Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Kelly Semrau: I’m the Chief Sustainability Officer at SC Johnson, the company that makes household products for families around the world including Windex®, Glade®, Baygon ®, Mr. Muscle®, OFF! ® and Ziploc®. In my global role, I oversee sustainability actions, public and governmental policy, public affairs and corporate social responsibility. I’m also responsible for global employee communications and sit on the board of trustees as the vice chairman and president of SC Johnson Giving, Inc., our philanthropic arm. That’s a great part of my role that I really enjoy – in the last 10 years alone, the company’s philanthropic contributions have exceeded $200 million worldwide, so we get to make a real impact.
I joined SC Johnson in 2000, but I started my career in Washington D.C., where I spent many years in government and on the Hill, including being director of public affairs and press secretary to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, director of public affairs and press secretary to the U.S. Trade Representative, and press secretary on the Hill for a Pennsylvania Congressman. After that, I was thrilled to join what has become one of the world’s biggest firms, starting their public affairs practice and working with great clients including British Airways, Texas Instruments, UPS and SC Johnson.
3p: How has the sustainability program evolved at your company?
KS: The commitment to sustainability leadership at SC Johnson has been a constant for decades, and that’s really unique. But what has evolved are the ways that we’ve approached it. We’ve continued to broaden our view of sustainability impacts, so that now we take a 360 degree approach that encompasses products, energy, waste reduction and more. For example, we’ve developed an internal process titled GreenlistTM to evaluate the ingredients used in our products and help choose ingredients that have a lesser impact on the environment and human health. Since 2001, we have increased the percentage of “Better” or “Best” ingredients from 18 percent to 50 percent and phased out less-desirable ingredients in favor of better choices.
At the same time, we’ve been working to cut greenhouse gas emissions from our global manufacturing facilities, and we’ve achieved a 42 percent decrease through 2011 versus our 2000 baseline. Over the last decade, we’ve established 10 renewable energy initiatives and have brought up our use of renewable energy to nearly 30 percent of total energy use globally. Our latest project is two wind turbines at our largest global manufacturing facility that are able to generate enough electricity to power the entire site and remain entirely off the grid when combined with our two co-generation units.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your sustainability journey, and how.
KS: Quite simply, my family. My sustainability journey started when I was just a kid and I didn’t even know it. I grew up on a farm in Illinois with four brothers and sisters, and looking back, I think a “sustainable awareness” has been embedded in me since those days. Growing up on a farm, you develop a respect for the land, soil, fresh air and water; they are so crucial to your survival and how you make your living so you naturally acquire an enduring appreciation for them. Today, as a breast cancer survivor and mom to two young girls, I still maintain an awareness of the world around us and am forced to think about the exposure we’ve had to chemicals and pollutants. I often wonder if I’m handing off a world to my girls that can support them and their families and if we’re able to reverse the demands we’ve placed on our resources.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
KS: In 1998, fourth generation family leader, Sam Johnson, created a documentary about his relationship with his father and near the end of the film he made a statement that has stuck with me all these years. He said, “We should not worry about whether we have lived up to the expectations of our fathers, but whether we, as fathers, have lived up to the expectations of our children.” That quote is so powerful to me because it reminds me about the responsibility I have to our girls and their future. I worry that the world I’m leaving behind for them offers so much less than what they deserve and what they’ll need to survive. I fear that they will experience energy brownouts and depleted resources and be forced to sacrifice more than they should simply because of our environmental behaviors today. That quote reminds me of the importance of my role as a parent, and sustainability leader, and to think generationally instead of just today or tomorrow so that the decisions we all make have that long-term thinking and focus.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
KS: I’m especially proud of the work I did with several colleagues in 2009 to make product ingredient information available to our consumers. We went beyond the industry standard and chose to be transparent with consumers about our ingredients because we want them to feel confident about the SC Johnson products in their homes. We extended that initiative last year when we released our Exclusive Fragrance Palette, which is, in some cases, stricter and more exclusive than the typical industry list. SC Johnson offers a number of resources for people to get information about our products and ingredients including a website, phone, on pack, FAQ and more. As part of this project we’ve also successfully phased out phthalates from our fragrances in response to consumer concerns, even though ones like DEP have been deemed safe by scientific experts. I’m proud of this accomplishment because we’re helping people make purchase decisions that are right for their families…not to mention that it’s cool to have a patent with my name on it!
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
KS: I would like to motivate consumers to explore behavior changes and make the environment top of mind when they’re making purchase decisions. There are so many small, simple things that consumers could be doing that would have long-term benefits on the environment. For example, concentrates and refills use less packaging, decrease shipping impacts and reduce waste that ends up in our landfills. If we could get people to adopt these alternative forms of products and packaging, we could find a permanent place for products like these on our store shelves and address some of the environmental challenges that our future generations face.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
KS: My perfect day would be an afternoon on the beach, underneath the pure blue sky, listening to the waves crash on the shore while reading a really good book.