Alexandra Palt (L'Oréal): “In the field of sustainable development, you learn by doing”

On the occasion of European Sustainable Development Week, Alexandra Palt, Chief Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility Officer of L’Oréal and Executive Vice-President of the L’Oréal Foundation, explained to how the French cosmetics giant is working to improve its products and minimise their environmental impact, and underlined the challenges faced in explaining this kind of activity to consumers.

Alexandra Palt specialised in human rights early on in her career, and has notably worked at Amnesty International in Germany and at HALDE, the French High Commission against Discrimination and for Equal Opportunities. She joined L’Oréal in 2012, and now reports directly to the group’s CEO Jean-Paul Agon.

Alexandra Palt - Philippe Calandre pour L’Oréal Since you joined L’Oréal, you have launched ‘Sharing Beauty with All’, the group’s sustainable development programme. How is the group performing with regards to the objectives set for 2020?

Alexandra Palt: We are making good progress, though we certainly won’t reach all the objectives we set ourselves. Some of them we will actually exceed, for example the target for CO2 emission reduction. We pledged to reduce by 60% in absolute terms the CO2 emissions generated by our manufacturing processes and, at the end of 2017, we’d already cut them by 70%. On the other hand, we know we won’t be able to hit our target for waste reduction, which was also set at minus 60% by 2020.

We chose to define as ‘waste’ everything that isn’t a finished product, a very stringent requirement. By the end of 2017, we managed to cut waste on finished products by 35%, and we are recycling 96% of our waste. Though we risk not reaching the target we set for 2020, we will nevertheless end up recycling nearly 100% of our waste. In the field of sustainable development, you learn by doing, as you do with any visionary project: we set ourselves a goal and this then forced us to re-think the way we work and how we develop our products. This is what’s happening at L’Oréal, and it’s our biggest success. 

FNW: L’Oréal regularly issues statements about its environmental performance; how do you reply to the sceptics?
AP: Disclosing information about sustainable development is a genuine duty, and I’m aware that – especially in France – people are wary. But we must be very clear: in this hyper-transparent world of ours, if L’Oréal engages in greenwashing, it would soon become known! The figures we publish each year underline our goal of being transparent about results. And as industry leaders, we also have a responsibility, since the way we operate can encourage others to do likewise. Everyone must be made aware of their own responsibilities, which means we must never stop talking about sustainable development and climate change, and about what each individual consumer can do.  Because when they buy cosmetics, consumers don’t necessarily think about sustainable development. And as long as they don’t embrace this mindset, it will be hard to move forward as fast as we’d like to.

FNW: So, how do you explain to consumers the work that L’Oréal is doing to improve its products and minimise their environmental impact?
AP: We have analysed this for several years, and I’d dearly like to be able to give you a simple, straightforward answer, but it’s still a challenge. As a corporation, we want to improve constantly, and we pledged that 100% of our products will show an improvement in their environmental and social profile by 2020. Even though it’s possible we may not reach this figure, what’s really interesting is that this approach really does change the way we do things: we use recycled plastic for packaging, we design formulas in a different way, we reduce the size of bottles and containers so that they take up less space on delivery trucks and we can slash CO2 emissions, etc. We’d like to tell consumers about all these improvements, but our surveys show that consumers aren’t necessarily interested in them.

Translated by Nicola Mira

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