Global consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble owns many of the brands we use every day, including Cascade, Bounty, Tide, Pampers, Gillette, Herbal Essences, and more. A majority of their products need water, but with global water resources strained, they’re committed to reducing the average home’s water usage through innovation. Chief Sustainability Officer Virginie Helias spoke with Ethisphere’s Tyler Lawrence to discuss the new 50L Home Coalition’s efforts to conserve water in the home and her own role in enabling invention at P&G.
Virginie Helias, Chief Sustainability Officer, Procter & Gamble
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Just to start us off, could you tell me a little bit more about your role and the scope of your team’s responsibilities at Procter & Gamble?
Chief Sustainability Officer is a new role for P&G—there wasn’t one before me. When I started in this space nine years ago, the role was to embed sustainability into the business, and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew that we had expertise in environmental science, but those scientists had no connection with the business. So, what I wanted was to build a sustainability team into how we innovate, how we build our brands, all of our business practices, and our culture. I pitched the CEO for the job and started with a blank sheet of paper nine years ago. I’ve grown into that job and demonstrated to the company the value of making sustainability a part of the business.
Today, my job is across functions. I’m responsible for developing the sustainability strategy and goals for the company, which covers supply chain, brands, innovation, and the whole roadmap that we call “Ambition 2030.” When I pitched the CEO, I said, “I don’t want a team because when you have a sustainability team, it’s counterproductive to embedding sustainability into the business because the business won’t take accountability for it.” But as things accelerated, I realized that I needed more capacity.
Now the team is basically one person per function, and not even always dedicated—my model is that each employee is 50 percent on the business, 50 percent on sustainability. I have half a person per function, so it’s a very lean team when benchmarked against some of our peers, but that’s a choice because we want the business to drive sustainability. Our role is to enable the business, and we also have a few projects of our own.
How do you get the buy-in that you need with different functions across the business to combat that initial worry that you had, that if you have a sustainability function, other people are going to push all of the work off on you and not own it themselves?
[laughing] I’m going to write a book on this because it’s not a simple answer. I have developed my toolbox of tactics over the years. Especially on sustainability, you need to meet people where they are in their personal journey.
I spent my first two years speaking with the leaders of the business to understand what that meant for them. For some, I had to start from scratch. Some at least had the desire to leave a legacy that was not a pile of packaging. Some just wanted business ideas to grow their market share. So I really had to understand, what will be the initial motivation?
When I started, I thought, “This is going to be easy, I’m going to give them metrics that will be part of a scorecard, and they can’t be promoted if they don’t do it.” That was not right, because even if people want to do it, they don’t know how to do it.
Instead of the stick, I had to have a carrot. I started with inspiring stories. How do we make it work? How do we drive the business and drive sustainability at the same time? It’s all about this intersection, because you can’t do sustainability for the sake of it—that’s philanthropy. If you don’t do it, it’s mercenary, and so that doesn’t work either. You have to find the intersection.
I am speaking to you in part because you were one of the leaders of the 50L Home Coalition alongside other major multinationals and the World Economic Forum. What inspired this particular goal and mission? What are you hoping to achieve with it?
The Coalition started with a very specific inspiration, which was the Cape Town drought three years ago. It was so bad that they feared they would get to Day Zero, the day where there is no water coming from the tap. In the end, that didn’t happen, because the government put in place a very strict water limitation: 50 liters per person per day. This is when we realized that without innovation, 50 liters per person per day is misery. We sent some of our team to go watch what that meant for people’s daily life. For example, when you hear a woman with long hair saying that she has to cut her hair because you cannot wash and rinse your hair with 50 liters of water per day, that says something. Our hair care business actually decided after that to develop a waterless technology.
That was really the inspiration. Fifty liters per person per day might be the sustainable level of water, but absent innovation, it’s not improving people’s lives. And we are in the business of improving people’s daily life.
Then we asked ourselves, “So why us? Why do we have a right to work on this?” We actually have a lot of expertise in the purification of water, because before we clean the clothes in the washing machine, we clean the water. We clean the water in the dishwasher that will then clean the dishes. We clean the water that washes your hair, because we need to find the optimal water chemistry. So, we have a lot of expertise in water chemistry because 70 percent of our products need water.
We’re not just looking at our products. We are looking at the entire system of the water flowing in and out of the home. And we decided to come together with companies across the water value chain—public, private, city, citizen—to transform the way people look at water in the home and to get to this system of usage.
What has the initial response within the company been like?
For us it’s been a lighthouse for disruptive innovation. The goal for us is to develop technologies that could use this amount of water, that totally remove water, or that reuse water. For all three, we need invention. We need technology.
Our businesses absolutely love the project. They understand the appeal of a home where you live better. You have a better experience using less water. And actually, the pandemic experience has been an accelerator because people spend so much more time in the home, and so they witnessed firsthand how much water and energy they use. It has raised the level of consciousness. So the buy-in from our business is amazing.
And it’s not like we are starting from scratch. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to watch TV recently and see our Cascade advertising
. We encourage people to run the dishwasher to save water, because you save water when you run the dishwasher, with at least eight dishes, versus hand washing. The math is very simple. Through the tap, you use four gallons of water every two minutes, but the dishwasher itself uses only four gallons of water for a full load. But you can only do that if you have a technology that cleans so well that you don’t have to pre-rinse your dishes before you put them in the dishwasher! Save water by running your dishwasher and using Cascade Platinum in your dishwasher. This innovation saves gallons of water each time you use it.
The hair care people developed an innovation for the Cape Town women that uses no water while making your hair feel and look as if it had been washed, and now they have extended it to Pantene. But that’s how inspiration from very difficult conditions and restrictions on water can actually unlock amazing innovation.
Pivoting a bit—you all are regularly included in ESG-oriented ETFs and other funds. What is your relationship like with major investors on these issues? How have they responded to the initiative?
I was talking with our board of directors two days ago, and they are getting increasingly interested in the topic. Our investors are as well—at our latest shareholder meeting, they passed a resolution on forestry, the first time that a shareholder resolution has passed on this topic.
The 50L Home will obviously be of huge interest because it relates to the core of what we do. Probably two-thirds of our patents are water related. And it’s the basis for breakthrough innovation—who doesn’t want that? It’s this intersection between growing the business and growing sustainability. It’s not easy to do, and 50L Home is going to do that. You already seeing that with the Cascade campaign I was telling you about. It has grown the business, and it has saved gallons of water. So yes, there is huge interest from investors on this topic.
And in your role as the Chief Sustainability Officer, how much of your job do you think is just communicating outward to ESG- and long term-oriented investors? And how much is internal outreach to those in the business who, like you said, are not quite so far long in their sustainability journey?
It’s about half and half. The external piece has grown exponentially because there’s more demand, as you said, from investors, from consumers. You have to share your story, which is interesting for P&G because it’s not in our culture. We are American, but from the Midwest, not New York, and the culture is, you don’t brag about the good things you do. You wait for others to say it. That doesn’t work on sustainability because if you don’t tell your story, people think that you are either doing nothing or hiding something—so we have stepped up on communication. It’s hard work, but we are doing more.
Your current sustainability plan is Ambition 2030. The company is committed to carbon-neutral operations for this decade, in addition to water sustainability, forestry, and other benchmarks. What would you say the company’s biggest challenges are to meeting those goals from your perspective as the Chief Sustainability Officer?
I can tell you exactly what I told my board of directors two days ago. On climate, one of our big challenges is that we have a big load of thermal energy. As you well know, there is no immediate viable, scalable, alternative to natural gas. Obviously, we are not sitting there and waiting for that to change. We’ve created the Renewable Thermal Collaborative, with Mars and the WWF and now 20 companies, looking at cost-effective thermal energy solutions. When we say carbon neutrality for the decade, we will reduce our emissions by 50 percent, but the 50 percent that we cannot avoid before 2030, mostly due to natural gas, we will compensate for by investing in natural carbon solutions. Obviously, we’re going to try to reduce even more than 50 percent, and that’s very particular to our own footprints because we have a paper business that uses a lot of heat. We’ve made progress, and the Collaborative will help us accelerate those efforts.
The second challenge is reducing Scope 3 usage and emissions, which is a next-level expectation. 50L Home is all about Scope 3 usage. But we need to formalize our ambitions. It’s very, very difficult, because 85 percent of our Scope 3 comes from what consumers do when they use our product, which is why 50L Home is so topical because it addresses the in-use phase.
The third challenge is really water scarcity. We’ve done our own water risk assessment mapping process. We’ve looked at the overlap between high water stress regions and our strategic markets, and defined 18 watershed basins that are high-priority for us where we will work in collaboration with others to address water security. We can’t do that alone. That’s another place where we need a collaboration, and the 50L Home is going to help.
Our audience at Ethisphere are not just in sustainability, but also legal, ethics, compliance, a lot of investor relations people. Increasingly, those functions are all starting to overlap. How could those people best be allies to the work that the sustainability team is doing?
It’s interesting, because in my team, we have one representative per function whose job is to influence that function and to educate them, because there is a huge amount of education that needs to be done. This is a super complex space. And the problem is that it’s not something universal; it’s defined by the particulars of each business.
When we do any of our business strategy, we start with science and a life cycle impact assessment. Well, the life cycle assessments are totally different if you work in our baby diaper business or if you work on a laundry business. And so you have to explain that, business by business. And then it changes all the time based on new things that we learn, new expectations. One of the things that we tell our own people is that you need to be responsible for your own education. It’s impossible for me to go out to every group given the complexity and the specificity of this topic. People need to take charge, because that’s the only way to have the level of education that you need to be able to ask the right question.
Virginie, is there anything else that you want to add to what we’ve already talked about?
Of all the challenges that I mentioned, the biggest thing is, yes, internal innovation. But the second big thing is transformative partnership. We will not solve all of the challenges that we know about if we stay within our own scope as a company. We need to break down silos, we need the whole value chain, we need public-private partnerships to advance on those challenges. I think the 50L Home is a wonderful example because you have all these elements, but that’s what we need on every environmental challenge. So we are super excited, because it seems to be ticking all the boxes of things that we have to do on sustainability. The reaction so far has been amazing. We need to move fast to a proof of concept for 50L Home. There are pilots in a few cities we’ve chosen, and I think it can really transform the whole system.
Well, thank you so much.
About the Expert:
Virginie Helias is Chief Sustainability Officer at Procter & Gamble. With 26 years of experience at Procter & Gamble in Brand Management and Innovation, Virginie is one of the most senior marketing leaders at P&G with a broad experience across multiple categories and global to local brand management expertise. She has international experience (France, UK, Switzerland, and the United States). Prior to her current position, she was the Western Europe Franchise Leader for Ariel, one of P&G largest (billion-dollar) brands.
In July 2012, she was nominated to the newly created position of Global Commercial Director for Sustainability, working across all P&G categories and regions. Her mission is to embed sustainability into the innovation, brand building, and everyday business practices at P&G.