Because we’re worth it...February 2014
Ethical Performance talks to Alexandra Palt, CSR and sustainability director of French beauty giant L’Oréal
What does sustainability mean to you?
In order to prepare for a sustainable and successful future, we need to tackle the big environmental and social challenges the world faces. For us, sustainability means transforming our business by integrating environmental, social and community considerations throughout our value chain in our business strategy. We have redesigned the way we do business, throughout our value chain, from research and innovation, production to marketing. Through our new sustainability commitment Sharing beauty with all, announced recently, we are committing big, as big as our business ambition. Of course, as a FMCG company, we have to focus on sustainable consumption. Our contribution in this field can be essential: it is time to make sustainability desirable for consumers in order to make it mainstream. Sustainability as the desirable choice for all, this is the contribution to a sustainable future we would like to make.
How did you get interested in the field?
I started my career in a law firm and worked with different NGOs, like Amnesty International in Germany. In 2003, I became part of the management committee of “IMSEntreprendre pour la Cité”, a business driven membership association that brings together more than 200 companies engaged in Corporate Social Responsibility. I worked also for la HALDE (French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission) as the Director of Equal Opportunities. Later, I founded and directed a strategic consultancy agency, working with large companies in the setting up of their CSR policies. My whole career is dedicated to try to contribute to a positive evolution of society. I am convinced that in the future, companies will be even more of a driving force for environmental and social progress. This is the reason why I wanted to join a multinational company. National governments are often faced with increasingly complex challenges, companies are more flexible and adapting faster in their responses. Becoming CSR and Sustainability director at L’Oréal, a committed company led by a CEO who endorses personally the issue, is a marvelous opportunity to try to drive change in a place engaged to do so.
What are the most interesting innovations in sustainability that we're seeing now?
There are a lot of interesting innovations and initiatives all around the world. A lot of committed and very smart people think about how we can drive change for a better world. But to be honest, there are so many initiatives and so few scalable models. There are so many projects and so little vision for a desirable change. I think this is the major challenge: how to drive desirable change and scale it? If I had to mention one field that interests me in particular, I would mention inclusive business models. We have set up at L’Oréal, with our brand Matrix, a program in Rio, which allows women from Brazilian favelas to improve their standard of living by becoming micro-distributors of this professional hairdressing brand. We might have found a model that we can scale which is for me the one relevant criteria of analysis because even a lot of great initiatives won’t be able to answer the world’s challenges unless we are able to scale them.
What's the biggest challenge you're faced with?
My biggest challenge, as CSR and Sustainability Director of a FMCG company, is to overcome the barriers of sustainable consumption through our brands and products.
What are some of your short-term goals? And long term?
It depends on the definition of short and long term. We have taken strong commitments for 2020, and it is, in a way, short term. In terms of sustainable innovation, we committed by 2020, to innovate so that 100% of products have an environmental or social benefit. In terms of sustainable production, we committed by 2020, to reduce our environmental footprint by 60% from a 2005 baseline. In the consumption field, we committed by 2020, to empower every L’Oréal consumer to make sustainable consumption choices by giving them the social and environmental information about our products. And we have also strong commitments to share our growth internally with the teams, but also with suppliers and communities, for example by enabling 100 000 people from underprivileged communities to access work. It is very ambitious and challenging, and believe me 2020 is tomorrow ! But these commitments will also allow us to prepare for the future on a long term basis. In 2020, we will be able to go further and all the commitments we have taken will help us as they are preparing a sustainable future for the company, from a business perspective as well as from a “sustainability” perspective.
Does sustainability ever feel unachievable?
The bad days! But we have to stay confident. It would be terribly arrogant to think that future generations will be unable to change and to find solutions to the world’s problems, just because our generation seems to be a little bit slow and unaware in addressing them.
What sustainability statistics at L’Oréal are you most proud of?
We have a lot of considerable achievements, in the field of sustainable production (for example -39% of CO2 emissions from a 2005 baseline), of sustainable innovation (green chemistry, biodegradability of our rinsed products, etc.), gender equality etc. But I think statistics are not going to be the essential driver of change, but leadership and values are. And at L’Oréal we have the leadership and the spirit that will allow us to go very far on this.
Where can improvements be made?
Making sustainability desirable using the power of brands ! ?I am convinced that this is a strong lever in the future for engaging consumers. We will concentrate our efforts in this direction. We organized recently in Paris a forum gathering big companies to share best practices on the subject, in front of more than 260 journalists, CSR directors from other industries, stakeholders from all over the world. ?It has to become a shared concern in order to move forward.
If you could influence one major thing in sustainable business practice, what would it be?
I would stop the epidemic reporting, questionnaires and surveys in order to spend less time on collecting data and more time on putting things in place!
L’Oréal is a huge company – how do you engage employees in the company’s sustainability goals?
Human values, especially generosity and passion, are core values for L’Oréal. Involving our employees in our sustainability goals is quite easy I must say, as we are in a company where people want to do the right thing. Everyone has a role to play. As this is completely integrated in the business strategy, everybody has to integrate it also in the daily job. And believe me, everyone is committed.
What triggered the company’s recent sustainability commitment, Sharing Beauty With All?
Committing to such an ambitious strategy is never just determined by one factor. I think the strong conviction of our CEO and the Executive Committee was key for this. The awareness that a strong business ambition - we want to reach one billion more consumers in the coming years - induces a strong responsibility. And lastly, L’Oréal is a company that has existed for more than one hundred years with a very long term leadership, probably the most important element that allows a company to prepare for the future. We want to still be here in one hundred years.
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