How She Leads: Pam Alabaster, L'Oréal

How She Leads

How She Leads: Pam Alabaster, L'Oréal

Image courtesy of L'Oreal.

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz spotlighting the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Pamela Alabaster, senior vice president of corporate communications, sustainable development and public affairs, at L'Oréal USA.

Pam leads the sustainability function for the largest subsidiary of L'Oréal, in addition to managing responsibilities for public affairs and corporate communications. Pam drives best practice strategies, policies and programs. She elevates competencies among employees, collaborating with teams on programs consistent with the global framework and objectives, and developing goals and performance measurements in coordination with L'Oréal headquarters in France.

Maya Albanese: At what point did you move into the sustainability function at L'Oréal?

Pamela Alabaster: I started to engage with the management committee on this topic in 2010, and the CEO agreed that there was a business case for sustainability at our organization. Although we had various initiatives speckled throughout the brands, we did not yet have a cohesive strategy. Having been in marketing leadership roles for the first 10 years of my career at L'Oréal and having spent the next decade building corporate functions, it was obvious to me that there was an opportunity to build a sustainability function. And this is one of the beauties of working at L'Oréal: You are able to be an entrepreneur inside the corporation.

MA: How do you apply each of your degrees to your work?

PA: My undergraduate degree in journalism gave me good writing skills and the ability to craft language for different audiences. The MBA has been instrumental in understanding return on capital, risk management and data analysis. The masters of science I'm about to complete at Columbia University has exposed me to new disciplines such as green marketing and accounting, ecosystem services valuation, greenhouse gas (GHG) management and measurement and sustainability reporting. In combination, these degrees have teed me up quite well for my current role.

MA: What are your top responsibilities in this role?

PA: On the communications side, I contribute to reputation management and crisis communications, but this is just 10 percent of my role. The other 90 percent is focused on public policy and sustainability, and looking for growth and innovation opportunities. I work with the brands and internal teams in our operations, research and innovation functions on performance around water, waste and sourcing of raw materials. Public policy and sustainability intersect all the time, whether it's around climate change or the disclosure of certain ingredients. Often my sustainability hat influences our perspective on policy, which helps make us more progressive.

MA: How does your position fit into the corporate structure?

PA: I work cross-functionally with operations, research, IT, our brands and HR. We formed a sustainability council at L'Oréal USA, a 15-member group, which comes together quarterly to align on strategy and initiatives. These people were nominated by management to lead on sustainability in addition to their regular roles. We felt this approach was better than pulling them out of their respective roles to be full-time sustainability management, where they'd be siloed from their original functions.

MA: Do cosmetics consumers care about these issues?

PA: We co-sponsored a global survey last year around consumer attitudes and behaviors called "Re-Thinking Consumption." It confirmed that two-thirds of society believes that we need to consume a lot less to improve our society for future generations. At the same time, two-thirds also said they enjoy shopping for new things because it makes them feel good. There is a dynamic tension between the need to consume less and consuming for status and happiness among many consumers.

MA: What sustainability concerns are particular to a cosmetics company like L'Oréal?

PA: Safety is very important to us -- safety of our manufacturing process as well as our end products. We have some of the most rigorous safety standards in the industry. Last year we partnered with the EPA on a chemical screening system called ToxCast and contributed some of our data on the safety of ingredients to help facilitate the EPA's development of this modeling tool.

We are also a pioneer in synthetic skin. At our laboratories in Gerland, we engineer reconstructed epidermis that has advanced the science of safety testing. We always try to stay at the forefront of science.

MA: How is L'Oréal working on sourcing its raw materials more sustainably?

PA: Today we have 18 materials that we source using fair trade practices. Some of these materials include argon oil, cypress, lavender oil, mint, sunflower seed oil, coconut, Brazil nut and aloe. We also use a sustainable sourcing 10-point assessment tool that includes Fair Trade criteria for the evaluation of all new raw materials of renewable origin. We source 100 percent sustainable palm oil and we are a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). We also have upwards of 90 percent of our paper and pulp products FSC-certified.

MA: Do you work on any programs centered on women's issues?

PA: We have a pilot micro-distribution program outside of Sao Paolo that provides microloans to women along with business and financial skills. It enables the women to become distributors of MATRIX products. There are about 50 women involved who have gained economic independence and professional skills as a result.

We also have our Solidarity Sourcing program that aims to leverage our commercial clout within our supply chain to provide economic opportunities to disadvantaged populations: women, minorities, veterans and disabled people. For example, we work with a factory in China that only hires disabled people on its assembly line.

The L'Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science program was conceived with the recognition that women are grossly under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Women are more than 50 percent of our population and yet hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. So we created this program to recognize female scientists and provide funding to those who are up-and-coming. More than 1,700 women scientists from 100 countries have now received award money through this program.  

MA: What is an obstacle you have overcome in your work, and how?

PA: The biggest initial obstacle was presenting the business case for creating a sustainability function at L'Oréal, and then integrating sustainability initiatives across the entire organization.

MA: What is a continuing challenge you face in your work?

PA: The short-termism of our industry is a challenge. We just need to get beyond the mindset of quarterly results and think systemically and more long-term.

MA: What is one thing you're particularly proud of accomplishing in your role?

PA: I'm proud of the change we are driving in the two years since we created the sustainability function at L'Oréal. Most of all, I see increased willingness to collaborate with external stakeholders in order to achieve mutual goals.

MA: What advice would you give professionals interested in this field?

PA: It is incredibly rewarding work that requires a long-term vision and systemwide thinking. You have to be persevering and know how to leverage influence in situations in which you don't have control. You must have an appetite for change.

MA: Where would you like to see this field in a few decades?

PA: In the long-term, my hope would be that sustainability will be so deeply embedded into every aspect of every company that we won't need a specific department. It should be business-as-usual. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity to help transform the future of this company toward that goal.