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P&G: Aiming for the ‘Sweet Spot’ Between Sustainability and Strategy

Image credit: P&G

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship — in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 14th article in the series.

It’s not unusual for different areas of a company to embrace sustainability at different levels. The key, says Procter & Gamble’s Virginie Helias, is to understand the reasons why and the challenges of bringing everyone up to the same standard of commitment and engagement.  

“There are functions in businesses that have embraced it faster than others, for very simple reasons,” said Helias, P&G’s VP of Global Sustainability. “We do an employee survey, so we track engagement very clearly. We know exactly how we are tracking on engagement by function, by business, by country."

“The function that has embraced this the most is the product supply function. Why? Because resource efficiency, eco-efficiency is my business, clearly. It directly leads to bottom-line improvements, be it zero waste to landfill or energy conservation. They were doing that before the word sustainability existed — so they are clearly our most engaged function.

“The one that has been the least engaged is marketing. That’s not just at P&G; it’s everywhere. Each time I speak somewhere, the key thing people ask is — help us to understand how to engage marketing.”

News Deeply recently spoke with Helias at the Sustainable Brands ’17 Detroit conference about Procter & Gamble’s sustainability initiatives and the challenges she faces in implementing them across all facets of the company’s operations.

Could you give us an overview of P&G’s sustainability program and your objectives?

Virginie Helias: Our goal is that all our products will be manufactured in plants with 100 percent renewable energy, zero waste to landfill. All products will be made either of recyclates or renewable materials. We will develop products that allow people to conserve resources when they use them because we know that 70 percent of the carbon footprint of P&G happens in the use phase.

That’s the vision. The most challenging and ongoing goal is the technology that allows people to use our products with minimum resources. Packaging is another one. That’s kind of a driver for innovative approaches: As we develop a product, we have key criteria that basically ask questions that pertain to the entire lifecycle.

How are you doing with employee engagement?

Helias: I was very happy with our latest tracking results. In terms of engagement, on a scale of one to 10, it was about four, for three years in a row. The latest results show we are close to six, so it’s a huge jump.

One of the ways we improve engagement is, we do brainstorming sessions with all the stakeholders on the brand. We ask: How do we find the sweet spot, and what is the brand proposition that can help make sustainability strategic for the brand?

I’ll give you an example from our air-care business. The biggest impact for Febreze is the packaging. The equity, the core benefit of the brand, is giving everyone a breath of fresh air. What’s the overlap? For a long time, people on the brand ignored it, but we said, “How can we find this intersection between the two?”

We worked with a major event agency and had everyone participate. They came up with the idea of leaving nothing behind but fresh air, which is a wonderful way to address the biggest impact of packaging and obviously link with the core equity. When you say, “leaving nothing behind but fresh air,” all of a sudden it can lead to things like our partnership with TerraCycle to make our packaging 100 percent recyclable. It becomes part of your brand proposition.

It’s a big challenge because you don’t change a brand equity and purpose lightly. But when we find it, it unlocks everything.

How do you address the challenge of implementing such ambitious programs?

Helias: Change management is a big question, one that I’ve been working on since I took over this position. The key is how you move from corporate goals to business unit strategies. My main mission in the company is to embed sustainability in everything we do – strategy and innovation, brand building, culture and communication.

It’s all about driving accountability for those goals. First, that people understand what you’re talking about – there’s a huge need for education – and then, that they understand how their particular business unit can contribute to the goal.

For instance, our fabric care unit has one of the most important goals — promoting the use of cold water, which represents 60 percent of the carbon footprint of the company – driving cold water in the washing machine. This is huge because of the size of our business, and because 85 percent of the carbon footprint of detergent happens in the usage phase.

Is sustainability a source of product innovation?

Helias: It is totally a source of product innovation. At this conference, we have targeted people who we call the mainstream, or the Aspirationals. These are basically people who believe in brands. They want to continue to purchase what they’re purchasing. They want the brands to enable consumption for them and they want the same benefits – they don’t want any tradeoff on price, on performance, on convenience, on aesthetics. So, they basically want sustainability for free.

It’s easy to do a clean detergent with natural ingredients that doesn’t clean your socks. It’s natural, but it doesn’t clean. It’s very difficult to do one that has the same performance as the best detergent and is a better, sustainable option. People ask us: “Why did it take you so long to come up with Tide Purclean?” Well, it’s because we needed an invention to get the cleaning power of Tide in a 65 percent bio-based detergent. Like any constraint, sustainability forces you to work within certain parameters. It’s a source of innovation.

So, what’s next for P&G in terms of sustainability? What are you excited about?

Helias: I’m excited about the progress we’re making through the brands. Now that the brand function is engaged, we are seeing things like the beach plastic, like the Tide Purclean, the Pampers recycling and other amazing projects. I’m excited because they touch our core strengths.

It’s brand building, it’s innovation and it’s leadership – it’s everything that people are looking to us for. I think it’s incredibly exciting. It’s an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, but as we reinvent ourselves, build on our strengths. So, it’s not something separate, it’s totally core.


News Deeply is a new media and technology company dedicated to bringing thought leaders together, enhancing public engagement, and improving the user experience of complex global issues. Our team of journalists and technologists builds unique, user-centered resources… [Read more about News Deeply]


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