Eight Questions for Clorox’s Product-Sustainability Guru
Research fellow Scott Mobley spends a lot of time thinking about the safety and sustainability of Clorox’s products and packaging. A member of the Global Stewardship team, Scott uses his degree in pharmacology/toxicology, as well as his deep and varied product knowledge, to share information and best practices with fellow employees, retailers, eco advocacy groups, government regulatory agencies and fellow consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies.
Here Scott talks about safety, sustainability and working with industry groups to find better ways to engage advocacy groups and consumers.
What does the Global Stewardship team do and what is your role?
We have professionals with expertise in global trade, product safety, chemistry, public health, microbiology and more. All of these disciplines come together to provide the needed expertise to be complete “stewards” of our products, from start to finish. From raw materials to final packaged formulation, there is really no part of our products that we do not touch.
As stewards, we’re also involved in product sustainability. Part of my role is to help connect our broader corporate responsibility goals with specific choices, like using ingredients and chemistries in our products that will help us reach our own sustainability goals and those of our retail customers. While others on our team typically engage with our raw material suppliers, I often find myself being “where the rubber meets the road” in terms of knowing and meeting the expectations of our biggest customers.
Many retailers have their own sustainability programs that say, “Here are the types of chemistries we do not want to sell in our stores.” I take this and translate it for our R&D team and help Clorox make choices in chemistries and in packaging that will meet our customers’ needs and our own internal standards.
You also represent Clorox in many groups for packaged-goods companies, including The Sustainability Consortium’s Corporate Advisory Council, Customer Sustainability Engagement (with retailers), and the American Cleaning Institute’s Sustainability Working Group. What are these groups trying to achieve?
These groups work to find a balance between producing more sustainable products and doing it profitably. We simply must have that balance. Sustainability is not about being so extreme that you cannot make a profit with your product because that’s not a sustainable business model.
While much of the work is self-directed by the industry, there are times when the work is in response to concerns from public advocacy groups. In these situations, we seek to first understand the concerns, and then, if there is a legitimate reason, we work to address the issue within a reasonable time frame. Sometimes interest groups have very reasonable end goals, but they want changes implemented immediately. Large companies simply cannot react that quickly, so we try to engage them and agree on a time frame to make those end goals happen.
Within these industry groups, how much do companies really share with each other on sustainability ideas? Don’t companies want to keep a competitive edge regarding these things?
It is a delicate balance, for sure. We try to find common areas to address that will benefit the entire industry and work on those together. A prime example is the development of the sustainability metrics program through The American Cleaning Institute (ACI), a trade association in which Clorox is very active.
In 2009, ACI and its members embarked on a pilot project to report on a common set of sustainability-related operational metrics that are relevant to CPG and raw material supplier members. Metrics are captured in four categories related to each company’s operations: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and waste generation. Tracking these metrics, and reporting the industry average provides a baseline and indicators by which we can measure sustainability-related performance for ACI members.
Although ACI members are competitors, sharing information and ideas related to general sustainability can benefit us all. Each company can then implement things that work for our specific corporate cultures and branding. There is no one size fits all with sustainability, just like any other discipline in business.
Is there a recent specific decision or action from an industry group that has made a tangible difference in the sustainability effort at Clorox and among other CPG companies?
The best example comes from The Sustainability Consortium. CPG companies receive requests from a wide range of stakeholders — public interest groups, customers, the media — looking for information on product sustainability, and they all want different things and in different formats. As a result, companies are trying to manage too much information, differently, for too many people. This is time-consuming and inefficient.
Consortium members like Clorox are working to agree on the most important sustainability attributes or “hot spots” to consider in specific categories of products, then develop key performance indicators (KPIs) that will measure a company’s improvement against each of these hot spots. By agreeing on a common set of KPIs, if successful, suppliers will no longer need to scramble to handle individual and varied information requests from their customers. Standardizing across each industry category will cut down considerably on time and expense for all.
The Sustainability Consortium is open to public advocacy groups, companies in various industries, government agencies and academia. It is a great common ground for people to discuss product sustainability issues, and this information-standardization project is helpful for everyone involved, including consumers.
How far along is this effort?
The consortium has developed KPIs for more than 100 CPG categories, with more to come. Once this data is captured, any consortium member will be able to access and use this information, and over time, drive meaningful sustainability improvements across product categories.
For example, Walmart is a consortium member. It takes this data, applies its own scoring system to it, and requires suppliers like Clorox to complete a questionnaire that evaluates how our products stack up against the consortium’s KPIs. Eventually, Walmart and other retailers may use this kind of scoring system to help decide which products to carry in their stores.
You helped develop Clorox’s Preferred Ingredient Calculator. What is this?
A few years ago we realized we needed a simpler way for our scientists to make informed choices from a sustainability standpoint when selecting ingredients for cleaning formulations. So we developed the Preferred Ingredient Calculator, which is now available for use by the scientists who formulate our cleaning products.
Basically, any raw material can be entered and evaluated against various human health and environmental attributes. For example, we collect information from our raw-materials suppliers about how biodegradable a raw material is, and we rate how important biodegradability is versus the 20 or so other attributes we also measure for that material. Once we have a total score for each raw material, we compare that to the scores for other raw materials that could possibly be used as a substitute in a product. This way, we see if we’ve made the lowest-impact and safest choices of raw materials in each product. This helps our product formulators understand the sustainability attributes of the choices they have at their disposal as they create Clorox products.
Where do you think the CPG industry has made the most progress in recent years?
We’ve made significant progress around ingredient transparency for consumers, who are now really interested in seeing what’s in the products they use. Ten years ago, only the “deep greens” cared about this information, but today you see people in store aisles reading labels all the time. So we did this to adapt to the way people shop and what they care about now.
Product labels are the primary source of this information, but you can also find it on our web sites or use our Ingredients Inside smartphone app to scan a Clorox product’s bar code and pull up the ingredient list while you’re shopping.
The Consumer Specialty Products Association is one of the biggest drivers of this effort. We members agreed to disclose ingredients in a specific way, and came together as an industry to say “This is important, and here is how we are going to do it.” There’s also peer pressure — companies are pushing each other to stay proactive in their sustainability and transparency efforts.
Is there a final point you’d like to make about Clorox’s sustainability efforts?
Yes. We put product safety — for humans and the environment – at the forefront. The fact that sustainability has become more mainstream does not mean we had to change the way we approach safety. We have a dedicated staff with toxicology, chemical and regulatory expertise conduct evaluations before we sell any product or use any ingredient in our formulas. And that will continue to be the case.