Sustainability Dispatches: Virginie Helias, P&G

Sustainability Dispatches: Virginie Helias, P&G

Virginie Helias, P&G.
Virginie Helias, P&G.

This series of articles features the perspectives, experiences and objectives of individuals working for member companies of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These people have carefully and successfully navigated the interface of business and sustainability: What are the leadership skills and qualities that support this work? What motivates the people doing it? And how do they walk the potentially tenuous line between hardline business decision-making and sustainability goals?

Virginie Helias accepted a position with Procter & Gamble (P&G) as a young marketing graduate. Twenty-two years into her tenure at P&G, having led teams in brand management, marketing and innovation, she created the company’s first business-oriented sustainability position, leading to her current role as vice president of global sustainability.

Now, at the 29-year mark, she creatively and strategically has embedded sustainability across the company’s brand-building and business development practices. Thanks to her conviction, vision and effort, sustainability is at the core of P&G’s business practices and culture.

Virginie and I met during WBCSD’s recent members meeting in Montreux, Switzerland. Her enthusiasm for P&G and her work was contagious, and here’s a snapshot of our conversation.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Emily Grady: Tell me about your early years at P&G.

Virginie Helias: I started very traditionally in marketing, working on many different products including fabric care, diapers and shampoos. I started in Paris. When I became the first European brand manager on Pantene, I got to experiment. This is important because I have always loved jobs that were a bit uncharted — a theme in my career. Eventually, I moved to Cincinnati and I found myself in another uncharted territory because I was working in the Worldwide Strategic Planning group for Tide and Ariel. It was the first time for me and the company to approach brand management in this way. I conducted P&G’s first global consumer segmentation project and tried to understand if there were consistent consumer segments around the world. Eventually, I moved back to Europe, focusing on fabric care in the European market. This is where it all happened.

We are now in the early 2000s and I am leading our fabric care business for France, Holland and Belgium. At the time, our R&D resources were very tight. I had to find ideas that could revitalize the business, but without necessarily needing to change the product. So I tested many ideas. The one that rose to the top was that Ariel cleans so well that you can wash your clothes in cold water. This was a new concept for people and they loved it! It was better for fabric integrity and the clothes’ longevity.

Then, in 2004, the prices of electricity in Europe were skyrocketing. I proposed the idea that "if you wash your clothes in cold water, you’ll see savings on your electricity bill." That was an absolute hit with people. Our shares started to grow — they grew three share points in a few months after a downward trend for three years in a row. Then, by the third year, we said, "And, if we all wash in cold water we could save enough energy to light up 1,000 villages in France." That was amazing. We went from a personal reward to a collective reward.

Grady: When did sustainability, as a concept, come into the picture?

Helias: In 2005, "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore’s movie, came out. I was totally touched by it. My team and I went to watch the movie together. I started to understand the science behind sustainability. I learned that, from a life cycle assessment standpoint for detergent, 80 percent of the carbon footprint comes from the wash temperature. This is when I started being interested in sustainability. I knew nothing about it. I educated myself and volunteered for projects on sustainability. We launched the gel detergent, which is the most sustainable form, because it starts working at 15 degrees centigrade and it is compacted, meaning it saves water and packaging resources. Then, I created an initiative called Future Friendly, which took all of our brands that could claim something meaningful in sustainability and presented them in that way to retailers. Retailers got behind it and put together big events in stores on Future Friendly.

I knew I needed to learn more, so I did WWF’s One Planet Leaders training. During the week-long training, I was with people whose job was sustainability and I was the odd one out because I was working in Brand and Innovation. I had to step back from the business during this week, and that was incredibly valuable. Sustainability was part of my job, but more of a hobby than anything else. If it could be my job, the impact I would have on P&G would be so much greater. I decided I would ask my CEO for a new job focused on sustainability.

At this time, we had a vice president of sustainability. He was a toxicologist — amazing at the science, but the connection with the business was loose. I flew to Cincinnati and explained to the CEO that the point of this role would be the bridge between our sustainability people and our business units. The role of this job would be to embed sustainability into everything we do, from strategy to innovation to brand building to communication and into the culture of the company. I said at the end, "By the way, I want that job." He said, "Yes and yes."

At this point, there were no expectations. Having worked for more than two decades in this company, I knew a lot of people, a lot of the businesses. I spent my first two years having one-on-one conversations with all the leaders in the company, especially the marketing folks, who can be resistant to sustainability (not just at P&G). I was in a unique position knowing exactly why they didn’t get it and why they were resistant. I walked each person through how sustainability could relate to their brand.

Grady: Did you find that you also needed to educate your customers?

Helias:  This is a very interesting question, because education, for me, is the wrong way to go about sustainability. The key is to make sustainability desirable. You need to make it irresistible, so people embrace it because they want to, not because they have to. The two key levers that we have for that are innovation and aspiration. Innovation can make it irresistible — that’s the cold-water detergent example. Aspiration is about making sustainability what people want to do. If you have to convince people to do something, you have failed on irresistibility. You need to make them fall in love with it. As marketers, we are uniquely gifted to do that. That’s why sustainability needs to be led by marketing and R&D together.

Grady: As you think back over your 29 years at P&G, what are the moments you’re most proud of?

Helias: I organized a two-day workshop where I invited senior business leaders with multifunctional teams to come with their biggest business challenges. I also invited speakers that were experts on different topics, like sustainability, materials, design and communications. Each speaker gave a 10-minute TED-style talk. Then, each of the business speakers had to explain how the topic could be applied or related to their biggest business challenge. Many of them had never looked at the challenge through this kind of filter. At another moment in the training, I gave the business leaders P&G electric toothbrushes and asked them to dismantle the brushes. They couldn’t. They had to use hammers.They realized in that moment what it meant to design for disassembly.

Another exercise we gave them during this training was focused on supply chains. I told them to draw their supply channel from beginning to end. One of the general managers was in total state of panic. He said, "I realize that I understand what happens to my product from the time that we produce it in our plants to the time that people use it in the home. What’s happening upstream and downstream? I have no idea." That was such an epiphany. New products and tools came out of this training and it was amazing to help senior business leaders think in such a different way. 

Grady: Have you always felt connected to nature? Is that why sustainability resonates with you?

Helias: I’m a city girl. I love nature now, but it grew on me. Imagine me as the person with shopping bags on the streets of Paris, not as the gardener. But, for the job I do, that doesn’t matter, because what I’m trying to do is to have a major impact. We touch 5 billion people around the world. When they use our products, they can do it in a way that conserves resources and is a force of good. This is the impact I care about. 

I believe that brands often underestimate the influence that they can have. A brand can inspire people to live the best possible life. It can inspire them to live in a sustainable way. A big fridge, an oversized house, a lone guy driving in a car — we know this isn’t what makes people happy. It’s time with family and friends, it’s slowing down, it’s doing things yourself — these things make us happy. Let’s align aspirations and let the brand inspire people to make the right choices. A brand can be a catalyst for promoting sustainable lifestyles.

Grady: What would it take for you to make a seemingly impossible goal possible?

Helias: I always say that my goal is to make my job obsolete because I want sustainability to be so embedded into how people think about doing business that businesses don’t need a separate function. To make this happen, we need to keep on integrating sustainability into every role. Every person in the company needs to hear their boss talk about sustainability. We will begin to make it inconceivable for there to be innovation that is not sustainable innovation. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we’re on the right path.