Catching up with P&G’s sustainability optimist

Len Sauers is among the most optimistic people I know in the world of corporate sustainability executives. For years, I’ve watched him enthusiastically and relentlessly extol the commitments and achievements of his company, Procter & Gamble, where he is Vice President for Global Sustainability. I know a few other eternal optimists in the field — McDonald’s Bob Langert comes to mind — but Sauers is right up there.

One might easily write him off as a corporate mouthpiece, someone paid to sing pitch-perfectly from the company’s hymnal. But as I’ve watched and talked with Sauers over the past decade or so, I’m fairly certain that’s not the case. Sauers not only believes deeply in his company and its sustainability mission, he cares deeply about it, too. He is part of a small corps of committed souls not often heralded in the world of corporate sustainability.

His unbridled optimism came through during two recent conversations — the first when I ran into Sauers at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in May, the second during a follow-up phone call last month.

First, some background: In 2010, P&G, the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world, announced a set of 2020 sustainability goals, an update to the goals the company set in 2007. The 2010 goals made four broad commitments: to power P&G plants with 100 percent renewable energy, use 100 percent renewable or recycled materials in all products and packaging, have zero consumer and manufacturing waste go to landfills, and design and sell products "that delight consumers while maximizing the conservation of resources."

As part of P&G’s first sustainability goals, in 2007, was the goal of achieving at least $50 billion in sales of “Sustainable Innovation Products” — those that have an improved environmental profile. To meet that threshold, products must

have a >10% reduction in one or more of the following indicators without negatively impacting the overall Sustainability profile of the product: a) energy, b) water, c) transportation, d) amount of material used in packaging or products, e) substitution of nonrenewable energy or materials with renewable sources.

In its 2012 sustainability report (PDF), the company said it had exceeded that goal, with cumulative sales of $52 billion.

The third leg of P&G’s sustainability stool is decidedly social. In 2007, it committed over five years to “prevent 160 million days of disease from unclean water and save 20,000 lives by delivering 4 billion liters of clean water through our P&G Children’s Safe Drinking Water program.” Last year, P&G upped the ante, pledging by 2020 to “save one life every hour by delivering 2 billion liters of clean water every year.”

Sauers’ role in all this was enhanced recently during a company reorganization that led to him having accountability for global product stewardship, not “just” global sustainability. Sauers, a nearly 25-year veteran at P&G, says the move was intended to simplify the company’s management structure by putting various parts of the sustainability value chain within a single organization. That means everything from materials science for products and packaging, to sustainable sourcing of raw materials, to increased use of renewable energy for facilities, to less-wasteful plant operation, to the dozens of social marketing programs tied to specific P&G products — all live within Sauers’ domain.

“As with all types of internal mergings like this, it eliminates a lot of transactions costs and allows us to bring scale to some of these programs,” Sauers told me.

Next page: Power in partnerships