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P&G’s Sustainability Initiatives — Not So Sustainable

The giant wants to sell $20 billion worth of eco-friendly innovations by 2013. But what about those controversial ingredients?

P&G’s Sustainability Initiatives — Not So Sustainable
illustration by Christopher Serra illustration by Christopher Serra

On a prematurely springlike day in Cincinnati, Len Sauers’s workday begins as it often does — with a meeting. On the 11th floor of Procter & Gamble’s corporate offices, seven members of its Sustainability Leadership Council huddle around a table in a small conference room. Ten others listen in by phone from P&G offices around the world. The topic at hand is the company’s commitment to develop $20 billion worth of “sustainable innovation products” in the next five years,
a significant addition to P&G’s current $76 billion in annual sales.

“There’s no sacrifice required of the consumer, and yet there’s this huge sustainability benefit,” says Sauers, 49, extolling the virtues of one sustainable innovation product already on the market, Tide Coldwater.

Sauers is P&G’s recently appointed VP of global sustainability, a job title that has gotten a lot more popular lately. Every big company these days seems to have an environmental czar running around headquarters. Citigroup, Dow Chemical, Ford, HP, Intel, Sara Lee — I began to wonder, What do these impressively titled green executives really do? So I spent some time with Sauers to find out.

Much of his job is corporate-policy policing: making sure that P&G’s many global divisions and myriad product units all approach sustainability the same way. At the time of my visit, in March, he had just finalized the definition of a “sustainable innovation product.” The four-page document had taken Sauers the better part of three months to write and get approved. The pileup of boring generalities never actually says what a sustainable innovation might look like; when I ask Sauers for specifics, he demurs, citing competitive reasons.

What Sauers will discuss is Tide Coldwater. As he and I walk through P&G’s Energy Star — certified offices, the 22-year company vet explains why it’s a perfect product. It goes right to the heart of P&G’s publicly stated green goals: The product is concentrated so that packaging materials are reduced, and by not requiring hot water, it minimizes the consumption of energy during its use, thereby reducing carbon emissions (34 million tons less annually if every U.S. household used the product, according to Sauers). He also touts the Mega versions of Charmin and Bounty, which give customers bigger rolls, thereby saving on cardboard — 144 million fewer toilet-paper cores per year if 1 million Charmin users switched.

Sauers is trained as a toxicologist, but none of P&G’s sustainability initiatives address what’s arguably its most fundamental environmental challenge: “green chemistry,” or finding ways to make products without chemicals that are hazardous to human health and the
environment. “P&G is doing a good job of reducing its greenhouse gases,” says Devra Lee Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, “but at the same time, it’s using cosmetic ingredients like phthalates, where the evidence is growing that these chemicals could have a negative impact on our children and grandchildren.”

Products such as Herbal Essences shampoo and Olay Complete Body Wash contain comparatively high levels of 1,4-dioxane, a chemical that has been characterized as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA and banned from personal-care products in the European Union. Sauers, who spent most of his time at P&G working on product safety before being appointed to his current job last January, says there’s no need for P&G to change any of the ingredients in its shampoos, detergents, or air fresheners because the company has already done thorough safety assessments on all the chemicals it uses. “I know for a fact that everything in our products is safe,” he insists.

Yet several of P&G’s competitors have begun rethinking their approaches to chemical use. Earlier this year, Clorox launched a line of natural plant-based home cleaners; Wal-Mart, eager to line its shelves with green products, couldn’t wait to get them into its stores. S.C. Johnson created a Greenlist, a ranking of chemicals according to their safety, and wherever possible has stopped using chemicals from the most hazardous class. Method and Seventh Generation, two smaller companies that make cleaning products using naturally derived ingredients, have been growing by double digits while some of P&G’s comparable brands are flat or declining.

“Just because something says it’s natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe,” Sauers argues. “Everything has the potential to be toxic at high enough levels.” In other words, don’t expect natural versions of Tide, Pantene, or Mr. Clean anytime soon. P&G’s long- standing practice, Sauers explains, has been to do a risk assessment of the quantities of a chemical being used in a product and the amounts of that chemical that are getting absorbed into consumers’ bodies or discharged into the environment. Tim Long, a senior science fellow at P&G, says that the amounts of hazardous chemicals consumers are exposed to through P&G products are at levels a thousand times lower than those that cause health problems in animals. “We’re talking minuscule, insignificant levels,” he says.

Regulators haven’t always agreed. When the European Union classified dibutyl phthalate (DBP) as a reproductive toxicant in 2004 and banned it from use in cosmetics and personal-care products, P&G and many other companies were forced to reformulate products, predominantly nail polish. Similarly, P&G is working on suitable substitutes for phosphates in its Cascade dishwashing products after states including Virginia and Maryland passed bans on using the chemicals because of the damage they wreak when released into rivers and streams. P&G maintains that its use of DBP and phosphates wasn’t harmful.

As we stroll through P&G’s in-house museum, gazing at hallmarks of the company’s 170-year history as a consumer-products innovator, Sauers explains that because P&G’s brands are so large and ubiquitous throughout the world, he thinks the company can have a major impact in the reduction of waste and consumption of energy. He’s right. But Tide Coldwater and Charmin Mega? Good, but not good enough. Sauers acknowledges that he doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist. But if he wants to be a sustainability chief in more than name only — if P&G is going to lead rather than be dragged into compliance — he has a chemistry problem to solve. And right now, he’s procrastinating.