‘Stimulating and inspiring’: How P&G made sustainability business critical

EXCLUSIVE: Procter & Gamble's (P&G) vice president of global sustainability Virginie Helias believes that internal behaviour change helped the company transform a sustainability strategy into an "unstoppable" and holistic ethos.

Wednesday 9 May marked the annual edie Sustainability Communications conference in London. It also marked, to the day, P&G’s vice president of global sustainability Virginie Helias’ 30th anniversary at the company.

Under Helias’ guidance, P&G has transformed a sustainability department from a “corporate environmental department” – created in 1971 – to a holistic an integral cog in P&G’s operations. The company is in the vanguard of sustainability leadership, having exceeded several of its 2020 goals early, such as reducing water use in manufacturing facilities by 20% against a 2010 baseline, and creating a new supply chain to tackle ocean-bound plastics.

Speaking to edie’s content director Luke Nicholls at the conference, Helias explained how engaging other areas of the business had been an integral step in turning sustainability into a “critical” business metric.

“The most challenging aspect is to drive accountability at every level of the company,” Helias told delegates at the conference. “To move the mindset from ‘sustainability is important to the company’s future’ to ‘it is critical to my business right now’.

“P&G is like a giant cruise ship, it is hard to change direction, but when you manage to do it, the company becomes unstoppable. It’s very important to signify that sustainability is not business as usual, that it calls for extraordinary action. It’s usually stimulating and inspiring for the entire industry.”

P&G, the owner of household brands such as Ariel, Gillette, and Head & Shoulders, recently unveiled its new Ambition 2030 strategy, which includes an industry-leading goal to ensure all packaging is 100% recyclable or reusable.

The company aims to achieve this target by launching sustainable innovations, such as the new Fairy washing up liquid, which will be packaged in bottles made completely from post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic.

Helias noted that a key lever in setting this goal was to “bring the outside in”. Helias used key findings from reports from the likes of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to sculpt the business case for tackling ocean plastics, such as the notable conclusion that $80-120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy due to a linear, take-make-dispose value chain.

Helias and P&G created an external advisory board, made up of “leading-edge” sustainability practitioners and chaired by the company’s chief executive David Taylor. Taylor and the external peers meet two times a year to discuss sustainability and Helias claims that it has helped invigorate and engage the company.

Ambition 2030

As part of Ambition 2030, P&G manufacturing sites will look to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half and renewable energy sources will be purchased to power 100% of its plants. The world’s largest consumer products company has also pledged to source at least five billion litres of water from circular methods.

All targets are linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which has been described by numerous sustainability leaders as a “common language” and great engagement tool.

The landscape in the sustainability sphere has shifted incomprehensively during Helias’ time at P&G, and the innovator behind Ariel’s highly successful “Cool Clean/Turn to 30” communications campaign noted that all business applications will eventually be working on sustainability as an everyday consideration.

“There are a lot of parallels with digital [and sustainability],” Helias added.”10 years ago, there were a lot of digital managers; I look forward to the day when saying you work on sustainability will sound as odd as saying ‘I work on digital communications’. Every single market today works on digital communications and when every business leader is working on sustainability, I can happily retire.”

Matt Mace

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