How 3 Corporations are Putting Their Green Foot Forward

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Big multinational companies tend to move slowly when it comes to sustainability innovation. Corporate bureaucracy means that developing and testing a new material or process can take years. Yet when billion-dollar corporations implement a green shift, the impact they have is momentous, and they often improve their suppliers’ practices in the process. Here’s how John Delfausse (Estee Lauder), Scott Vitters (Coca-Cola), and Juergen Dornheim (Procter & Gamble) are expanding their life-cycle-assessment tools to lessen the footprint of products and operations from cradle to cradle.

John Delfausse, Vice Presidentof Global Package Development, Aveda, Clinique, and Origins; ChiefEnvironmental Officer, Estee Lauder Corporate Packaging

Aveda and Estee Lauder have a track record of innovations in sustainability, like using recycled plastics (pictured, above) and reducing packaging. How do you maintain that in the face of sometimes daunting obstacles to designing in a sustainable way?

We begin by asking our suppliers to do things for us that they have never done before. Aveda has a very good history of challenging suppliers and making things happen. It became not only a challenge, but it became very satisfying, because every time we pushed the envelope on what we were trying to achieve, we were able to get it done and then take it beyond to the next level.

What kind of system do you have to evaluate which materials to use?

What we’re doing at the Estee Lauder Companies is setting up guidelines based on commodities. We have guidelines for everything from printed paperboard and folding cartons, to compacts, bottles, jars, etc. So we can say, “Okay—where are the opportunities to use recycled material? Where can I find that feedstock for recycled material?”

What kind of testing do you do with these new innovations?

Everything has to be tested through our package-testing lab, where we test for compatibility, for color leaching, stability of the materials, stability of the package, and design. If you’re talking about folding cartons, you do rub tests to make sure that the inks will hold up. We go through a battery of testing to make sure that we’ve got a reliable package.

The recycled plastic material derived from the bottle-cap-collection programs set up by Aveda and Origins is a gray plastic. Doesn’t that become a constraint on the design?

What the designers learn to do is to use the materials in the color or state that they’re in. When we launched a men’s line a couple years ago, we took that into account and said, “Okay, we’re using recycled material. We’re up to 96 percent recycled polyethylene in the bottle.” We designed the cap as a translucent or dark gray color so it would be easier to use those materials. And I think the exciting thing is that the designers find it even more of a challenge to be more creative. It’s more fun for them.

Do you ever feel that because of deadlines or other pressures, you can’t produce the most sustainable package possible?

You’ve just got to try to do something. If you wait until it’s a perfect environmental package, it’ll never get there. I used to say that the progress I felt I was making was like a dot on the head of a pin. But at least we’re getting a dot on the head of a pin. And we keep building on that.

Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging, Coca-Cola

Last May, Coca-Cola introduced PlantBottle, a polyethylene bottle that uses 30 percent of its raw material from plants instead of petroleum products. What are your plans for evolving this?

PlantBottle represents the first step toward being able to continue to deliver the quality and the recycling performance of plastic while using plant-based materials. It’s the only package in the marketplace today that can do that. It’s an exciting step forward and one that we will continue to work on as we get to a 100 percent plant-based and 100 percent commercially recyclable package.

How long did it take to bring PlantBottle from concept to implementation?

We started to find the route to doing PlantBottle about five years ago, in terms of identifying how to make it work and then looking at the overall environmental performance.

Why not use biodegradable plastic?

We’ve looked at the science and research around biodegradable plastic bottles and we don’t believe biodegradable plastic is the best option. From a perception standpoint, the notion of “from the dirt, back to the dirt” is very strong. But the science indicates that you get better environmental and economic performance when you recycle a plastic bottle and use it again, instead of wasting its embodied energy—the energy that was required to produce the package—through composting.

Coca-Cola and other companies have done work in “lightweighting.” Is that always a good strategy?

Lightweighting can be a good strategy in developing more environmentally friendly packaging, but it isn’t a game-changer. All of our packages—our glass, metal, and plastic bottles and cans—have been lightweighted significantly since they were initially introduced. But you can only go so far with lightweighting before you compromise the quality of your beverages, because a thin bottle doesn’t hold the carbonation. You also have to be careful not to lightweight your primary package so much that it requires secondary packaging for transportation.

What advice do you have for companies that are trying to green their packaging?

What I find is they want to design the “green package.” Often you go to these conferences and people are talking about some green initiative, and it’s like, well, what does it matter to your business? You have this green polymer, but 90 percent of your packages are paper. Why weren’t you doing work on paper? What are you doing where you’re having your big impact?

Juergen Dornheim, head of packaging R&D for Braun and Oral Care divisions, Procter & Gamble

You’ve recently introduced new packaging for Braun’s entire product line that adheres to your “Keep It Simple and Sustainable” strategy, which has allowed you to reduce the packaging size significantly. What was the genesis of this project?

The philosophy of “big is beautiful” is driving a lot of packaging­—not only ours but that of our competitors. To occupy more space, with more front-side exposure and more artwork, was somehow a mantra to say, “This is successful because this is convincing the consumer.” So about four or five years ago, I tried to turn the idea into the opposite—try to reduce it to the very minimum. Because packaging at the end needs to hand over the product inside the package to the consumer. We started from that point, and we said, “Okay, let’s try to shrink everything to the very minimum.” And we found out that you could significantly reduce packages—by 30, 40, even 50 percent. We then focused on trying to make it possible not only to shrink the
dimensions of the pack but also to substitute materials with a more renewable ratio than we had before.

How does this mind-set influence the companies and suppliers you work with?

I think we are introducing new thinking to our packaging suppliers. We say, “You’re delivering Styrofoam today, but Styrofoam is not our material choice for the long run. So if you want to keep doing business with us, it would be helpful not only for you but for me as well to say, “What is a more sustainable alternative?” How does education play a role, both for the designers at P&G and for those who would approve new innovations? If we really want to get to the next level, then we not only have to educate the others; we also have to innovate with new ideas. And that requires that you give people some freedom, and you also require people with a creative and flexible mind-set. Like with kids in school, it’s much easier if you have young kids who are not fixed to a certain way of thinking. Then it works. And then, like a salesman, you have to go internally to the people and explain, “Here, this is an alternative.”

What is important from the perspective of company structure for doing things sustainably?

I have close contact with the guys who are overseeing the design for detergent, Pampers, and all of those folks. We have biweekly conversations and exchange our experience and information. This is important—you need that close network, otherwise you won’t notice there is something going on in California in terms of lawmaking or something is a restriction in Korea, or whatever. You need the network. Otherwise, you’re lost.

[This article appears in the June 2010 issue. Read the full Table of Contents.]

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