Behind Procter & Gamble's Sustainability Vision

Procter & Gamble's announcement today of a new "sustainability vision" is a noteworthy moment -- not just for the world's largest consumer packaged goods company, but for the world of sustainable business.

It represents another yardstick of how major corporate players view their place on the sustainability landscape: being "socially responsible," of course, but also seizing the global business opportunities that can inure to companies taking leadership roles in environmental and social well-being.

P&G's CEO Bob McDonald and VP of Global Sustainability Len Sauers announced the goals today on a webcast that I had the honor of hosting. (My participation was part of a business relationship between P&G and GreenBiz.com, though neither I nor any of my GreenBiz colleagues played any role in the substance of the announcement.)

"We don't treat environmental sustainability as something separate from our base business," said McDonald, who also holds the title of Executive Sponsor of Sustainability at P&G, a rarity among CEOs. "When we operate sustainably, we earn gratitude, admiration and trust that lead to opportunity, partnerships and growth." He explained that among P&G's goals is to reach five billion consumers over the next five years. "This is roughly a billion more consumers than we're reaching today. But, we must reach and serve these consumers responsibly. It does us no good to grow our business today at the expense of tomorrow."

At first glance, P&G's four new commitments -- powering its plants with 100% renewable energy, using 100% renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging, having zero consumer and manufacturing waste go to landfills, and designing products "that delight consumers while maximizing the conservation of resources" -- closely resemble the three broad environmental goals set by Walmart in 2005 ("to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain people and the environment.")

But there are big differences. For starters, unlike Walmart's goals, which have no specific timeline, Procter & Gamble -- which makes everything from Pampers to Pringles to Pepto-Bismol to Prilosec -- seems to have mapped out milestones. Today it announced several, including committing by 2020 to replace 25 percent of petroleum-based materials with "sustainably sourced renewable materials," reduce consumer packaging by 20 percent, reduce manufacturing waste to less than one-half of 1 percent, use 30 percent renewable power for its manufacturing plants, and reduce truck transportation 20 percent. The company says it will report progress on these goals annually.

It's also significant that unlike Walmart's unveiling of its goals in 2005 (or GE's ecomagination announcement that same year), P&G's announcement wasn't a bolt from the blue -- that is, an audacious goal from a company that had previously been largely silent on sustainability issues. Today's announcement seems the logical extension of a series of steps the company has been taking. For example, in just the past six months, P&G:

All of which follow the company's 2009 commitment to sell $50 billion in "sustainability driven" products by 2012, a goal the company says it is on target to meet.