How P&G Integrated Life Cycle Assessment Into Its Corporate Culture
Many well-meaning corporate managers face an uphill battle in trying to implement Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and other sustainability practices in their organization. Not so with Annie Weisbrod, the Principal Scientist, Global Product Stewardship at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Weisbrod, a SimaPro user, says P&G scientists worked with the EPA in the early 90’s to develop some of the research that started LCA method development. “It has been imbedded in our culture, so we’re not facing a lot of the issues that others are,” she says.
The Changing Uses of LCA
However, the uses of LCA within the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company have changed over the years. In the first couple decades, “the main use of LCA was for defense,” Weisbrod says, like examining the relative environmental impacts of Pampers – which consumers thought were filling up landfills – to cloth diapers.
Depending on a number of factors, those early studies (along with more recent ones) found that cloth and disposable diapers have roughly the same level of environmental impact, just in different categories (see “Using LCA to Grade Starbucks: Sustainable Innovation or Greenwashing?” for more on disposable vs. cloth diapers).
P&G still uses LCA to look at product impacts, as they did in the Pampers example. But now, they don't just analyze the improvement areas for a whole category, but also a specific product use. For example, Weisbrod and her team have spent a lot of time recently working on a Tide laundry detergent for cold water. “When we looked at all energy uses across P&G, the number one energy use cradle to grave impact was hot water use,” she says. Getting the right formula to function effectively in cold water was one challenge, but changing consumer behavior through product positioning has proven an even bigger one, particularly in North America.
As do many other companies, P&G's team of scientists and marketers uses LCA to support environmental claims and to avoid accusations of greenwashing. For instance, does a bio-based feedstock in a bottle actually make for an environmentally preferable product, or is the difference actually negligible? Using LCA helps Weisbrod and team analyze what they can and cannot say to the market.
Making the Business Case to Get LCI Data
Still, even P&G’s lead environmental scientist says it’s not always easy to get the LCI data she needs from packaging and process engineers at P&G. “Even though it’s in our culture and we’ve been doing it for a long time, we still have to bug people internally for data, and it can take a long time. Everyone is overloaded with work, and LCI data collection is one more laborious task,” Weisbrod says.
Recently, the most effective lever the longtime scientist can pull involves P&G's relationship with the world's largest retailer. With Wal-Mart’s sustainability scorecard, that company has made it clear that more shelf space is now reserved for products with defensible sustainability claims. “If Wal-Mart has questions related to their Sustainability Index for products, we need an LCA to defend some of our answers. I usually get the data eventually, but it can take a lot of explaining and conversations,” Weisbrod says.
It’s that ability to make a business case for LCA that has helped P&G become a leader in corporate sustainability. On top of that, having the rigor of LCA backing their product claims and eco-labels also encourages more engaged and informed consumers. “For me, as an environmental scientist, I know that we get more shelf space for a sustainable innovation like Cold Water Tide, but it’s also about educating the consumer on what really matters for environmental sustainability. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD and 10 years of work experience to determine what is legit and what is not,” Weisbrod says.
Smaller Companies Can Do It Too
Even though sustainability leaders in big global companies face challenges in implementing LCA studies, Weisbrod admits that it can often be much more challenging for smaller firms to make the investment. That’s especially true when they’re new to the process. “The company would have to decide to invest in LCA. All companies, regardless of size, have money to spend on what they prioritize,” she says. “There are a lot of folks investing in understanding sustainability, but they aren’t necessarily hiring people with the right technical skill set.” Those that invest in LCA expertise early will win in the long run.
Still, it takes a lot to influence the right people to make such substantial investment. Sometimes starting small - outsourcing a study to a consultant or doing some screening-level LCAs - can prove its value. Weisbrod says it normally starts with convincing a product development or R&D manager, “someone on the technical side more than the business side, someone who can understand the term ‘model’ and what you can get out of it.”
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