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Caring for the Earth Like Our Health Depends on It: J&J on the Evolution of Earthwards®

Image Credit: Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is on a mission to improve the sustainability of its products by sourcing solutions from within the company through its Earthwards® program. In June, the program became 100 products strong; J&J’s aim is for the Earthwards® portfolio to represent 20 percent of its revenue by 2020.

We spoke with Paulette Frank, J&J’s Worldwide VP of Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability, to learn more about the internal and external benefits of designing in sustainability.

SB: How did the idea for the Earthwards® program evolve?

PF: We’ve had a Design for Environment (DfE) program for new products since the 1990s. It focused mostly on educating and engaging our R&D colleagues on how to consider the environment when developing new products. For an EHS organization traditionally accustomed to working with supply chain colleagues, working with R&D was a new frontier. But by 2005, we weren’t seeing sufficient outcomes at the scale and pace we hoped to deliver.

After many internal and external conversations, we realized that there were three key missing pieces to our DfE program – branding, marketing and a carrot (or two).

Design for Environment isn’t the “stickiest” phrase, and we realized our DfE program needed a simple and memorable identity to be marketable. So in 2009, the Earthwards® brand was developed. It’s important to note that while branded and intended to generate claims, Earthwards® itself is not intended to be an on-pack mark. The world already has plenty of those. Instead, Earthwards® for us sets a high bar for environmental improvement and represents those products in our portfolio that have made the most significant gains in environmental performance, compared to a previous generation of the product or a competitive benchmark.  The brand is not about absolute performance – it’s about significant and continual improvement.

Marketing, R&D and supply chain work hand in hand on new product development, so why should DfE be any different? While we had a long tradition of working with supply chain, and more recently, partnering with R&D, we still had work to do to engage our marketing colleagues who “prime the pump” for all new product development with consumer insights. When we launched Earthwards, we held several workshops around the world to educate marketers on the consumer trends in sustainability and how to make credible claims and avoid greenwashing. The Earthwards® toolbox includes a claims calculator to translate environmental benefits into terms most people can understand and adds a new tool to our marketers’ toolboxes. 

Most importantly, Earthwards® is a DfE process intended to build environmental performance into the product development process. And while it is branded and generates claims, it is ultimately about creating a positive impact for our environment. For that impact to be meaningful, we need engagement across the business. To simulate engagement, we did a few things. We enabled the ability to generate claims as noted earlier. We set public facing goals. And we created an internal recognition process facilitated by an Earthwards® board made up of internal and external experts. When a product meets the criteria and is recognized by the Board as an Earthwards® product – the product team is recognized with a modest monetary award and perhaps even more importantly, is included in our Earthwards® brochure that we share with key customers.

SB: How was the Earthwards® process developed?

PF: We worked with a leading product stewardship and sustainability consultancy to develop the program. We gathered input from NGOs like Practice Greenhealth, academics and corporate sustainability experts from Forum for the Future, Cornell University and other institutions. Our execution of the process is also reviewed annually by UL Environment.

SB: How is J&J engaging employees to take part in the program?

PF: We host Earthwards® Innovation Sessions to support our product development teams during the early stages of design and development. This helps them prioritize key areas for improvement by identifying “hotspots” throughout a product’s lifecycle. We also run innovation events with key suppliers to try and solve issues and develop materials with lower impact.

We also provide seed money for sustainability pilot projects driven by employee ideas through our Sustainability Accelerator Grants program. Earthwards® plays a key role in this challenge as many contestants have submitted ideas that can help us reduce the environmental impact of our products. Over the past two years, we have funded 20 projects that create a world without waste, reduce our carbon footprint, and help us rethink consumption of Earth’s natural resources. For example, last year, a group from the Consumer practice in Shanghai proposed using Chemical Foaming Agents to generate a cellular foam structure in packaging, resulting in a 10 percent weight reduction that ultimately reduces corresponding consumption for manufacturing petroleum-based plastics.

SB: What drives Earthwards® product innovation (materiality assessments, strategies, etc)?

PF: At a product level, we have product category hotspots that guide our teams to pursue the most impactful environmental improvements. These hotspots, coupled with consumer insights, ultimately drive the Earthwards® innovation across seven impact areas – materials, packaging, energy, waste, water, social and innovation. If a product achieves at least three significant improvements across our seven impact areas, a board of internal and external experts determines if the product warrants Earthwards® recognition.

Johnson & Johnson also uses a patented formulation tool called GAIA – Global Aquatic Ingredient Assessment™ – to measure the environmental impact potential of ingredients in new formulations. This score helps us make better choices when we review or create new products. The tool was developed collaboratively with outside experts and has been reviewed with a wide range of stakeholders.

SB: Creating more sustainable products requires collaboration across the value chain. How is J&J garnering buy-in for the Earthwards® program at each level of the supply chain? 

PF: Earthwards® works to add value for stakeholders along the entire value chain. The Earthwards® approach means listening to customers to understand their sustainability needs, and responding by developing innovative products. One example is NATRASURF, a sustainable surfactant that’s been adopted by both the Aveeno® and Clean & Clear® brands.

A surfactant is an ingredient essential to nearly all personal cleansing products, from shampoo to bar soap and liquid body wash. However, surfactants can also disrupt your skin's natural barrier, leading to dryness and irritation. We teamed up with AkzoNobel to develop a better solution. The result was NATRASURF, an ultra-gentle surfactant made from potato starch with superior cleaning and high foaming capabilities.

On top of being better for your skin, it's also better for the environment. As a nontoxic, readily biodegradable ingredient that's 90 percent derived from renewable sources, NATRASURF was quickly recognized as an Earthwards® innovation. This is just one example of how we work with Supply Chain, R&D and Marketing to develop more sustainable solutions for our customers.

SB: While Earthwards® boasts undeniable environmental benefits, how is it helping to bolster J&J's bottom line?

PF: Reducing the amount of resources used, including water and packaging, typically leads to cost savings. Since 2009, we’ve saved 214 million liters of water – which is the equivalent of nearly 85 Olympic-sized swimming pools – and reduced 67,000 total tonnes of materials. Our Earthwards®-recognized portfolio currently has 105 products and reflects more than $11.5B in revenue for Johnson & Johnson. As part of our Health for Humanity Goals, we aim to grow that to 20 percent of Johnson & Johnson revenue by 2020 – expanding our commitment to more sustainable products.

SB: Can you provide a few more examples of products in the Earthwards® portfolio and speak to their evolution?

PF: A key feature of the Earthwards® approach is that it can be used by product development teams regardless of sector – everything from pharmaceutical drugs to haircare products and surgical equipment.

One example comes from STRATAFIX, a brand of sutures. Rather than accept the status quo, one of our engineers, Meredith Karow, saw an opportunity to design the packaging more efficiently than that of previous brands. She lobbied her team to consider smaller packaging made from recycled content, and in doing so, debunked the company myth that recycled content can’t be used in medical device packaging.

While this redesign may seem small, it has a ripple effect throughout the supply chain by reducing the shipping weight and carbon emissions along with it. Earthwards® has helped reduce 4,500 total tonnes of packaging since 2009 – that’s the equivalent of about nine Boeing 747 planes.

Another example is the EXPEDIUM VERSE® Spinal System, which reduces energy and water used to sterilize and disinfect medical instruments by more than 70 percent, while also helping create time and cost efficiency in the operating room. Likewise, a prescription medicine, ZYTIGA®, was revamped using “green” chemistry techniques – resulting in a 64 percent reduction in raw materials used, a 78 percent reduction in water used, and an 87 percent reduction in hazardous waste.

SB: How is Earthwards® helping J&J work towards its 2030 Promise and sustainability goals?

PF: Human health and environmental health are inextricably linked. In order to profoundly change the trajectory of health for humanity, we need to take care of our planet like our health depends on it – because it does. Already, the Earthwards® portfolio has diverted 690,000 total tonnes of waste from landfills – the equivalent of 17,250 18-wheeler trucks. It has also saved 214 million total liters of water and reduced 67,000 total tonnes of materials.


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and… [Read more about Libby MacCarthy]


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