Testing the ‘CVS Effect’ on Microbeads: Could L’Oréal & Unilever Be Bolder? (New for Sustainable Brands)

Here’s my latest trend piece for Sustainable Brands.

February 20, 2014

Recent commitments from L’Oréal, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and P&G to phase microbeads out of their products by (or before) 2017 is laudable and a good step forward. This news responds to scientific research linking the tiny, polystyrene balls to Great Lakes pollution.

Meantime, “ban the bead” laws are taking shape in California and New York. Like the manufacturers’ phase-outs, it will take years for the ban law, if passed, to go into effect.

Together, these news items have me wondering:

  • Could our sustainability and government leaders be doing more, faster?
  • And if companies do decide to act faster, with some short-term financial hit, will investors and consumers support them for doing the right thing in the long-term?

We could call it the “CVS Effect” — playing off the drugstore chain’s “no smokes” decision — and the burgeoning “Blackfish Effect” sparked by the anti-Sea World film.

I think these questions deserve a closer look because of the bigger picture. The answers can either support — or hinder — climate action that’s getting underway by the Obama administration and leading U.S businesses.

These questions come from a place of examining what’s possible for forward-looking brands that are already committed to sustainability. It bears repeating that all of the brands in the microbead discussion already are sustainability leaders in their industries. Obviously, global manufacturing supply chains can’t be turned off overnight. But when necessity demands it, such as the 1982 Tylenol recall, things can happen very quickly.

So if CVS is truly a game-changer for health reasons, it opens the door for other forward-looking brands to take faster, bolder action for environmental and natural capital reasons as well. Making the decision to phase out an ingredient, while important, doesn’t stop the clock on the harm being done. The longer we wait, the more microbead pollution will go through wastewater treatment facilities, enter waterways, affect that water body’s ecology, and be consumed by fish, then by people. Each of these steps arguably has some amount of harm associated with it.

It strikes me that change can only happen today. That’s true for any choice we make as individuals, as citizens, and as business owners, to protect and restore the environment. So why not start stretching the bounds of what’s possible, sooner, as a better way of doing business?

For now, it remains to be seen how consumers and investors will respond to CVS’ “no smokes” announcement, and if any other retailers will follow their lead. And on the microbead side, how will consumers respond to the news? Will they shift to a brand’s other products that don’t contain the beads? Would they be open to guidance from manufacturers to do so?

I’m betting that, as it become more normal for companies to make bold pro-health and pro-environmental choices, these decisions will be rewarded by investors and consumers. I’d back this up by pointing to cross-sector collaborations such as the Net Positive group, the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance and Sustainable Apparel Coalition — they’re finding that working together with industry and nonprofit peers, for bigger global benefit, is good business, too.

Our responsibilities in life and business don’t end at the factory wall. That’s where they begin. It’s time for big sustainability actions to be the norm for business-forward action, instead of the exception.

Here’s hoping the CVS Effect is just getting started.

Green Business: How Unilever Makes Sustainability Look Smart

Global business leader Unilever walks the walk.

If you want to know what a Sustainability leader looks like, sounds like, and acts like, here’s an article for you.

Replete with targets, actions and results. Integrated with the business’ overall strategy.

My favorite part:

The Sustainable Living Plan is our business plan; it is not part of our business plan.

Via packworld.com:

Waste reduction is central to Unilever’s sustainability strategy

In November 2010, Unilever launched a new strategic business direction in the form of The Sustainable Living Plan, a company-wide initiative to double the size of the business by 2020 while reducing emissions by half in that same time frame.

Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of food, home, and personal care products, with global sales of more than $67 billion in 2012. More than 2 billion people use Unilever’s products on a daily basis. The Sustainable Living Plan encompasses the entire value chain, with Unilever taking responsibility not just for its own direct operations, but also for its suppliers, distributors, and consumers. Underpinning the plan are more than 50 targets.

Green Blueprint: 3 Ways Unilever Does Sustainability Right

Conserving the world’s natural resources is good for business.

Global good conglomerate Unilever is the name behind household consumer brands like Lipton, Skippy, Ragu, Bertolli, Hellmann’s, Suave, Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers.

One year after announcing its Sustainability plan, Unilever reports reports positive progress on materials sourcing, waste reduction and energy efficiency.

Read Unilever’s April2 012 Sustainable Living Plan

How positive?

Via Greenbiz.com:

Since launching its ambitious Sustainable Living Plan in 2010, Unilever is buying more sustainable palm oil and cage-free eggs, putting less salt and fat in its tomato sauces and spreads, selling water purifiers to poor people in the global south and rolling out climate-friendly freezers for its ice cream.

Some highlights:

*24 percent of the company’s agricultural raw materials, including palm oil, soy beans and soy oil, paper and wood, tea, fruits and vegetables, were sustainable sourced last year.
*48 million people in poor countries were reached with Lifebuoy soap’s handwashing program aimed at curbing disease.
*100 percent of the electricity that Unilever buys in Europe comes from renewable sources.
*Pure-it, a water-purification technology, is expanding from India, where it already has reached 35 million people, to Bangladesh, Mexico and Brazil.

I see three key Sustainability elements that Unilever is getting right:

1. Visionary leadership in the person of CEO Paul Polman. As the Greenbiz.com article cites, ““We are showcasing a different business model that shows how you give to society and the environment rather than just taking from them.”

2. Accounting and planning for Climate Change costs (estimated at €200 million annually)

3. Taking responsibility for environmental degradation, with plans to build a $100 million palm-oil plant in Indonesia so that the company can ensure its palm oil comes from certified sustainable sources.  (Palm oil is in everything from soap to soup. The way you get a palm oil plantation is to cut down a forest. )