How Procter and Gamble approaches sustainability

- Leadership - Sep 02, 2016

Not many businesspeople wish redundancy upon themselves. For the Global Sustainability Director at Procter and Gamble (P&G) however, this is the endgame.

“My vision is for my role to be eliminated,” asserts Virginie Helias, who has spent 28 successful years at the global powerhouse helping to build some of the worlds most renowned brands.

“Sustainability will be embedded in everything we do, it will be second nature. Innovation and communication will not be conceived without sustainable groundings. That will be job done, retirement.”

P&G is one of the world’s most prolific brand makers. Across its 10 product categories, ranging from fabric and home care to beauty and health, the company owns 21 brands with annual sales of more than $1 billion. Pampers, Fairy, Aerial, Febreze, Olay, Pantene, Braun and Gillette are just some of the household names in P&G’s portfolio.

The challenge

Such a diverse and wide-ranging array of manufacturing, marketing and sales processes naturally leads one to ask how sustainability can possibly be embedded effectively from the top. Being responsible for so many brands is the toughest part of the job for Helias, who took the role in 2011 after recognising the potential of sustainable development when marketing Aerial’s cold wash capabilities. 

“Sustainability is different from one brand to another,” she explains. “If you take shampoos, 96 percent of the carbon footprint is in the hot shower, whereas with diapers it is all about the materials used in the manufacturing.”

Helias started with the top, educating the leadership of P&G. “I saw we had a great team of sustainability scientists but they lacked a real connection with the business, so the job was to breach the business and science gap and embed sustainability into the company. Why are we doing this? What is the business case?

“Once I answered the why I then move onto the how. The how begins with evaluating the impact of your business – what is your life cycle? Then it is about embedding sustainability into the business process and brand message, which is one of the more difficult parts of the challenge.”


A perfect example of this conundrum is Febreze, one of the leading brands of air fresheners. While the brand is all about transforming air quality and odours, by far the largest impact of the product environmentally is its packaging. Alignment of the two presented a difficult challenge, but one Helias and her team overcame.

She adds: “We spent a long time trading ideas and came up with the idea of ‘leaving nothing behind but fresh air’ – you address the packaging because you don’t want anything to go to landfill, and you also address air quality and pollution as you want to have Febreze manufactured in plants using clean energy. All of a sudden there are many ways the brand and sustainable impact can work together.”

This concept has translated into sustainable processes on the ground. P&G has partnered with EDF to build a 100MW wind farm in Texas to power the manufacturing of home and fabric care products. This will be in operation by the end of the year, and is important step towards the company’s 2020 goal of using 30 percent renewable energy.

In terms of leaving nothing behind but fresh air, P&G’s Zero Waste to Landfill initiative is now fully in force with 68 sites and four countries (Germany, Japan, Poland and Vietnam) entirely landfill free – a move which has also generated $1.6 billion in value for the company.

“To address the Febreze packaging impact we have partnered with TerraCycle,” Helias explains. “They are a wonderful organisation that manages waste that is difficult to recycle. The trigger heads in some spray products are made with plastic and an aluminium spring, which municipal recycling plants can’t deal with. We have sponsored 971 locations that ship the packaging for free and then TerraCycle upcycles or repurposes the waste. For consumers it is great because we give them points which they can use to give to charities.”

Pampers, phosphates and beyond

By integrating sustainability into brands’ messaging and ensuring it delivers a return on investment, P&G has made some significant environmental steps in recent years.

Another renewable energy drive is taking place in Alabama in a partnership with Constellation to build a 50MW biomass plant at P&G’s Charmin and Bounty manufacturing site, one of its largest in the USA. This is due to begin operations in June 2017 and will provide 70 percent of the facility’s energy needs.

In Europe, recent innovation has resulted in diaper brand Pampers reducing its packaging material by 80 percent in terms of weight, saving more than 6,000 tons a year. Plastic has also been cut by 10 percent, saving a further 900 tonnes. By reducing the size of the Pampers packets, 14,000 fewer pallets were required to transport the product in 2015, leading to 400 fewer trucks being on the road, or 160 tons of carbon emissions. Project NINA (New Intermodal Network Approach) aims to remove even more trucks from Europe’s roads by using other modes of transport, especially rail.   

“Another big breakthrough is with our Fairy brand and removing all phosphates,” Helias reveals. “This will be fully in place by October 2017 and will remove 14,000 tonnes of phosphate, or 270,000 football fields. This is in effect a 50 percent CO² reduction, which will be received extremely positively in the UK because its consumers are very conscious of the impact of their cleaning products.

“People ask why didn’t you do this earlier, and the answer is that it takes time to develop. Anyone can release an eco-friendly detergent but it is no good if it doesn’t clean properly.”

These are just some of the environmental schemes running across the P&G portfolio, working alongside various social initiatives to form a comprehensive sustainable programme. Social sustainability plays an equally important role, no better demonstrated than by the Children’s Safe Drinking Water campaign, which has so far delivered more than 8.9 billion litres of clean water in over 75 countries.

Challenge from the outside

Being open to scrutiny and target setting from external influencers has kept Helias and her team on their toes. Working alongside WWF has certainly heightened the ambition of P&G’s sustainability programme.

“They are an amazing partner,” Helias says. “In 2010 we decided to form a really ambitious vision and we reached out to them to help us make our 2020 goals. We had a conference with our CEO and the head of the WWF, and since then they have helped us a lot in particular environmental areas, especially in palm oil and our commitment to a zero deforestation target.

“WWF is challenging us to go further and making sure we set higher goals. We set up an external advisory board made up of WWF and people from other industries to advise our leadership on sustainability and share best practices.”

By instilling the motivation to operate more sustainably and convincing P&G’s brand bosses of the business case for environmental innovation, Helias could well see her job dissolve in the coming years.

But what was her motivation? “It’s not because I have a green background. It was a business accident almost. My work is humanised. How can you show people that sustainability can transform their work?

“When you do it the right way the feeling is amazing. I have people come up to me and say my work is up to here, but I want to do this sustainable project too. It is working beyond increasing market share. It is beyond me, my ego and my business inclinations.”

Read the September 2016 issue of Business Review Europe magazine. 

Follow @BizReviewEurope

Like what you see! Signup for our weekly newsletter