A young girl named Louisa is a cosmic space traveler who has decided to make Earth her new home planet. She takes the opportunity to point out some new rules that will require us to adjust our consumption habits to save her newly adopted residence. Use cold water. Use less water and electricity. Use recycled plastic and less packaging. “Resource conservation is vital,” she says, as Dad turns off the tap while shaving. “My beautiful planet will be respected, which may require some sacrifices.”
It’s all very sweet. Between the cute little girl and the soundtrack, which is remarkably similar the theme song from Elf, the ad is aiming straight for the heartstrings and your conscience. This is a pillar of Procter & Gamble’s (P&G’s) new corporate campaign, “It’s Our Home.”
P&G, the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company, spent more than $7 billion on advertising in 2020. It knows the value of a well-crafted message. With “It’s Our Home,” the corporation wants to convey how it is doing its part to make its products more sustainable, while asking consumers to do their part as well. But will consumers take advice from a company that has pumped so much waste into the world?
P&G’s sustainability efforts
P&G has made some major strides on the sustainability front. In 2018, the company announced it had already reached many of the 2020 sustainability goals it had set out in 2010, and then in 2020 announced it had reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, reduced water use in manufacturing facilities by 27%, and eliminated the amount of manufacturing waste that ends up in a landfill at all of its manufacturing sites. It also announced that packaging for brands like Always, Ariel, Dawn, Fairy, Febreze, Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Pampers, and Tide is 100% recyclable or reusable.
The key words there are recyclable or reusable, not recycled and reused. According to the Ocean Conservancy, on a single day in 2019, volunteers with that organization’s International Coastal Cleanup collected more than 214,000 non-beverage plastic bottles, nearly 117,000 personal-hygiene items, and more than 113,000 diapers around the world. Obviously these aren’t all P&G products, but there is a big difference between making something recyclable and reusable, and actually making sure it’s recycled and reused. According to a 2020 lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Earth Island against P&G and other major plastic producers, including Coca-Cola and Colgate-Palmolive, just 10% of plastic produced annually is recycled.
With the “It’s Our Home” campaign, P&G is hoping to persuade individual consumers to take responsibility for all that waste. “We’ve been embedding environmental sustainability into our business for decades now, and this is likely the first time we’ve gone out publicly about it at this level,” says Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard. “That’s because we need to make sure we’re doing our part first.”
Pritchard says that the company’s research reported that 72% of people want to do more to be sustainable at home, and about 90% of parents are inspired by their children to do so, but fewer than half actually make good environmental choices. Pritchard calls it the intention-to-action gap. “So we’re trying to close that gap because greenhouse gas emissions that come from the home are among the top three [causes],” says Pritchard. “And our products are in the home. So we feel it’s an obligation to make sure we can do our part in order to get carbon neutral for the decade, first in our operations but then also in our products and how they’re used.”
That has led to Tide ads featuring Ice T and Stone Cold Steve Austin “cold calling” people to convince them to do laundry in cold water, since more than two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions from laundry come from consumers using energy to heat water.
— Steve Austin (@steveaustinBSR) March 30, 2021
Similarly, a recent Cascade ad campaign aimed to convince people that running the dishwasher is actually more efficient than hand-washing.
Over the past few years, many critics have seen this kind of messaging as a distraction from the real work required by corporations and governments to make institutional changes that would enable a more sustainable commercial infrastructure.
Chever Voltmer, plastics initiative director at Ocean Conservancy, says companies and policymakers need to focus on both reducing plastics production and collecting and recycling more of the plastics that we do end up producing. “It’s not one or the other—it’s both,” says Voltmer. “We’re always excited to see companies take steps in these directions, but we do need urgent collective action, not just from the private sector but from governments as well. Companies won’t be able to meet ambitious recycled-content goals if municipal recycling systems aren’t working; and municipal recycling systems can’t work if companies don’t manufacture products that are easily recyclable. We all have to be in lockstep.”
P&G has a laundry list of stats touting its work in this area. The company’s 2030 goals are to reduce manufacturing emissions by another 50%, purchase 100% renewable electricity, improve distribution and shipping emissions by 50%, make 100% of packaging recyclable or reusable, and reduce virgin petroleum plastic packaging by 50%. The company’s individual brands are also reconfiguring packaging and product formulas toward these goals. Old Spice and Secret are coming out with refillable containers for deodorants. Meanwhile, Gillette has launched a whole new sub-brand called Planet Kind, which uses recycled paper and plastic for its packaging and shaving materials.
But the difficulties of P&G positioning itself as a sustainability advocate right now are embodied by the company’s Charmin brand. Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a paper calling out P&G and Charmin for using virgin pulp fiber from crucial Canadian boreal forests—this despite claims that all the brand’s sourcing is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
“Particularly when it comes to Charmin and their other tissue paper products, the fact remains that they make their throw-away tissue products out of 100% virgin forest fiber,” says Shelley Vinyard, the NRDC’s boreal corporate campaign manager. “They’re papering over that with a new advertising campaign, and continuing to claim that how they make their single-use, throw-away tissue products is sustainable. It’s greenwashing.”
P&G touts its efforts to replace trees it uses for paper products, such as planting one million trees between 2020 and 2025. “We want to keep forests as forests. You might be surprised at how much Charmin does, working with the Forest Stewardship Council,” says Pritchard. “They’re very clear on the kind of pulp you can use from what places, and it’s very select, and not very much. We love forests, so we’re doing all we can to make sure they stay that way.”
That’s all great, but the brand’s ads focus on tree farm-style timber sources. Vinyard says the NRDC has been in touch with P&G for years about the threat its supply chain has to the critical boreal forest, which is the largest remaining forest on the planet, and stores more carbon acre for acre than any other ecosystem besides mangroves. Vinyard says simply replanting clear cut forests isn’t sustainable. “Anyone can tell the difference between a Christmas tree farm and an old growth forest,” says Vinyard. “Science shows that intact forests, forests that have never been logged before, are critically important to staving off the worst effects of the climate emergency, and for biodiversity.”
Which brings us back to “It’s Our Home” and the challenges of passing the responsibility onto consumers when there is still so much internal work to be done. Vinyard says that it’s smart to encourage people to act more sustainably, but it’s not enough. “The onus shouldn’t be on individual consumers,” says Vinyard. “It should be on companies that are causing significant planetary harm.”