We recently spoke with Virginie Helias, Chief Sustainability Officer at Procter & Gamble (P&G), about why she’s optimistic about the future of sustainability and what drives her passion for her work.
Keep reading to learn how Helias, who has 30 years of experience at P&G and recently returned from a productive week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, continues to embed sustainability thinking and practice across everything the company does.
SB: What project are you most excited about right now?
Virginie: P&G is working on so many sustainability-focused projects right now – but one I’m particularly proud of is a partnership with TerraCycle called Loop, a first-of-its-kind global packaging and shopping circular solution that we introduced last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Loop aims to improve the environmental performance and convenience standards compared to current e-commerce solutions through packaging that is collected, cleaned, refilled and reused. For P&G, it means the introduction of reusable and refillable packaging for some of our most popular products as a means to change the world’s reliance on single use packaging and disposable waste. For example, Pantene is introducing a unique bottle made with lightweight, durable aluminum for its conditioner and Crest mouthwash is unveiling a new sustainable, refillable glass bottle. And P&G is proud to have been the first consumer products company to join Loop.
SB: In what ways do you believe social or environmental innovation can drive value for your business and others?
Virginie: From a consumer viewpoint, people are no longer willing to compromise performance for sustainable living. They now expect brands to take action in solving some of the most complex challenges facing the world. Over 60 percent of consumers consider environmental sustainability and social responsibility during their purchase decisions.
From a strictly financial viewpoint, sustainable business can unlock at least $12 trillion in new market value – worth over 10 percent of today’s GDP. And there is an additional $8 trillion of value creation across the wider economy if companies embed the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their business strategies. Products with social or environmental commitments grow 4 percent faster than those without, meaning the world is shifting to a sustainable economy as consumers begin to vote with their dollars for more innovative products and services that delight them, support the long-term health of society and help preserve the planet.
SB: What inspires and drives you to work on sustainability?
Virginie: As business leaders, this is the most important thing we can do to ensure our business, people and planet will thrive for generations to come. Working for P&G, I have the immense privilege to help drive sustainability at scale through the hundreds of suppliers in our supply chain and our leadership brands, which touch 5 billion people worldwide each day. My marketing and brand-building background enables me to help our people make sustainability an integral part of their innovation and communication plans, all with the goal of enabling and inspiring responsible consumption.
In Davos, we talked about the fact that SDG 12 – responsible consumption and production and the heart of our Ambition 2030 roadmap – is the SDG where the least progress has been made. I want to help bridge the gap between “intention” and “action” with more awareness, more engagement and more sustainable solutions.
SB: Can you share something about yourself that would surprise us?
Virginie: I wasn’t always so concerned with environmental sustainability; quite frankly, I knew very little about it until the mid-2000s. It was in 2005 when my colleagues and I went to see Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that the gravity of climate change really struck me. And more importantly, I discovered the brand I was working on, Ariel, could become the single most important driver of P&G’s carbon footprint reduction! This is because from a lifecycle assessment standpoint for detergent, 80 percent of the carbon footprint comes from the wash temperature. This was the starting point of the Ariel Cool Clean (Turn to 30) campaign, which was one of our most successful commercial initiatives and something that significantly drove our carbon footprint down.
Thanks to the success of this project, I found my vocation: make sustainability an integral part of our business practices, innovation, brand-building and corporate culture. I then asked the CEO to create a position to bridge the science of sustainability with the business, which ultimately led me to my role today.
SB: If you had unlimited time and resources, on what type of work would you want to collaborate with fellow SB Members?
Virginie: What an interesting question! I believe in the power of brands as change agents. This is why we launched the #brandsforgood movement with other fellow SB Members – to make sustainability irresistible so that people embrace it, not because of a moral obligation, but because there is no better option! We are in the process of recruiting partners so that we can really have impact at scale. The more brand leaders join, the more irresistible sustainability will become for all.
SB: Why is your participation in the SB Member Network important?
Virginie: I firmly believe transformative collaborations like the SB Member Network are key to the success of sustainable business overall – because no one individual, community or business can achieve the scale of change needed alone. Only by pooling our resources, reach and knowledge will we be able to drive the systemic changes necessary for us to flourish – both as people and as businesses.
We need partnerships and new forms of alliances to both create breakthrough solutions and to accelerate the commercialization and the adoption of new technologies. Through the SB Member Network, we are all actively sharing our innovations and technologies for the benefit of the world, and ultimately, to achieve sustainability at scale.
SB: Anything else you’d like to share with fellow SB Members?
Virginie: I believe we have reached a tipping point and there is no turning back. In Davos, many CEOs seemed to recognize that no strategic discussion takes place in their business anymore without integrating sustainability as a key dimension. How encouraging! The question is no longer about “if” but about “how.” And the “how” has to be through the power of brands and the force of partnerships. SB has what it takes to make it happen.