With over 20 years working in various roles at Procter & Gamble, Virginie Helias is a brand and innovation veteran. A member of the Sustainable Brands advisory board, she was recently promoted from P&G's global director of sustainability to replace Len Sauers as VP of global sustainability. We caught up with Helias to learn more about her new role, the most exciting challenges ahead and lessons she’s learned along the way.
Tell us about your career history. What was the early genesis of your commitment to sustainability?
I spent 23 years on different P&G categories, building brands with superior products and big ideas. Sustainability was an “accident” - let’s call it serendipity. It happened at a time when I was short of new products and new ideas as I was leading our detergent business for Europe in the mid-2000s. After testing dozens of ideas, I decided to go for “Ariel cleans so well that you can wash your clothes in cold,” and if you do this, you will save on your electricity bill (at a time when the cost of electricity was skyrocketing in Europe). That was an immediate hit - the share broke all records. What I did not know at the time was that the washing cycle temperature is 85 percent of a detergent’s carbon footprint. So not only had I launched the best business initiative, I also had bumped into the biggest sustainability idea … This is when I started getting interested in sustainability as a win-win-win for the business, the consumer and the planet.
As of this month, you have been promoted from P&G's global director of sustainability to VP of global sustainability – how will your work and priorities change?
The work and the priorities will not change - it will just accelerate! There is a very strong commitment at the company leadership level and I will take advantage of this.
We have opportunities in talking about what we are doing internally and externally. Historically, we had chosen to do the right thing but not necessarily talk about it … even our own employees do not know many of the things we are doing on sustainability. When they learn about it, they are very proud and want to contribute. I am going to put my marketing skills to work on this!
What excites you about the work you're doing championing the SDGs, and how do you believe P&G and your customers and other stakeholders can benefit from a focus on these goals?
The most exciting part of the work is to make it part of the business practices and culture. I don’t want a part of the organization to work on the SDGs and the other one to carry on building the business as they have always done. Making our people realize that when they take into account the environmental and societal impacts of their work, the results are stronger and also much more rewarding for themselves. The journey is as valuable as the destination. It is also exciting to realize the kind of impacts we can have when we factor in the P&G scale - we touch nearly 5 billion people with our products. Even the smallest footprint improvement at a product level can have a massive impact at scale (if every Tide user in the US would wash their clothes in cold water, we could light up NYC for 27 years).
You’ve talked about the importance of transparency for brands – openly communicating about their early steps toward certain goals and where they need help, along with the good they’re doing (indeed, at SB’16 San Diego, a brand panel on “failure” was one of the most popular of the week). What would you say to companies that are having a hard time opening up?
We used to be very cautious on ingredient transparency - the fear of giving away trade secrets - so we have come a long way. It is now a base expectation for all our brands to share what’s in their products in a way that is accessible. We are not yet there, but working very hard. My advice is: ”don’t wait to be perfect to start disclosing.” People tend to be forgiving when you show commitment to the journey; share what you have done and what you still need to do.
How would you characterize your personal purpose or aspiration? What would you like your kids to tell their kids about you when you're gone? Does your work connect to that on any level?
My personal aspiration is not very original … It is to have the greatest possible impact on people and the world around me, leveraging my strengths, embracing my weaknesses and being the best person I can be. I am so grateful to P&G for allowing me to live my purpose in such a meaningful way. I would like my grandkids (don’t have any yet!) to remember me as someone who had the passion to change the things she could not accept and the humility to accept the ones she could not change.
Given your advisory role, what would you like to see accomplished within the SB community over the next 3 years?
I am very excited by the [SB’17 theme of “Redefining the] Good Life” – creating new aspirations for people to desire to live a better and more sustainable life. This is the most ambitious project and the most important, so that is my #1 priority. For this to happen, we need to mobilize more “hardcore” corporate people in the SB community along with their “mainstream” agencies. Creating new aspirations - that’s a communications job at the end of the day … so we need our advertising agencies to embrace this and join the SB community in this effort. That’s my second priority. And finally, as powerful at the SB community is, it will be hard to do it by ourselves. In the spirit of SDG #17, we need to partner with other like-minded communities. I am thinking of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which is also working on “Sustainable Lifestyles.” Why not join forces?
What would your advice be to a young leader starting out in his/her career with an interest in harnessing the power of brand to make a better world?
Don’t apply to a “sustainability” job! Look for companies who care for values, not just value and then join the mainstream brand/marketing/R&D team to learn the craft. When you do, give it a new meaning by integrating the sustainability dimension. It does require a bit of patience but it is the most transformative path, in my view.