Sustainable Consumption: Oxymoron or Opportunity? Lecture by Director of Global Sustainability, P&G

The University of Southampton ran a Multi-Disciplinary Research Week from 6th to 10th February 2012. The opening lecture was of particular interest to me, being titled ‘Sustainable Consumption: Oxymoron or Opportunity?’ and led by Dr Peter White, Director of Global Sustainability at Procter & Gamble. Based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he helped to found P&G’s Sustainable Development organisation, and created and led their Sustainability Leadership Council – the global, business-wide group responsible for developing and delivering their Sustainability Strategy and Goals.

The talk provided an overview of key sustainability issues, why and how P&G are addressing these issues into their business plan and what the company has achieved to date. Let’s not forget just how large P&G are – they own 50 Leadership Brands, including Olay, Pantene, Ariel, Pringles and Pampers to name just a few. The company’s rather terrifying aim is to reach 5 billion consumers by 2015, that’s 5 in 7 of the global population.

Our current level of consumption is equal to 1.5 planet’s worth of resources. It is clear to me, and also P&G it seems, that this is not sustainable. White rattled off plenty of stats – by 2050 70% of the population will be living in urban areas, middle classes will triple by 2030 and shifting demographics means that the population is aging. White highlights the need for sustainability to be built into business strategy, with issues of sustainability being addressed at both the production and consumption end. If a sustainable future requires innovation or abstinence, P&G are opting for the former.

P&G’s goals for 2007 to 2012 are to make a 20% reduction in energy consumption, CO2 emissions, disposed waste (goal reached) and water consumption (goal reached) in their facilities and since 2002 they have already halved these impacts, which I think you would agree is a good effort. Some of their sustainable innovation products include using plant-based materials to make plastic bottles (sugarcane to make bio-PE) and changes to packaging which increases the number of units that can be placed on a truck. They have also worked out ways to recycle their industrial waste to be useful in another industry. The oil left over from Pringles crisps for example, can be used to produce biofuel.

The key point emphasised by White, was that despite P&G working on all of these areas of sustainability, they didn’t market their products as ‘green’ because to consumers ‘green’ equals lowly quality or greater expense. In this way, consumers will not spend more on greener products, in essence, they are not prepared to make ‘trade-offs’.

P&G are also showing a commitment to social responsibility as they have developed a quite extraordinary product that provides safe drinking water in a sachet. Demonstrated in the lecture, P&G chemists have developed sachets which can be added to any water in the world to make it safe to drink. As a non-profit venture, they have given it out to charities such as the Red Cross for disaster relief and provided 4bn litres since 2003. Of course a growing population throws up a whole host of other issues (such as providing more consumers for P&G’s products).

The lecture drew on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Vision 2050, which is worth having a look at online. P&G also have a wealth of information available online about their own CSR, as I have just mentioned a handful of points here.

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