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3 companies tell us their failures on sustainability

Levis, L’Oreal and Humanscale explain where they went wrong and how they are moving forward.

Panel on stage

From left to right Jane Abernethy, Jeffrey Hogue, Marissa McGowan and Joel Makower on stage at Circularity 22. Image by Louis Bryant III/GreenBiz Group

Failure is a part of life and also a part of business, and especially as we make the shift to sustainable businesses. But we can’t be afraid to talk about them. Last week at Circularity 22 in Atlanta, GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower challenged three high-profile businesses to walk us through their biggest mistakes. 

The transformation to a sustainable and circular economy will be full of failures even though many businesses will be shy to talk about them. But if your business plan looks exactly like your business past, then you aren’t aiming high enough.

During a keynote conversation, sustainability executives from L’Oreal, Levi Strauss and the business-to-business furniture supplier, Humanscale, discussed those failures.

First, Marissa McGowan, chief sustainability officer at L'Oréal of North America, explained how the company has been working towards finding a post-consumer recycled plastic alternative for its beauty packaging that still conveys the correct and iconic color to consumers. 

Usually, establishing the collection process for recycling is the biggest challenge for brands but L’Oreal found that was just the start of the obstacles.

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"We've been working for 10 years to take back the bottle and that’s great when it comes to consumer behavior change and keeping it out of landfill," McGowan said. "But now we're hitting that next point where we actually want to turn, at scale, that back into a bottle. We are finding it’s so challenging to make [the recycled plastic] food grade to be reintegrated."

According to McGowan, L’Oreal is continuing to innovate and "fail forward" to address these new obstacles. 

Levi’s went all in on a "jean made from garbage" in 2013, a time when recycled polyester for fiber was just becoming economical. It launched the "wasteless" 511 jeans and a trucker jean jacket that was made from 20 percent recycled polyester mixed with cotton. It launched 30,000 products and it went over great with consumers. But Levi’s quickly learned it had made a drastic sustainability error.

"We immediately realize that creating a cotton product mixed with polyester is a bad idea," said Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer at Levi’s. "If you look at this from a systems perspective, we started getting questions like, ‘Are you going to take this back? How are you going to recycle it?’"

Cotton polyester blends are notoriously hard to separate and recycle at scale and so the "wasteless jean" was shelved for Levi’s new product the "circular jean" that has 40 percent post-consumer chemically recycled cotton, instead.

There was a big difference between the theoretical circular designed product and then what actions customers actually took.

Finally, Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer at Humanscale, relayed the difference between consumer intent and the realities of behaviors. Her company was getting questions about a takeback program for the officer furniture her company supplies. So she started one. But even when businesses were educated about the program during the sales process, over the past few years she has only gotten one call from someone taking her up on the service.

According to Abernethy, there was a big difference between the theoretical circular designed product and then what actions customers actually took. 

"What happened in reality was a very different situation," she said. 

Abernethy realized that the failure wasn’t coming from a lack of intent but more from the unique quirks of working with a durable good in a business-to-business model. By the time the chair is ready to be returned, her business may no longer be in contact with the customer. Or the person who they sold to may have changed roles or moved to another company and the information about the takeback program was not passed down.

"Durable goods really have a different set of considerations because things change so much over time," she said.

Abernethy’s company thinks more holistically and helps businesses deal not just with the chair that Humanscale supplied, but with all materials during an office renovation or removal process.

Makower closed the session with these poignant words: "Failure is a delay, not a defeat." 

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