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For L'Oreal, women are the face of a low-carbon future

Why is the cosmetics giant encouraging women to become climate leaders?

In September, L’Oreal Group announced plans to build two sizable on-site solar arrays at two of its U.S. production plants, a move that puts the world’s leading beauty company well on its way to powering its entire U.S. manufacturing operation with clean energy.

That in itself isn’t so uncommon among companies that have made a credible commitment to adopting more sustainable business practices. After all, L’Oreal ranks among the top 25 corporate investors in renewable energy resources, and these two new installations will bring its total count to 16 by the time they become operational later this year.

But the locations may surprise you  in the heart of Arkansas (a big natural gas producer) and Kentucky (one of the nation’s largest coal states). What’s more, the idea for building them wasn’t an edict from far-away Paris or New York, where the company headquarters its corporate offices. The suggestion came from local managers, according to L’Oreal’s Chief Sustainability Officer Alexandra Palt. 

"We have a culture where it’s authorized to have initiatives to try new things, to find solutions, to propose solutions," Palt said during a chat in New York last month, after flying in from Amersterdam for the inaugural C40 Women4Climate summit. "People on the ground have the possibility to bring new ideas, new investments, new solutions.

"We have clear targets and goals. Every plant and every factory has to find solutions to reduce its carbon emissions, significantly. This is not a choice, a nice-to-have, at L’Oreal. This is part of your job description, and your bonus is part of this as well. For brand managers, for country managers, for the operation teams, it’s part of the job. You’re evaluated on that."

Suddenly this new era makes me aware that nothing is given — neither on women’s rights, neither on climate change.

Palt’s motive for visiting New York amid a late-season snowstorm last month was to talk up L’Oreal’s decision to become the first corporate sponsor of C40’s Women4Climate initiative, a C40 program that aims to support women around the world in fighting climate change. Specifically, L’Oreal intends to fund research investigating the link between gender equality issues and negative climate impacts. It also will finance programs and projects that address them and set up a mentorship program. The company hasn’t divulged details about the extent of its investment. 

"I would like to encourage women to become climate leaders, because we are going to be touched in very specific way," said Palt, addressing the conference in New York. "First, we are touched as primary caretakers. … That will lead a lot of women to become more active. We are also more vulnerable. Women are more vulnerable in developing countries, where a lot of their income comes from agriculture. They are responsible for getting food; they are responsible for getting water."

The rationale is twofold. First, L’Oreal is pretty dependent on female consumers. Moreover, 46 percent of its board members and 58 percent of L’Oreal’s brands  which include familiar labels such as Redken, Urban Decay, Kiehl’s and Maybelline ― are managed by women.

One of L’Oreal’s sustainable sourcing initiatives in the African country of Burkina Faso is an example of a project that combines the company’s interest in helping women improve their livelihoods with the promotion of sustainability forestry management practices. The region is a primary source of shea butter nuts, used in more than 1,200 of the company’s skin care, personal hygiene and makeup brands. An estimated 35,000 local women have benefited from L’Oreal’s investments there through a collaboration with another French company, Olvea.

The face of the L’Oreal sustainability strategy is a program called Sharing Beauty With All, which summarizes the various declared targets that it hopes to reach by the 2020 timeframe. Many of these goals will probably seem fairly familiar to sustainability professionals, such as reducing the environmental footprint of the company’s various product formulas, eliminating strategies that could cause deforestation or conserving water. In 2016, for example, L’Oreal reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 67 percent from its 2005 baseline, while increasing production by 29 percent.

The company started investing in on-site solar installations six years ago. The project under way in Florence, Kentucky, which will have a capacity of 1.5 megawatts, actually will be the largest commercial solar array in the state with about 5,000 panels. The 687,000-square-foot facility that it will power employs about 400 people who make many of the company’s well-known haircare products. The 1.2-megawatt solar installation in North Little Rock, Arkansas, which will include about 4,000 panels, is actually the second one at a cosmetics plant employing about 500 workers. The first one, installed in 2012, powers the 446,691-square-foot location’s outdoor lighting.

We have clear targets and goals. This is part of your job description.

"This next phase of our on-site solar installation not only paves the way for expanded low-carbon manufacturing, but also can serve as a catalyst for continued investment in renewable energy in the Natural State," said Eric Fox, the plant manager, in a statement. 

Palt believes one reason L’Oreal is able to get employees of both genders excited about low-carbon business strategies is the political will of her boss, L’Oreal CEO Jean Paul Agon, who she said isn’t afraid to surround himself with strong female leaders. If anything, the shifting political tides in the United States since last fall’s election have strengthened her resolve to position gender equity at the heart of L’Oreal’s strategy.  

"I was very committed to feminism when I was young," she recalled. "That was my first profession. … I kind of fell asleep for the last 15 years, because I thought that a lot was given. Working in a company where women get promoted, suddenly this new era makes me aware that nothing is given  neither on women’s rights, neither on climate change. We have to stay very alert in order to continue very actively and very strongly on fighting for our rights."

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