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The GreenBiz Interview

Kimberly-Clark levels up 2030 ambitions with science-based targets

Kimberly-Clark headquarters in Irving, Texas

Kimberly-Clark headquarters in Irving, Texas.

Trong Nguyen

Today, Kimberly-Clark released its 2019 sustainability report, which provides an update for goals it set to meet by 2022 and begins to outline the company's 2030 climate goals.

Kimberly-Clark is aiming to reduce its plastics, water and natural forests footprints — all by 50 percent by 2030. Additionally, the company plans to reduce its absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Scope 1 and Scope 2) by 50 percent, with 2015 serving as the base year, and reduce its Scope 3 emissions by 20 percent. Those two goals recently were approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative.

GreenBiz caught up with Lisa Morden, vice president for safety and sustainability at Kimberly-Clark, which is behind brands Huggies, Kleenex and Kotex, to discuss the report, the company’s progress on past goals and its new ambitions, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kimberly-Clark, also home to brands including Scott and Cottonelle, had to significantly ramp up its work as toilet paper shortages become an issue across the United States, making its work essential. A company representative told Vox in April that it had "plans in place to address the increased demand for our products to the extent possible, including accelerating production and reallocating inventory to help meet these needs."

Lisa Morden, VP of Sustainability at Kimberly-Clark, white background

Morden, who was on GreenBiz's Badass Women list in 2019, has served as Kimberly-Clark’s vice president for safety and sustainability for just over two years. She previously held the position of senior director of global sustainability at the company. 

During our conversation, she noted that brands across Kimberly-Clark all work toward its greater sustainability ambitions and that the company is committed to doing its part in what it believes is going to be a "decisive decade."

"It feels like the world is facing a whole myriad of environmental, social and economic crises at this point in time," Morden said. "We feel an urgency to work to break down some of those barriers that have been preventing the world from safeguarding our natural systems, tackling inequality, lifting up people around the world and so forth. We have a sense of urgency to think bigger and faster."

In addition to leveling up in its climate ambitions, Kimberly-Clark also has stepped up its ambition in the social impact space. Morden pointed to the company’s Toilets Change Lives program, which launched in 2014, as an example. The program works to improve sanitation, and as of November had done work in 10 countries.

"We have a business to run and we have to create value for the company, no question," Morden said. "But we can do it in a way that also creates positive social environmental outcomes to the company."

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Deonna Anderson: Kimberly-Clark just released its 2019 sustainability report. Can you share any high-level takeaways?

Image shows Kimberly-Clarks' 2030 sustainability goals

Lisa Morden: We've been working against a series of sustainability goals and ambitions, the latest round of which we designed and launched back in 2015, and the 2019 report is obviously a reflection of the progress against those specific goals around climate and water and social impacts and waste, et cetera. The report does continue to reflect sort of the [Global Reporting Initiative] framework, and we take special effort to be sure that we're reporting on our progress towards those 2022 ambitions. The goal delivery date is 2022 because that's Kimberly Clark's 150th anniversary. We thought: What better way than to hinge your sustainability strategy on an anniversary milestone? The report reflects back on our progress towards those specific goals. 

But another piece that we are beginning to talk about in the report now is our next set of ambitions. Certainly, there has been quite a bit of change since 2015 when we launched our targets for 2022, not to mention the Sustainable Development Goals were promulgated after we launched our program. And frankly, there has been some pretty massive change in the world.

We’re always challenging ourselves with, you know, what else is out there?

Climate has really become more amplified in the eyes of many, many different stakeholders, importantly, and rightfully so. We've had issues related to single-use plastics and microplastics in the environment taking center stage. I would say that the context that we're operating our business in has changed dramatically, so we wanted to take a little bit of a step back and say, "Hey. Is it time for us to rethink our plans and our level of ambition? And probably at a minimum, it's time to take a look at a longer time horizon."

So that sort of 2030 horizon is what we began to contemplate as we started putting together these new ambitions and goals, which the report begins to outline in some detail.

Anderson: In the report, you write about refining your focus and challenging yourself to reset your ambition. Kimberly-Clark also recently received approval from the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTI) for its expanded targets for reducing GHG emissions, in addition to setting new climate goals. What was the process like in developing those goals, and how are these new science-based targets related to the climate goals? How do they build on the goals that you set in 2015?

Morden: We've had energy and climate goals for the company for 25 years. And every five years, we sort of take up the ambition, but as the Science Based Targets Initiative, World Resources Institute, WWF and others began to think about the concept of science-based targets, that was a really great framework for us because while we've tried to be ambitious, the fact that we can now hinge our objectives and our goals around some scientific methodology or modeling that allows us to know whether we're being aggressive enough was really important for us.

Having a lot of those systems built to allow us to measure and monitor and drive improvements really allowed us to be on a good footing as we began to work with SBTI and their partners, to frame up what a science-based target might look like for the company. 

It allowed us to stretch a little bit further and have some level of assurance that we're doing our part against this very massive global challenge that the world faces. One of the biggest challenges we had, though, like many companies, was beginning to get our arms around Scope 3, that extended supply chain view of our emissions, of the actual numbers. We took our time to be sure that we could measure that so that as we began to develop our initiatives and our programs to drive improvements, we could measure those improvements as well and ensure that we're making some progress. 

There are two pieces to our science-based goals. The first one is Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions reductions; we're looking to halve that by 2030. And our base year within the model is 2015. We're going to cut that footprint in half. And then secondly, those Scope 3 emissions: We're going to reduce those by 20 percent by 2030. 

We’re always challenging ourselves with, you know, what else is out there? We know that renewables are going to play a huge role in helping us to get to the ultimate sort of net-zero, net-positive orientation. And it's going to take a lot of learning [and] collaboration to figure out those sourcing and supply models. So we've been able to introduce and begin to increase our learning acumen, shall we say, with some power purchase agreements that are wind-based in the United States and several projects around the world around solar as well. So the stretch causes us to look for new and innovative ways to get at that GHG profile in different ways as well.

Three packs of Huggies wipes in white and green packaging

Anderson: Kimberly-Clark’s sustainability report mentions reducing your plastics footprint. I'm curious about what that actually looks like in practice. What steps do you have to take to actually reduce the footprint?

Morden: We have three areas that we're particularly focused on, and all of these have that product materials innovation lens and that systems lens and disposal waste infrastructure, recycling systems lens in mind as well. 

The first one is around products: How do we begin to shift to recycled recovered renewable materials in order to reduce our consumption of those virgin fossil fuel-based plastics?

I would say the other piece is obviously around packaging, designing with recycled, recovered and renewable and compostable materials as well.

And the product side is particularly challenging given the types of products that we have and what happens to them after use. Diapers, feminine care products, adult incontinence products — those are very, very difficult to recover and recycle.

We're spending a lot of time thinking through the product and packaging supply chain and the material base from end to end, all the way from what kind of materials can we use to what are the disposal and recycling outlets that are available? So there are huge, both product or materials innovation challenges as well as systems challenges and those two things have to match up. 

The system has to be able to accommodate the material itself. That's the third piece — nurturing collection and developing recycling and composting systems, so that those products and packaging materials have a home after the consumer is done with them. So a lot of innovation in this space at this point in time, and it's sort of the prime area for more partnerships, either with our suppliers who helped to provide us materials or with the waste economy. How do we begin to partner there so that we have the right mindsets as we develop those and evolve those systems, particularly in markets that have very little in place today?

That idea of protecting high carbon values is becoming more front and center for us.

Anderson: You were on the badass women's list from GreenBiz last year. That piece mentioned that your team was going to prioritize two issues related to consumer products: eliminating deforestation of old-growth forests and stopping the flow of plastics into the ocean. Can you share updates about what's happening with those projects?

Morden: They continue to be a key component of our go forward as well, is what I would say. But in terms of the progress so far, the 2022 goals related to waste actually have an objective around diverting post-consumer waste from inappropriate disposal outlets, i.e. random disposal into the environment, whether that's oceans or on land, and/or trying to avoid landfilling as well moving up the value chain even further. We've been able to divert [about] 26,300 metric tons post consumer. So we've been able to progress against that target. 

That program was really designed to cause us to be much more innovative in thinking about that post-consumer solution. So extending, again, our post-industrial waste capabilities into the post-consumer space was really what that was designed to do. And we've got a few different projects that we've been pretty proud of in terms of that waste question that we can share some details with you about around the world.

One relates to a program in India, for example. It's relatively small, but the learnings you get even at that scale are really important for us as we think about the scale models. But it's a program that helps to support waste pickers to find higher-value outlets for flexible films that they pick out of informal dumps or formal dump settings, so that they have really sort of the economic models that help to support their work and get the value for the material out of the waste stream. 

Those are the kinds of initiatives that we're looking at to try and continue to grow and expand and support. That's one example. The tonnages are not huge, but the learning that we're getting from the participation and the activation of those programs is incredibly helpful as we think about them going forward.

Anderson: And what about the deforestation work?

Morden: As one of the larger consumers of wood pulp in the world for our tissue and personal care products, we've always had a very strong focus on natural forests and ensuring that our supply chain is not contributing to deforestation and that we've got responsible forest management practices occurring in our extended supply chain. 

It's been a huge focus for us for many years, and it will continue to be going forward. What's interesting as the climate conversation is evolving, though, is that we're increasingly thinking about the role of natural forests in the climate conversation, if you will. And we've had this goal to reduce our use of natural forest fibers in our products by half for a few years now. And I would say that goal takes on a higher focus for us because of the fact that we want to be sure that we're protecting high-carbon-value forests.

Screenshot shows Kimberly-Clarks goals related to its forest footprint

Source: Kimberly-Clark 2019 Sustainability Report

It's very important to increase our use of environmentally preferred fibers, including increased recycled and increased Forest Stewardship Council certified fiber. But that idea of protecting high carbon values is becoming more front and center for us. We're not fully baked on what the plan and strategy will be beyond reducing our footprint in the natural forest landscape. But we're getting closer.

We'll be ready within the next several months to talk a little bit more about how we're going to activate that in practice, but it will be part of our ultimate Scope 3 objectives as we go forward. It’s also causing us to look at biodiversity in a more in-depth way as well as Indigenous peoples' rights and respect for Indigenous peoples as part of our overarching human rights practices and policies as well. 

Anderson: My next couple of questions are about a wider view of your work. We've talked a lot about Kimberly-Clark’s goals moving forward, the long-term goals, but I'm curious if the coronavirus pandemic has changed the immediate focus for the company's sustainability team at all?

Morden: Our priorities going into that situation were pretty clear from the top of the organization: protecting our people; supporting our consumers; and then certainly helping people in need at the same time. I would say that the coronavirus situation, it's really amplified for us what it means to be essential. 

As we kept our supply chain running because many of our products are deemed essential, our mission as a company or a vision as a company is to provide essentials for a better life, right? That language has been around the company for a long time. And certainly, as the coronavirus scenarios have been planning out, our awareness of what it means to be essential is amplified.

[The pandemic] gave us an increased or an even more profound sense of the importance of building resiliency into our business and into our supply chain.

Our people were going to work every day into mill settings to manufacture bath tissue that was flying off the shelves, to keep providing people with access to their personal care products and diaper products, et cetera. We sort of became so focused on the fact that the work that we do is truly essential to supporting our consumers. But in doing that, we absolutely had to protect our essential workers on the front lines. 

And the protocols and the health and safety mechanisms and the other protective measures that we put in place were first and foremost for us. We certainly wanted to keep those consumers stocked with those essential products, of course, but the other realization that I think has come to the fore for us is that the people that are keeping those essential services running in the world — not just K-C employees, but in the world — [are] maybe some of the most vulnerable people out there as well. And the kind of products that we can support and provide to them in these very difficult situations really fueled a lot of our philanthropic and product donation activities as well. 

No. 1, [the pandemic] amplified our thinking about what it means to be essential. And then secondly, I think it sort of gave us an increased or an even more profound sense of the importance of building resiliency into our business and into our supply chain.

Empty toilet paper shelves in store

So we can continue to support those consumers but doing it in a way that protects people. I heard a great quote the other day. Someone said, "Coronavirus has been a dress rehearsal for what a changing climate has in store for us going forward." So I think that resiliency and that view of what it means to be essential really come to life if you think about it through that perspective.

Anderson: What do you feel is your most important priority right now as the VP for sustainability at K-C? 

Morden: Candidly ... this is a very short-term view, but I think my priority right now is still supporting the organization and the health and safety of our people as we work our way through the coronavirus scenario ... 

Our teams are still very focused on launching our new goals internally, continuing to build our pipeline of programs and initiatives and projects that will help to deliver our sustainability goals because we know as we come out of this, that need and that importance around resiliency in our business is absolutely hinging on some of these sustainability elements.

The sustainability of the world externally is so important as we think about the resiliency of our business, put another way. So we're continuing that work.

We don't believe that sustainability takes a pause because the coronavirus is here. We feel like it gives us a higher sense of purpose and focus on our strategy as we go forward.

This article has been updated to correct the number of countries Kimberly-Clark’s Toilets Change Lives program has worked in. It is active in 10 countries, not 16.

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