P&G CEO Taylor Embraces Sustainability Thinking in C-Suite and Beyond

Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor has become a leader among CPG chiefs in embracing the concept of corporate “sustainability” over the last few years.

Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor has become a leader among CPG chiefs in embracing the concept of corporate “sustainability” over the last few years, and he has authorized C-level colleagues within the company to become spear carriers on the issue as well.

Among other things, Taylor last year became co-founder of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a coalition of dozens of major companies that are investing a total of $1.5 billion. He promoted P&G’s vice president of sustainability to the new position of chief sustainability officer earlier this year. Taylor has blessed the shaping of a broad-minded sustainability platform for P&G that affects everything from new products to how executives talk about the company’s brands.

And perhaps most significantly, Taylor codified that approach last year in unveiling a new P&G program called Ambition 2030, whose aim is to “enable and inspire positive impact on the environment and society while creating value for the company and consumers,” as a press release put it.

“We believe P&G can be a force for good and a force for growth, and we are taking a more deliberate approach to delighting consumers while enabling responsible consumption,” Taylor said at the time. And as P&G Chief Marketing Officer Marc Pritchard said more recently, Ambition 2030 “put us on the hook for what we need to achieve.”

Ambition 2030’s goals include moving packaging for major brands to 100-percent recyclable or reusable materials and “launching more sustainable innovations” under P&G brands. P&G pledged to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in its manufacturing in half and purchase enough renewable electricity to power 100 percent of its plants, as well as sourcing more water from “circular sources.” And P&G said it will engage, equip and reward employees for “building sustainability thinking and practices into their everyday work.”

“Sustainability isn’t about asking [employees] to turn off lights,” P&G Chief Sustainability Officer Virginie Helias tells Chief Executive. “It’s about finding how it can be a driver for everything they do in terms of innovation and growth.”

In fact, leaving any notion of old-fashioned “greenwashing” in the dust, P&G’s new ethos puts environmental stewardship among its top priorities. Foreign-based Unilever and Danone are among other big consumer-products companies that have made this shift. But among American corporations, there may be no more remarkable transformation to sustainability thinking than what has occurred at Cincinnati-based P&G, the paragon of CPG-industry tradition and conservatism.

As Pritchard told a crowd of several hundred marketing professionals at the recent Sustainable Brands conference in Detroit, “We make the lives of people better every day. But brands and products use water and energy to operate, manufacture, transport and consume. And we generate waste. So what if we could innovate to reduce [environmental impact]? It would be good for people and the planet. And it would represent innovation, which is good for growth” of Procter & Gamble.

Taylor’s short-tenured predecessor, Bob McDonald, had made Virginie Helias, a career company executive, vice president of sustainability and enhanced her role as the point person for that discipline across the company. Taylor enhanced her role in January.

Helias’s team consists of only about 15 people, she says. “But it’s change management,” Helias explains. “It’s all about influencing [internally]. Something about sustainability is very personal – you meet people at a very personal level. Sometimes it’s a legacy thing – ‘I need to find new meaning in my job.’ People also want to find inspiration.”

She was ushered into a consciousness about environmental threats by reading Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth many years ago, Helias says, and committed herself to “making sustainability my job” far in advance of today’s corporate trend.

And today consumer fears about climate change – and how to respond to them – have become a huge factor in how Procter & Gamble and other major companies are reacting to the sustainability trend. “Year after year,” Helias says, “consumers are saying that they expect brands to do something about it. We can do our bit – but we need to be enabled, empowered and guided into how to be responsible about it.”

Still, Helias says, she doesn’t “believe in the extremes” on the issue represented by proposals such as the Green New Deal. “We believe in the power of ‘and,’” she explains.

But by the time he was done presenting at the Sustainable Brands conference — though presumably he was being hyperbolic — Pritchard actually obliged some of the most extreme rhetoric of climate-change activists, saying, “I’m optimistic that we will still have a planet in 2030, and I want to make sure that happens.”

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Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.