Inside Reckitt Benckiser's carbon journey

Two Steps Forward

Inside Reckitt Benckiser's carbon journey

You may not know Reckitt Benckiser, the U.K.-based multinational consumer goods company. But you likely know some of its flagship brands: Air Wick, Calgon, Clearasil, Easy Off, Gaviscon, Glassex, Lysol, Vanish, Woolite — and French’s mustard! — among hundreds of others.

You also probably don’t know Reckitt — or RB, as the current branding goes — as a sustainability leader, at least compared to its more vocal direct competitors in household, health and personal care products: Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Clorox, and SC Johnson & Sons. It simply doesn't show up much in the steady drumbeat of press releases, conference speakers, or leadership company indices.

Despite its relative lack of visibility, the company has been pursuing an ambitious effort to squeeze out the carbon intensity — and, as a result, the energy, packaging, and other waste — from its massive product portfolio. Along the way, it handily exceeded the goal it set for itself in 2007 as part of its Carbon20 program: to cut its products' “total carbon footprint” by 20 percent. Last month, the company said it achieved that goal — a full eight years early.

How did it do this? The short answer: in hundreds of little ways. Last week, I got the longer answer in a conversation with Dave Challis, RB’s Director, Global Sustainability, Environment, Health and Safety. Challis—who arrived at RB last August after a career at Kimberly-Clark and at a sustainability communications and strategy agency—reports in to RB’s category organization, which includes R&D and marketing. “It is,” said Challis, “a good place for sustainability to fit for something like RB, which is really focused on innovation and marketing.”

An edited version of our conversation follows:

Joel Makower: Why did your Carbon20 commitment go so much better than expected?

Dave Challis: Internally, we split our thinking into three main areas: the design of our products, the production of our products, and the consumer use. We recognized that as much as we can reduce our manufacturing footprint, which we had some great successes in, and continue to reduce our manufacturing carbon footprint, we really needed to do two things. One is to consider the carbon impact right at the start of the product development process, which was something which was new and different from most of our peers. The other is to engage with consumers directly at the end, or near the end, of the product’s lifecycle to make sure that people had the right information to use our products in a way that met their needs and also was reducing carbon emissions.

RB implemented an internal measurement program called the Carbon20 Calculator, and this is the tool for all of our R&D staff to measure the carbon footprint of products—the full lifecycle of their products at the development stage. Before products are approved and launched, there’s that initial assessment where we understand, and at regular points assess, the carbon impact of the pipeline of our products.

So, we’re not just measuring results; we’re actually using this tool to look into the future as well, to help understand which types of products, and which of the choices we make, have impacts on our overall carbon footprint,.

Makower: What kind of role did your research and development group play in this?

Challis: It was absolutely critical to integrate this into the objectives of the R&D organization within RB to make sure this really was embedded within the organization. RB, as a company, responds very well to a big challenge, and a clear way of achieving it. So, setting a big bold target, putting the right steps in place like this carbon calculator tool, then slotting out into people’s objectives, was a way to really embed sustainability, in particular carbon, into the product development process, and therefore into the company.

Makower: So what proved to have the biggest impact on reducing emissions?

Challis: It really is a case of a lot of little things adding up

I’ll give you an example: French’s mustard. We redesigned the cap on the a couple of years ago as part of this process. Just one gram lighter means that there’s about 275,000 pounds of plastic packaging per year saved, with about 1,600 tons of carbon. So, it’s little things like that that have benefits for the consumers.

Some of the ways that really integrated this into our R&D process was comparing our innovations to category averages. I’ll give you an example. We were looking at our air-care category—Air Wick—and thinking about the impact there. For lots of those products, there is a limited consumer phase. So that could be just the aerosol. We shifted from using butane to compressed air, which obviously was a massive R&D technical challenge that ended up resulting in about 40 percent lower carbon impact compared to those regular aerosols.

And then we thought that, actually, there’s a much lower carbon footprint from passive devices that don’t have any electrical means or other propellants to deliver fragrance. So, we created Flip & Fresh, which launched in the States last year, which delivers fragrance without any additional propellant or electricity, and Reed Diffusers also have significant reductions. I think the Reed Diffuser has about 65 percent less carbon footprint per dose, versus the average for that category.

Makower: What about consumers? Were they willing to play a role?

Challis: In 2008, we launched a website called Our Home Our Planet, which was designed to give consumers tips and information about how they could reduce their carbon footprint. This was aimed at being quite practical and simple things that people could do, based on what we’d learned about the carbon impacts of our products. So, when using a dishwasher, to scrape the food off the dishes and to make sure that the dishwasher was correctly filled to maximize its efficiency; to use the lower temperature settings, which were compatible with our products, because we know the huge impact of hot water.

Makower: How do you measure the carbon reductions on consumer use?

Challis: The simpler way is for products that have less control for consumers. So, for example, moving to mono-dosing—a dishwasher tablet compared to dishwasher powder, which is controlling the amount of material that a consumer uses for that particular job. That’s very easy to measure.

When it comes to consumer behavior, which I guess was your question, there’s a number of different things. When consumers use devices like dishwashers and washing machines, we gather information on the efficiency of those machines and how that’s changing, which is one element of this, because as machines get more efficient, then the carbon footprint of the use of this particular product will decrease as well.

Then, on a product-specific level, we reach out to all consumers and gather specific insights and information about how they use their product. So, it’s not just industry-specific; this is specific to RB’s productshow our consumers are using those products. We track how those change year and year, and that all gets fed into the annual carbon footprint process as well.

Makower: What drove this whole process? Why did you make this kind of commitment in the first place, particularly since so much of your carbon footprint didn’t have to do with any of your own operations?

Challis: The research that we’ve seen and have conducted ourselves has shown us that people, more and more around the world, are expecting companies like RB to take steps to address sustainability issues. So, there’s certainly a consumer call, although we do recognize that at the moment, it’s only a very small minority of consumers who are really seeking out specific green brands. Our consumers are more interested in us making sure that, for the products that they have always bought and wish to buy, that we are taking those steps and helping them along the way. So, there’s that consumer piece.

A big piece for me is the retailers—the Walmarts of this world who are, back in 2007 and then increasingly since, talking about sustainability. So, there’s a direct commercial element there.

One thing that people don’t talk about as much is the strides to innovation. Going back to that Carbon20 Calculator, this is another way to help RB people innovate, to provide them with inspiration, to provide them with information and analysis to help them make different choices, and to understand the impacts of their choices. I think that’s one of the key things: that RB is providing that information, not just as at a corporate level, but at a product-specific level. It really does help with the innovation process.

Finally, employees—especially younger graduates who want to work for a responsible company. We’ve been seeing this trend for years. RB has a very specific culture, and we want to attract the best graduates into our companies; we want them to be excited about working here. More and more, people are interested in sustainability and working for, basically, an innovative company and a responsible company. So, demonstrating that commitment and progress to a prospective employee, as well as our existing employees, is another of those key drivers and remains incredibly important for us.

Makower: So, where do you go from here? You’ve exceeded your 2020 goal. Have you set another stretch goal? What happens next?

Challis: When we were approaching the end of Carbon20, we took a good hard look at what we’ve achieved—what was good about the program and how the world had changed. We went through a process over a couple of months looking at the big sustainability megatrends affecting the world—which of those were really impacting RB, which of those RB could most influence—and we came up with a list of sustainability megatrends that RB felt that it could and should address in the future, and going beyond carbon into other areas of sustainability. Our plan is to launch that new set of objectives late this summer.

Makower: I’ll look forward to seeing those.

Challis: I think we’re at a stage now where we’re pretty sure what we’re going to focus on, but we are going through the process of refining our targets and making sure that we have the systems in place so we can start working on them. Because we’re not here just to set PR goals, but to do the things that are important to our business. What I can say now is we won’t lose our focus on carbon because that remains an incredibly important issue for the world, and for RB. But we’ll be expanding that to include things like water scarcity as well as the social side to sustainability.