Virginie Helias, Procter & Gamble’s global vice-president for sustainability Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

DUBAI: Water, waste and energy consumption — these are the three keys to sustainable business, says Virginie Helias, Procter & Gamble’s global vice-president for sustainability.

But now, she says, the biggest savings are down to the end users — consumers like you and me.

Just reducing waste generated from its plants has saved more than $1 billion for P&G since 2010. Even for a firm with annual revenues of $65.3 billion (2016 figures), that’s a significant sum. And it isn’t over — the firm claims it has reduced manufacturing waste to landfill by 72 per cent since 2010, but its goal is a 100 per cent reduction by 2020. Already 14 out of 17 plants in India, the Middle East and Africa (IMEA) produce zero waste.

“On energy it is the same,” Helias said in an interview at P&G’s regional office in Jebel Ali Free Zone. “We have 2020 goals to reduce energy consumption in our plants by 20 per cent. We’ve actually met that goal already, and that represents about half a billion dollars’ saving.”

So far, this is a textbook business sustainability approach: find efficiencies, do more with less, and reduce costs as well as lower carbon emissions. That’s not surprising given that Procter & Gamble often feature in the textbooks.

Then Helias continues.

“But the bigger prize is not within our operation, because if we look at the carbon footprint of P&G, 70 per cent is actually in the usage phase. It’s people consuming our products and consuming energy and water.

“We have a big focus on reducing energy use in washing machines, when people wash their clothes, because it is actually the biggest driver of our footprint globally — about 60 per cent of all our footprint globally is in the washing machine. So we have a goal to have 70 per cent of all the loads being done in cold water. We’ve moved from 38 per cent of all loads to now 61 per cent. Just that is a reduction in C02 of 20 million tonnes, and 20 million tonnes of CO2 is four times all our plants.”

That’s a corporation taking responsibility not only for its own actions, but for the actions of people who use its products.

Asked why, Helias doubled down.

“We have leadership brands, and we believe the role of leadership brands is to take responsibility for having a positive impact on society as well as driving our own business ...

“It’s not just altruistic, We know there are growing expectations from consumers that companies and brands need to address these issues. We are seeing that in all our research. The delta [difference in functional benefits] on pure product performance is getting smaller and smaller between brands. It’s not enough to build a great brand ... There are huge expectations from people, there’s a huge need for transparency — people knowing what’s in the product, knowing where things come from, and just knowing that it does more than just a job, that it has a positive impact on communities, on society.”

Helias said trends in sustainability were now moving towards lifestyle changes — encouraging sustainable behaviour through a combination of innovation and awareness programmes. In the case of washing machines, P&G is developing new washing powder formulas that clean clothes in cold water; they then need to convince people that they work as well as hot-water washes.

Helias said she hated being asked for a business case for sustainability — not because there isn’t one, but because she felt someone asking for one was looking for a reason not to pursue sustainability.

“You could say there is no business case for sustainability, because if there was we wouldn’t be having this interview, because it would be just a way of doing business. There’s another answer, which is there is no alternative business case, because if we don’t do sustainability, there will be no business.

“And there is an in between, which is we have to build a business case, and that’s what I’m doing every day. The eco-efficiency savings thing is easy. It’s smart business. The most difficult is when you need to invest, and the return is maybe not immediate.”

There, she said, she points to already successful projects, such as a beach plastic cleaning programme run under P&G’s Head and Shoulders shampoo brand, supported by retailers and tied in with special recycled packaging on the product.

“But very often, when people inside don’t want to do things, because it’s complicated, it’s complex, they don’t see the immediate return, they ask for the business case. So this question I hate. It means, ‘I’m not going to do it.’”

Nevertheless, P&G is pressing ahead with sustainability programmes, and taking its suppliers with it. Helias acknowledges that many of its materials are petroleum based, but it is looking into renewable materials. “That’s a new trend. We are doing very, very interesting experiments. We’ve just launched Tide Pure Clean in the US — it’s 65 per cent bio-based. We are working with DuPont, one of our suppliers in the US, on bio-ethanol, using agricultural waste in our product.

“I would say the key trends are reducing energy, reducing water, but there is a new trend, which is replacing petrochemicals with sustainably sourced renewable material, which we are very active in.”

But while she remained optimistic about the future — “If I was not an optimist, I would not be doing this job” — she acknowledged that far more needed to be done to combat climate change.

“One of the reasons I am doing this regional tour is that we are working on our Vision 2030 goals ... We want to have regional input on what that means and what these ambitions need to be.

“We are getting towards the end of the low-hanging fruit, the things that we know how to do. The things that we now need to do, we cannot do it alone. That’s the big difference. P&G alone will not be able to do what’s needed. The big thing for the next decade is partnership and collaboration — with industry, with governments.”

As an example, she pointed to the problems of dealing with used disposable nappies in countries without a solid waste management infrastructure. “We’ve decided to take accountability for it.”

P&G was running a pilot scheme in Italy to recycle 100 per cent of used disposable nappies, and had joined a consortium with 12 other firms, backed by EU funding, to turn disposable nappies into recycled plastics and fertilisers. “This will have a major societal impact and can only be done with collaboration.”

 

Packaging

Helias said that for most Procter & Gamble products packaging does not have the biggest environmental impact in a product life cycle assessment, from production to disposal; that dubious honour belongs to the usage phase.

“There is a disconnect very often between the science, the life cycle assessment, and the perception of people on where the biggest impact is,” Helias said. “When you ask people they will say it’s packaging, because that’s the most visible.”

Nevertheless, she said P&G had to address perceptions as well as reality, and the firm had a 2020 goal of reducing packaging weight by 20 per cent. By last year it had achieved a 12.5 per cent reduction.

The exception in lifesycle assessments is in babycare products such as Pampers disposable nappies, where the firm’s priority is in reducing material use. It has made nappies themselves thinner, leading to an automatic reduction in the amount of packaging required as well as in the materials used to make the nappy. That also had a knock-on effect in transportation efficiency, leading to more carbon savings.

“The second thing we do is to increase the recyclability of our products,” Helias said. “Technically all packaging is recyclable, but the key dimension is the economics of it — if the value of the output is less than the collection cost, it’s not recyclable.

“Our goal is 90 per cent of our packaging to be recyclable; we are at 86 per cent today.”

P&G is also trying to improve the economics of recycling by using more recycled products in its own processes, including packaging. “How do you create an end market? By creating demand. This is what we do.”

 

The positive effects of Donald Trump

The US pulling out of the Paris Accords on Climate Change would have an effect on sustainability, but “in a very positive way”, Helias said.

“First, I was totally depressed, and then I looked at what happened,” she said. “It was such a shocking thing that happened, but the counter-reaction was amazing. First, the expectation for business increased. The government pulled out, and business needs to step up. And what happened in the cities was quite amazing — the Mayors of Los Angeles and New York decided to step up, things they probably would not have done if the US had stayed in Paris.

“But in business — our own CEO stayed fully committed. I could almost say that this has triggered some desire to take a stand. It’s extremely positive. We’ve joined other CEOs to write a letter to the White House. We’ve decided to join, as a founder, the climate leadership council, which looks at other ways to get to where we want in the US in terms of CO2 reduction — things like climate pacts that could put the US way ahead of Paris.

“Things like that would not have happened with the status quo, with staying with Paris. It was unforeseen, but actually pretty good.”