As the chief sustainability officer for a global consumer products company, Colgate-Palmolive Company’s Ann Tracy is acutely aware of the world’s waste crisis.
“During this pandemic it’s been just glaringly obvious how much waste we generate because our habits and behaviors have changed,” she says. “It’s a huge issue.” When she thinks What the Future, she believes that brands are in a unique position to lead consumers and industry to more sustainable practices.
Kate MacArthur: To what extent does or should a company or brand drive its sustainability response and to what extent should consumers be pushing for change?
Ann Tracy: It comes from both sides. I’ll speak from the perspective of a consumer products company. Consumers want to do the right thing. They’re not sure what to do. So, they want their brands to help them live healthier and more sustainably.
MacArthur: How much responsibility does a brand have to push for sustainability, whether or not consumers have an interest in it?
Tracy: Especially now in the pandemic, people’s priorities have shifted to hygiene. In some cases, if you talk about plastic, that is reversed a little bit in terms of people not wanting to use plastic, because [now] they perceive plastic to be a hygienic barrier for a lot of the products they buy. You can’t always count on the consumer telling you what they want or need. So I do think brands have a responsibility. We as a sector must contribute and use the power of our brands, frankly, to work together to tackle some of these issues. So, we recognize the role we play.
MacArthur: What should companies versus the government do to deal with our plastic waste issue now and into the future?
Tracy: We all want to drive toward a circular economy and to use more recycled content. However, the economics today do not work. The price of oil is at its lowest ever. Therefore, virgin plastic is relatively inexpensive. And the recycling infrastructure isn’t where it needs to be to be able to satisfy the demand for that recycled content that the companies need. It’s going to take more than just companies saying, “We’re going to do this.” There also needs to be policy incentives to help us get to a circular economy.
MacArthur: What kind of policymaking?
Tracy: One example is something called “extended producer responsibility.” Some people call it a “plastic tax.” It’s actually a fee that is levied to companies based on the amount of plastic that they use by weight. Europe has been doing this for a very long time. Canada has adopted this in a pretty big way. And there are several states talking about it now.
MacArthur: How much influence can one company have to not only make change, but also be accountable for sustainability goals across the industry?
Tracy: No one company can do it alone. Focus is an important part of this, so that you can channel your resources. When it comes to some of the climate-related targets, including plastic and water, the next decade is about going beyond our own supply chain. It’s engaging suppliers and ensuring that they’re contributing to the whole value chain to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and water wastage.
MacArthur: Our survey showed that more than any other demographic, parents with kids at home have the most awareness and engagement on their favorite brands’ sustainability activities.
Tracy: That tells me that their kids at home are telling them to stop wasting things. It’s good to see that people are doing their homework and trying to understand what they can do or how they can integrate being more sustainable into their purchases into what products they use every day. And that’s very insightful and important. It gets back to the concept of the triple bottom line, which is about people, profit and planet.
MacArthur: How does something as unsexy as toothpaste packaging become so important and critical to Colgate-Palmolive’s future success story?
Tracy: We sell 8 billion tubes every year. We are actually the world’s largest producer of toothpaste tubes. We make our own tubes. So if anybody was going to try to tackle the issue of making a toothpaste tube that was not recyclable into a recyclable tube, it was us. Although it may not seem sexy, it’s been a fundamentally critical project for many employees that was five years in the making.
MacArthur: So much of sustainability isn’t consumer-facing. How do brands make it relevant and meaningful to consumers so that they care about it?
Tracy: That’s the million-dollar question. The most important thing is that your program is authentic and that it’s built on a foundation of accomplishments. It’s about building trust in the brands. A lot of it’s about storytelling. But how do you tell that simply and effectively to consumers so that they know what you as a company stand for, and that’s, frankly, not easy.
MacArthur: Looking to the future, how much does this become an activity versus something that’s just baked right into the everyday business of a brand or a company?
Tracy: That is our nirvana. Everybody plays a role, like R&D, so when they go to pick an ingredient, they’re not just going to pick the lowest-cost, most-effective ingredient. They’re going to pick the lowest-cost, most-effective, sustainable ingredient. Everybody has to start taking it into account in their daily job activities.