When you think of Colgate-Palmolive, the first thing likely to come to mind is its eponymous toothpaste or dish soap. But the company also owns a lot of other brands that offer other consumer packaged goods such as deodorant (Speed Stick), body soap (Irish Spring) and other household cleaning products (Fabuloso).
And what are those items packaged in? Most of the time, plastic. The company was the eighth biggest plastic polluter in 2019, according to the Changing Markets Foundation. But it recently made a commitment to eliminate a substantial chunk of its plastic waste by 2025.
Back in November, Colgate-Palmolive released details about its 2025 strategy, which centers on three key areas and a few goals with longer-term trajectories. Among areas it's planning to address is preserving the environment. The commitment to eliminate one-third of its plastic waste by 2025 is part of its "preserve the environment" ambition, and it’s part of a goal that also includes transitioning to 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable plastic packaging by the same year.
Shortly after the 2025 strategy’s publication, I spoke with Ann Tracy, chief sustainability officer at Colgate-Palmolive, about the specific commitments, how the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on its sustainability goals and why it held firm with the release schedule for the company's recyclable toothpaste tube.
"We didn't slow down the implementation of our new recyclable tube," Tracy said. "We're continuing to invest and put even more resources, even hiring some resources around the plastic waste issue."
Here are three other major takeaways from our conversation.
1. Its plastic strategy focuses on three areas. Those areas are the possibility of using new materials; moving its packaging to be 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable; and developing other ways to deliver its products with potentially less packaging.
For example, it's exploring whether toothpaste really needs to be in a tube. "If you think about toothpaste, can it be in a different format other than paste to deliver the same, clean benefits for your oral health? So, can it be tablets? Can it be chewable?" Tracy said. "Things like cleaning products that are a little tablet that you just drop into a reusable container and add water so that it's reducing the overall environmental footprint. Those are examples.” As of September, the company was testing a tablet cleaning product with its PLOOF Ajax line in France, according to a LinkedIn post from Greg P. Corra, director of packaging innovation and sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive.
Companies already are taking a similar approach. For toothpaste, there's Bite, Lush and Hello. For cleaning products, there's Blueland, Seventh Generation and Amazon's in-house product line Clean Revolution.
Additionally, Tracy said, the company is studying what role it should play in driving better recycling infrastructure around the world. "Different countries have different levels of infrastructure. The U.S. itself, although we're considered a developed country, we have a very disparate [system.]" In late June, Colgate-Palmolive was part of a group of consumer brands and corporate foundations to invest $54 million with Closed Loop Partners' infrastructure fund to "support additional recycling infrastructure and spur growth and technological innovation around end markets for post-consumer materials across North America."
2. The company is aiming to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in its global operations by 2040. To achieve this, Colgate-Palmolive has set goals that will build up to this one. One goal is to source 100 percent renewable electricity in its operations by 2030.
“I like to call it the cousin target,” Tracy said, noting that the company recently launched its process to get to 100 percent renewable energy by engaging with its operations around the world. Colgate operates in more than 80 countries, with its headquarters in New York City and six divisions around the world including in Latin America, Europe and Asia. It has more than 50 manufacturing and research facilities globally and in 2019, it made $15.7 billion of worldwide net sales, according to the company's website.
To source the renewable electricity, Colgate plans to implement a multi-pronged strategy: buying green power; building solar farms; and negotiating power purchase agreements.
Tracy said Colgate is still working with outside partners to help it build a plan for how to get to net-zero carbon by 2040 but noted that the company considers purchasing offsets to be the last resort on its decarbonization journey.
"We don't have a strategy around offsets yet other than we do believe they will play a role to close gaps at the end, but that's what we consider them — a gap closer, not a leading technology," she said. "We'd like to see the offsets become a bit more standardized and accepted before we start building our strategy around that."
The company is also accessing how to address its Scope 3 emissions and beginning to work with its tier one suppliers to help "extend the carbon footprint reduction beyond [its] own supply chain."
3. Its recyclable toothpaste tube took a lot of partnership — and will continue to. Tracy said the company developed a roadmap to convert every single tube it makes to the recyclable tube format over the next couple of years. During the first quarter of 2020, it launched its first recyclable toothpaste tubes with its Tom's of Maine and Smile for Good lines.
Colgate-Palmolive makes most of its own toothpaste tubes internally. To give a sense of how many toothpaste tubes it sells worldwide, in 2019, the Colgate toothpaste brand sold almost 80 million units in the United States, according to data on Statista.
"It takes a lot of investment because we have to convert all our equipment," she said. "I like to say half the job was the engineering and the technology to develop the tube, but the other half of the job was to work with the local recycling infrastructure to make sure it's accepted into the mainstream. It takes a lot of partners."
Right now, Tracy said, the company is "busy ramping up the Optic White line in the U.S., which is one of our biggest lines of toothpaste or brands of toothpaste in the U.S. So, we're launching that very shortly here along with all our kids' toothpaste in the U.S."
She added that, in Europe, by the end of 2021, 80 percent of the tubes will be converted to the recyclable version. Colgate-Palmolive hopes to eventually convert all its tubes. It’s still early days for this effort, so the company doesn’t have many more learnings to share at this point but Tracy said it wants to make sure all its tubes are actually recycled.
"Until we have scale, until other tubes convert to this recyclable technology, technically it's not recycled," Tracy said. "We're working very hard with partners to make sure it's accepted into the recycling industry."
Its partners include Recycling Partnership and the American Plastic Recycling Association, who are helping with its plastic waste reduction efforts.
"We had to work with them to get the tube accepted and make sure it was recognized as recyclable," Tracy said. "We could not have done this work without external partners, absolutely not."