brands seeking to behave ethically.