René Descartes, the French philosopher, had a word of advice for all those seeking after truth. It is necessary, he wrote, that at least once in your life "you doubt, as far as possible, all things". It's sound advice for those seeking after sustainability too.
After all, if you're ever going to stand a chance of winning folk to your cause, you need to know how they think. That requires stepping back from time to time, said Alexandra Palt, chief sustainability officer (CSO) at French cosmetics company L'Oreal: "If you're too involved, you're not convincing people, you're exhausting them."
But convince them you must. Even for those companies with the clearest policy commitments and most adroit leadership, sustainability doesn't come easy. If it did, every business would have been doing it for years.
L'Oreal is no different. Last month, the beauty products firm launched an ambitious set of sustainability targets for 2020. Palt has been building up to the announcement since joining L'Oreal two years ago. The targets include an audacious commitment to reducing the company's environmental footprint by 60% while also reaching one billion new customers.
Culturally, it's a big step for a French firm, said 41-year-old Palt, who is Austrian by birth but who has been living in France for the last 14 years. As a rule, French companies prefer to talk about past achievements rather than future vision, she observed: "To say we will have difficult ambitions and we don't know if we'll achieve it…that's not very natural in France."
A big part of her success in convincing L'Oreal to "commit big" on sustainability derives from her ability to step into the shoes of others. Whenever she goes to speak to someone as CSO, she always has three questions in mind: 'What is important for them? What is interesting for them? [And] In what way is what I'm doing going to help them to have an easier life."
She's not starting from zero, it should be said. L'Oreal's procurement managers already have responsibility for social auditing and inclusive purchasing written into their job descriptions, for instance. But she still knows the right buttons to press when necessary. Take employee diversity. Talking to a human resources manager on the subject, she'll stress the benefits around access to talent and innovation. It's the same with marketing. When discussing sustainability, she homes in on the appeal to young people and aspirational buyers in emerging markets.
Convincing consumers about sustainability – something she identifies as one of L'Oreal's big challenges going forward – is where her knack for seeing how others think really kicks in. Brands need to get off the "horrible, guilty, negative part" of the sustainability story, she said. Threatening folk with rising sea levels and apocalyptic futures will never budge them. Far better to make "beautiful products that are desirable" – oh, and then ensure they're sustainable.
'We don't want to say to people, 'buy our products because they are sustainable. This is not working'", she argued. The same goes for behaviour change. Haranguing people to become more sustainable is a waste of breath. "No, (I say) behave like this because it's the most aspirational, nicest, best way to live your life."
Again, L'Oreal has been inching forward on this agenda since Palt occupied the CSO seat. The firm's luxury brand Biotherm, for instance, now boasts an aggressive campaign on water efficiency. Garnier and Kiehl's, on the other hand, are both giving a major push to recycling.
Winning over the critical public requires a similar gift for empathy and understanding. Like any multi-national, L'Oreal faces a sceptical audience when it comes to sustainability. More specifically, its advertising tactics have courted controversy in the recent past. Palt's response is to open dialogue channels wherever possible. When preparing L'Oreal's proposed 2020 sustainability commitments, for example, she arranged workshops in more than half a dozen countries to gather public feedback.
"I think a lot of companies are afraid when they organise these kind of stakeholder forums. They think, 'oh my God, what is going to happen and so on", she said. In contrast, she said she "wasn't worried", a fact she attributes to her "militant" early days working for Amnesty International and an anti-racism charity. She retains a good feel for how advocacy groups think and operate: "You understand what kind of information and what degree of transparency they want."
This global consultation process served as a "reality check". Some issues that L'Oreal thought were important for the public fell on deaf ears, and vice versa; some non-priority issues turned out to be far bigger concerns than the company anticipated. The drawing of lines worked both ways. Palt was able to clarify certain misconceptions, particularly around the philanthropic nature of L'Oreal's plans ("strategy sustainability" is one of her favourite and most repeated terms).
This willingness to speak her mind suggests that empathy isn't the only weapon in her management armoury. She isn't afraid to correct external audiences, for example, when they are wrong or – more likely – don't have all the facts to hand: "You have to have strong convictions to give some leadership, so people feel they can trust you on what you say, because on some issues you might know better."
Such an approach fits with what L'Oreal calls its "culture of confrontation". This sees individuals being actively encouraged to defend their own opinions, as well as confronting those of others. The result is often "loud and dynamic", but it sometimes takes guts to speak out, said Palt. And guts is what she feels every CSO needs.
"It's much easier to bring your company forward if you're courageous and not afraid for your job", she concluded. Descartes could hardly have said it better.
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