Inside Reckitt Benckiser's carbon journey

You may not know Reckitt Benckiser, the U.K.-based multinational consumer goods company. But you likely know some of its flagship brands: Air Wick, Calgon, Clearasil, Easy Off, Gaviscon, Glassex, Lysol, Vanish, Woolite — and French’s mustard! — among hundreds of others.

You also probably don’t know Reckitt — or RB, as the current branding goes — as a sustainability leader, at least compared to its more vocal direct competitors in household, health and personal care products: Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Clorox, and SC Johnson & Sons. It simply doesn't show up much in the steady drumbeat of press releases, conference speakers, or leadership company indices.

Despite its relative lack of visibility, the company has been pursuing an ambitious effort to squeeze out the carbon intensity — and, as a result, the energy, packaging, and other waste — from its massive product portfolio. Along the way, it handily exceeded the goal it set for itself in 2007 as part of its Carbon20 program: to cut its products' “total carbon footprint” by 20 percent. Last month, the company said it achieved that goal — a full eight years early.

How did it do this? The short answer: in hundreds of little ways. Last week, I got the longer answer in a conversation with Dave Challis, RB’s Director, Global Sustainability, Environment, Health and Safety. Challis—who arrived at RB last August after a career at Kimberly-Clark and at a sustainability communications and strategy agency—reports in to RB’s category organization, which includes R&D and marketing. “It is,” said Challis, “a good place for sustainability to fit for something like RB, which is really focused on innovation and marketing.”

An edited version of our conversation follows:

Joel Makower: Why did your Carbon20 commitment go so much better than expected?

Dave Challis: Internally, we split our thinking into three main areas: the design of our products, the production of our products, and the consumer use. We recognized that as much as we can reduce our manufacturing footprint, which we had some great successes in, and continue to reduce our manufacturing carbon footprint, we really needed to do two things. One is to consider the carbon impact right at the start of the product development process, which was something which was new and different from most of our peers. The other is to engage with consumers directly at the end, or near the end, of the product’s lifecycle to make sure that people had the right information to use our products in a way that met their needs and also was reducing carbon emissions.

RB implemented an internal measurement program called the Carbon20 Calculator, and this is the tool for all of our R&D staff to measure the carbon footprint of products—the full lifecycle of their products at the development stage. Before products are approved and launched, there’s that initial assessment where we understand, and at regular points assess, the carbon impact of the pipeline of our products.

So, we’re not just measuring results; we’re actually using this tool to look into the future as well, to help understand which types of products, and which of the choices we make, have impacts on our overall carbon footprint,.

Makower: What kind of role did your research and development group play in this?

Challis: It was absolutely critical to integrate this into the objectives of the R&D organization within RB to make sure this really was embedded within the organization. RB, as a company, responds very well to a big challenge, and a clear way of achieving it. So, setting a big bold target, putting the right steps in place like this carbon calculator tool, then slotting out into people’s objectives, was a way to really embed sustainability, in particular carbon, into the product development process, and therefore into the company.

Next page: A new cap cuts the mustard