Big brands move slowly. There’s a certain inevitability to that, as unfortunate as it sounds.
In the cleaning products arena we’ve often heaped well-deserved praise on our friends at Ecover, Seventh Generation, and Method. Larger companies, like Procter & Gamble get more reserved recognition but as most of our readers know, have the potential to make a much larger impact on reducing society’s overall footprint on the earth – if only they’d get moving. I had a chance to talk to Len Sauers, Vice President of Global Sustainability at P&G at last weekend’s Opportunity Green conference and the evidence of motion is stronger than I’d assumed.
Len was proud to tell me that P&G has been thinking about sustainability, at least in principal, for a long time. The company made corporate responsibility a core value as early as the 1860s and employs a staggering 700 people in its product safety department, many of whom have doctrine degrees in toxicology, as well as other impressive credentials. These folks have been focused largely on compliance, keeping the worst chemicals out of peoples’ bodies and the ecosystem, and looking at ways for the company to lower resource use and cost.
But things changed in late 2007 which led to a surge in innovation, the creation of new corporate roles focused on sustainability (Len’s job, in fact) and some big product changes resulting in substantial and measurable decreases in the corporate footprint. The prime catalyst – an energy audit leading to the introduction of Coldwater Tide.
Under pressure from major customers, such as Walmart, environmental awareness and an ever increasing cost of energy, P&G took upon itself to pursue an audit of various aspects of its product footprint. One area was energy use. Looking at the graph above, you can see a pretty obvious chunk of energy usage stemming from the use of laundry detergent in the home. The culprit? Heating of water.
Since the cost of heating water is borne by the customer, it wouldn’t have been immediately obvious to P&G until this analysis was performed. By re-engineering Tide to be suitable for cold water use, P&G immediately offered its customers a phenomenal savings in energy. Just how much energy? Well, if the entire United States were to switch exclusively to cold water washing of clothes we’d achieve 8 percent of our Kyoto target for carbon emissions overnight.
What’s particularly interesting to me about the energy footprint analysis is that the savings are not directly benefiting the company at all, rather they’re benefiting the customer directly. The customer in turn will reward P&G with loyalty for doing them the favor. That’s common sense, but it also represents a much wider scope of awareness of interconnectedness on the part of P&G. That’s impressive and a great leap forward.
At the end of the day, the driver is money. But introduction of Coldwater Tide has been well received and will lead to more innovation and systemic thinking by the company. It’s also provoked major competitors to follow suit, something that can only be a net gain for society.
Where do we go now?
Impressed with the success of the Coldwater Tide story, P&G has expanded efforts to find energy, resource and money saving opportunities. For example, the company has recently been modeling the stress points on plastic containers so that during their manufacture, less plastic can be used on parts of the bottle that don’t need to be as strong, replacing decades of uniform molding and saving big on resources and money. Again, common sense once you see it, but not as obvious until you’ve started thinking outside the box.
My hope, which I believe Len shares, is that “green” thinking – my definition includes the deeper systems analysis which produced Coldwater tide, and which some of our favorite small product companies already have deep in their DNA – becomes so much the norm that it no longer needs a special label.
(PS: I’m not sure exactly what P&G did to re-engineer tide to go from hot to cold water. Some cynics say it’s the same thing in a different box, but does it matter?)