‘Sustainable by design’: Inside P&G’s Vault to shape sustainable behaviour change

Image: P&G

“No picture, no photos.” That is what journalists are told as they are escorted into an elevator and down to the bottom floor of P&G’s Geneva headquarters. A group of about 20 people are set to be the first media representatives to ever step foot into the company’s “Vault”.

Created in 2002 the 4,000 sq.m floor has been designed as a “store of the future” to explore how technology can be harnessed to uncover customer habits and utilise data to ensure that P&G products are front and center in the minds of shoppers at the exact moment they want or need them.

P&G reps tell me that what we’re about to see in the Vault is the “equity of [the company’s] intellectual gold,” which is fitting considering that the building used to belong to the banking sector.

The Vault itself is a labyrinth of moving walls that can be pushed and pulled to escort you to the next stage of a futuristic journey that examines the shops and households of tomorrow. Its central focus is to explore “growth that is sustainable”, but in truth, it takes a while for sustainability to become the central talking point of the tour.

First, journalists are allowed to explore the psychology of a shopper and how purchasing decisions are impacted by structural and societal trends, one of which happens to be sustainability considerations.

Research suggests that six in ten people would prefer businesses to do more to offer sustainable options. Half said they are keen to make “significant” changes to their lifestyle in a bid to cut their environmental impact – particularly if this results in cost savings.

However, less than half of consumers are willing to pay a premium on a product based on its perceived sustainability credentials, with a new global survey of shoppers finding that fewer are inclined to shop sustainably as they grapple with the cost-of-living crisis. The trick for brands like P&G is to find the balance.

We’re funnelled through more parts of the labyrinthian vault and get more glimpses of the future of shopping – a mock-up of a living room with Virtual Reality Headsets, smart mirrors that can provide feedback on your skin routine and how smart fridges and washing machines can work collaboratively with brands like P&G to help consumers purchase new, sustainable items at the point of need. P&G describe this as a “glimpse of the future”.

Back above ground, P&G’s chief R&D and innovation officer Victor Aguilar explains how the vault is part of a global investment drive to “help improve consumer life”.

“We invest more than $2bn every year dedicate to serving our customers to improve their lives,” Aguilar says. “Our network of innovation companies all start with a consumer-focused mindset of ‘what do they have today?’ and how do they want to live their lives in the future?

“We have the benefit of operating in 10 different categories and in multiple countries around the world, which gives a very global view of how consumers will lie now to live now and how they want to live. In the UK, for example, we’re seeing that more consumers want to wash their dishes while they’re cooking and prepping, so they have less time for our product formula to activate, so we need to respond to these consumer trends.”

Packaging focus

P&G’s overarching commitments on plastics packaging include halving the use of virgin plastics by 2030 across all product categories and innovation and consumer habits will both determine whether this goal will be successful.

The company has embarked on numerous collaborative initiatives to help explore how packaging can be redefined.

P&G Fabric & Care, for example, is working with a consortium of other businesses to support the Paper Bottle Company (Paboco) to trial paper-based alternatives to paper-based alternatives.

A pilot will be launched between P&G and Dutch supermarket chain AS Watson in summer 2023 to sell 75,000 paper bottles of Lenor Fabric Softener bottles. The main challenge facing paper bottle prototypes is keeping the integrity of the bottle shape while housing products like Lenor. The first prototypes feature a pulp-based paper outer layer, and an internal barrier made of 100% recycled PET, which delivers a 30% reduction in plastic used by weight.

Other plastic-focused innovations from the company include refillable aluminium shampoo and conditioner bottles with flexible plastic pouches and incorporating ocean-bound plastics into packaging to reduce virgin material usage.

For Aguilar, the success of these packaging initiatives largely depends on whether P&G, its products and the packaging can meet three key criteria that ultimately ensure that the consumer is satisfied and living a more sustainable life.

“Our programme of sustainability is focused on three pillars. Firstly, we want to reduce our own footprint through our innovations,” Aguilar says. “Secondly, we want to help our consumers live a more sustainable life, so we need to understand how our products interact with what they use and how much energy they use.

“Thirdly, we want to help the industry. We want to help the industry become more sustainable in terms of the packaging they use and the lessons we can share.”

Lifecycle considerations

P&G was one of the pioneers behind the development of Life Cycle Analysis standards and metrics, with the aim of uncovering where the biggest carbon impacts of its products were across the value chain. This approach also enables the company to view sustainability innovation without having to settle for trade-offs in performance or value of the products.

Last month, for example, P&G’s Fairy brand used LCA studies to uncover that heating processes tended to account for up to 93% of the carbon footprint from washing dishes by hand, and up to 72% when using a dishwasher. In comparison, the packaging accounts for around 1%, according to the LCA studies.

So while P&G is using both the Vault and its R&D expertise to embed sustainability across its product portfolio, the company is acutely aware of the role that consumer engagement can have in reducing emissions – and in some cases saving households money on energy costs.

Sticking with dishwashing as an example, Fairy is educating customers on the fact that emissions from dishwashing can be reduced by between 33% to 60% annually by reducing the temperature of the water used. This, in turn, can save households money on heating, a factor that is extremely important in the UK where energy bills have increased by more than 50%.

The LCAs are invaluable to P&G’s approach to innovation, by uncovering hotspots where emissions and environmental impact can be reduced, testing on new formulas and products can begin. The trick is finding a solution that benefits the environment, the customer and the company’s growth and value propositions.

The latest Fairy formulas, for example, are designed with a Fast Activating Cleaning System for faster action in short cycles and to work quickly even in cooler water temperatures at the sink. In short, they work in harmony with the LCA findings that emissions from usage need to be reduced, rather than trading off against it.

HolyGrail solutions

While the Vault sounds secretive, I’m informed that P&G welcome numerous non-competitive collaborative businesses to explore their futuristic trends. Manufacturers of white goods products like dishwashers, fridges and washing machines, for example, could potentially collaborate with P&G on smart sensors that send the consumer notifications when they need to restock products.

But P&G is not a company that keeps its cards close to its chest. The company’s brands have long collaborated across the sectors they operate in to drive sustainable change. This is most notably evident in the HolyGrail partnership, which won an edie Award for circular economy initiatives back in 2020.

The HolyGrail project aims to use “digital watermarks” the size of postage stamps on consumer goods package that can be detected and decoded by a standard high-resolution camera on the sorting lines when in a waste sorting facility. Once identified, the facility is able to sort packaging into different streams. It is hoped this will deliver more accurate sorting streams, which in turn would create a larger market for higher-quality recycled materials.

In developing the project, more than 30 companies across the plastics packaging value chain, including manufacturers, waste managers and academics, worked together for more than a year to prove the sorting concept.

For P&G’s sustainable packaging expert Gian deBelder, the HolyGrail project is an example of how businesses can work together to deliver large-scale changes that make circularity not just easy for the consumers, but for the waste management industry as well.

“We are putting these types of digital markers on these products and while you won’t see it, they will help in keeping things in the loop. Infrastructure will be able to identify the features of the packages. It’s about banking the data to make better decisions and reduce waste.

“This is still an R&D programme for us,” deBelder says. “We’re upscaling this technology by the end of the year and this is going to be a big scale up. The plan is that the industry will pick this up and roll it out.”

So the Vault will continue to act as P&G’s playground of innovation and data insights, with a specific focus on creating more sustainable habits and products for consumers. Opening the Vault to help spread wider change across the industries that P&G operates in could drastically improve sustainable behaviours without impacting shopping preferences on quality and price.

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