Sustainability professionals must adopt ‘courageous leadership’ skills, says P&G

EXCLUSIVE: Integrating sustainability as a business strategy requires "courageous leadership" in a world with limited resources and environmental challenges, according to Procter & Gamble's (P&G) global sustainability director.

Speaking to edie as part of the new sustainability skills’ special podcast, Virginie Helias provided an insight into the skills and expertise she has acquired after 28 years’ experience with the FMCG firm. Throughout the interview she highlighted the importance for sustainability professionals to possess leadership skills in order to drive positive change within a business.

“For sustainability to become a business strategy it requires courageous leadership. So leadership in terms of having the vision of what it takes to do business, in a world with limited resources and all the major social and environmental challenges, takes courage because it is a new business model,” Helias said. 

“For us [at P&G] it’s about learning to integrate sustainability into every part of our business, from innovation and brand-building to communication and the culture. It’s really about engagement because when you talk about sustainability to people intellectually they get it, but then there is a disconnect between the intellectual case and actually changing the way they do business. You have to work a lot on the raw business motivators. It has to be about creating value.”

‘Rewiring the brain’

Last month edie hosted its annual Sustainable Communications Conference in London where industry experts explored the best ways of communicating a sustainability strategy both internally with employees and externally with stakeholders and customers. Moving on a couple of weeks later, Helias reiterated the view that breaking down barriers between departments, getting the board on-board and generating consumer interest in sustainability are all key communicative challenges when reporting on CSR issues.

Helias stressed the importance of “rewiring” both the “brain and heart” of business leaders to gain support for initiatives, but also recognised the benefits of a method which Interface’s Ramon Arratia previously acknowledged as a “bottom-up approach”; drawing on her own experience of successful engagement with employees on sustainability issues at P&G.

“I mention the heart because sustainability is a very personal thing,” Helias said. “If I could get an audience with every single employee we have for 10 minutes then we would make a change much faster. But as I don’t have that I have to work with the multipliers, and it can be at all levels. I actually used bottom-up and top-down tactics, you need to have both. The top-down is making sure the chief executive is talking about it and saying he knows it important, which I had from the very beginning.”

“But I very soon realised that while having the support of the chief executive is important, it is not everything. When you talk to the operation team it’s about eco-efficiency, or you talk to your brand manager and it’s about how you can integrate sustainability into the brand equity. Every single employee needs to be able to understand how to integrate sustainability into their work plan.”

Circular vision

Helias outlined four pillars that P&G has adopted to help the company realise its vision of operating within a “fully circular economy”. These proposals include having every P&G product made from 100% renewable or recyclable material, each company manufacturing plant running from 100% renewable energy, zero waste to landfill from the plants and products that minimise the use of resources.

Resource efficiency has consistently played a significant role in the firm’s sustainability efforts. Last summer, P&G announced a ‘packaging overhaul’, which will see 230 million of the consumer goods giant’s flagship bottles packaged out of recycled plastic each year.

The interview with Helias took place on the eve of P&G announcing a bold pledge to end phosphate use from all retail and professional Fairy dishwasher tablets by 2017, significantly reducing the environmental footprint of its products in addition to improving cleaning performance.

The announcement only served to further P&G’s burgeoning environmental credentials. Late last year the company announced two ambitious new sustainability targets for 2020; cutting emissions by 30% and providing 15bn litres of clean drinking water by 2020.

Take a listen to the full sustainability skills interview to hear her insightful answers.

Sustainable Business Covered: Episode 03 – Sustainability skills special

edie readers can listen to this podcast for free, with no fees or registraton required. The podcast will be relevant for sustainability professionals, energy managers, resource efficiency experts and anyone else who has an interest in sustainable business and climate change.


(Episode 01 – Live from edie Live)

(Episode 02 – Monkey dating and the ‘S’ word)

To make sure you don’t miss the next episode of the Sustainable Business Covered podcast, bookmark this page, where a new episode will appear every Friday.

Have a question about this podcast or a suggestion for future episodes? Email us at [email protected].

George Ogleby

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