Corporate Citizenship Perspectives

How to embed sustainability into the business enterprise

Posted by Susan Heany on May 15, 2012 11:19:35 AM

For consumer products companies like Avon, there is often a quick assumption that sustainability will focus on the products themselves – products that are green, organic, natural or similar designations. But at Avon, and many peer companies, the sustainability imperative is embedded organically (no pun!) into the business enterprise, with a commitment to identify and leverage sustainable opportunities in the processes required to develop, create and deliver products to the consumer.

Historically these processes have been invisible to the stakeholder, but with the increased demand for transparency and disclosure, companies have a greater opportunity to showcase meaningful commitments – a silver lining in the sometimes cloudy sky of reporting, rankings and ratings. And, along the way, the thousands of employees who bring the sustainability commitment to life, from environmental engineers to marketers, are elevated to playing a role in a larger mission, not just “doing their jobs.”

In developing policies and processes for sustainability, Avon has a unique asset: one of the original principles upon which Avon was founded in 1886 is a commitment to "meet fully the obligations of corporate citizenship by contributing to the well-being of society and the environment in which it functions." Today, 126 years later, many of our 40,000 worldwide associates are passionately committed to ensuring this commitment is met

In the commitment to being internally authentic, companies face many possible environmental areas to tackle. When the lens of materiality is applied – is it meaningful to the company, the stakeholders, and the planet, and can the company have an impact – certain opportunities rise to the top.

For Avon, as a direct seller, paper usage is among our largest environmental impacts and we are in a position to influence supply and demand. Therefore, a core mission is to help end deforestation, and the Avon Paper Promise outlines specific metrics and goals for paper reduction and sourcing. Similarly, the global Hello Green Tomorrow program focuses on mobilization, education and fundraising to help restore critically endangered rain forests, with more than $3.5 million raised in its first two years.

While we don’t have traditional stores, Avon has more than 1 million square feet of real estate. Our Avon Green Building Promise commits us to LEED certification (or local equivalent) for all new or major retrofits. We have achieved Gold or higher certification in two facilities in the United States, including our New York City headquarters, and significant facilities in Brazil, China, Colombia and the United Kingdom. The Avon Colombia “Eco Branch” is the first building in the nation to achieve LEED Gold, which helps advance sustainable construction in that country.

In another case of leading by example, the Avon Palm Oil Promise lays out guidelines to help drive sustainable palm oil, which is a leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia. While more than 80 percent of palm oil is for foods, and Avon is a very minor player, we can lend our name and be a leader within our industry for this issue even if our physical influence is minimal.

This is not to say we do not assess sustainability in our products. There is a "Green Team" at Avon R&D, where new concepts, ingredients and products are developed, and the company works closely with raw material suppliers to stay abreast of the latest trends and improvements in product sourcing and ingredients.

For packaging, the Avon team seeks to limit the amount and type of materials. As an example, there is a savings of raw materials through "light weighting" plastics. Also, because Avon is a direct seller, we are already minimal in much of our packaging since we do not have to display on retail shelves.

For now, our core commitment is to ensure we are sustainable in the way we run our daily operations around the world. In addition to the policies on paper, buildings, and palm oil, we have goals and commitments for the “nuts and bolts” of our business. In 2011 Avon manufacturing and distribution facilities had a nearly 80 percent recycling rate, and our manufacturing achieved a 27 percent absolute reduction in water consumption, 11 percent absolute reduction in energy and 23 percent absolute greenhouse gas emissions reduction (from 2005 Avon baseline).

I once read an anecdote that reflects what it is to work on sustainability within a “traditional” business framework. Three stonemasons toiled away on a cathedral in medieval France. The first, unhappy at his job, complained that he had to cut endless blocks of stone every day. The second, satisfied with his job, noted that his work allowed him to provide for his family. The third, delighted with his job, believed his work was a privilege because he was a small part of a grand project that would benefit generations to come. If we do our jobs right, we can be, too.

Topics: Business Perspectives, Environment, Sustainability, Executive Interviews

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