Companies need good change managers, not sustainability experts

Alexandra Palt, chief sustainability officer at L’Oréal. Photo by: L’Oréal

Alexandra Palt aims to set the tone for sustainability in the beauty sector, and is not resting on her laurels.

The chief sustainability officer at cosmetics giant L’Oréal, one of France's largest companies, wants the firm to integrate sustainability into its global business strategy — and along its entire value chain.

In order to accomplish her goals, Palt believes she has the right qualities and skillset.

“You have to be a very good change manager, not a sustainability expert,” she said during an exclusive interview with Devex in Paris. “There are 100,000 sustainability experts out there, but what we need most are people who know how to lead change on sustainability.”

Here are more highlights from our conversation.

You've been chief sustainability officer at L’Oréal since 2012. Which of your achievements are you most proud of?

I would not say “proud of” because it is always a team that collectively works with a chief sustainability officer. Any successful accomplishment results from the involvement of a whole group of managers, and the leadership of our CEO. And we're lucky at L’Oréal to have a CEO [Jean-Paul Agon] with a very strong commitment to those issues. So I'm proud of the team spirit that allows us to better work towards our goal: building together an even more sustainable business model. Thanks to this whole team, we managed to adopt a long-term vision of sustainability at L’Oreal for 2020 through our "Sharing beauty with all" strategy, which completely transforms our business and the way we're doing business.  

What exactly are the links between your CSR strategy and your business goals?

Sustainability is completely integrated into our business model; it is not a program apart. In order to be embedded into the business strategy, it has to cover the entire value chain. First innovation; then production.

For example, regarding production, we decided to reduce our environmental footprint by 60 percent. And then, we have our consumers to whom we want to propose the most sustainable products, so that they can make sustainable lifestyle choices. We try to encourage them in this direction.

In addition, we have decided to help our suppliers to improve their own sustainability strategy. We encourage them to reduce their environmental footprint and to increase their social impact.

We share our growth with our employees, through our social performance program "Share and Care." L’Oréal always had an ambitious social model in France. As we are global, we want to extend this social performance. We want every L’Oréal employee in the world to get the best available health care system in their country. In addition, everywhere in the world, women will have access to 14-week maternity leave. In a lot of countries, maternity leave is not a legal requirement.

Additionally, employees will benefit from a security system, what we call “prevoyance” in France, that is to say payments in case of invalidity or death of the employee. Not to mention access to training for everybody.

L’Oréal has developed several programs in emerging markets, including, for example, a program aimed at empowering micro-entrepreneurs in Brazil who sell your hair care products …

Yes, we have community programs with an important ambition: We want to enable 100,000 people from underprivileged communities to access work.

And you also work with the nonprofit sector to achieve those goals?

We work with different partners for the achievement of our goals: it can be researchers, experts, NGOs, consumers' associations, institutions … Regarding our "Share and Care" social performance program, for example, we work with the International Labor Organization. As part of the community programs, for our microdistribution programs for example, we cooperate with national training institutions and banks. And for our responsible sourcing programs, we partner with fair trade organizations … so we continuously work with a lot of partners in order to achieve our objectives.

Could you give us a concrete example of a partnership you've developed with an nongovernmental organization?

For our argan oil sourcing program in Morocco, we worked with our suppliers and an NGO called Yamana, which helped us create a social fund and the cooperative of argan oil produced by women. The international community recognized it as a best practice for the improvement of working and living conditions of Moroccan women collecting argan oil.

What are your main challenges now as a chief sustainability officer?

We have to continue our efforts with the same energy to achieve our targets. We have to be ever more innovative in order to change consumers' behaviours, through packaging innovation for example. How do we get the consumer on board? This is the most important challenge.

You don't work directly for the CEO, but you're attached to the communications department. Does this present any difficulties?

L’Oréal’s sustainability strategy impacts its entire value chain and is fully supported by our CEO and the executive committee. All brands and entities are involved and it's my responsibility to work with them to help them achieve our objectives.

CSR is sometimes used as an argument to support PR campaigns. What is your point of view regarding CSR and communication?

At L’Oréal, sustainability goes far beyond communication as we're about to live a transformation process of our entire value chain to meet our sustainability objectives. Communication is part of our strategy to make sustainability desirable by offering consumers sustainable products without compromising on performance or look.

What would be your key piece of advice to those working in CSR?

What is very important is to try to not just use catastrophic messages to get people on board. Sustainability has to become inspirational.

And if you had to name one thing that global development professionals should avoid regarding work around sustainability initiatives?

You have to be a very good change manager, not a sustainability expert. There are 100,000 sustainability experts out there, but what we need most are people who know how to lead change on sustainability.

What areas should NGOs improve regarding the way they work with private companies?

Of course NGOs have to continue to challenge companies. I really encourage NGOs to share constructive criticism to help us become better. But if they want to build new long-term relationship models, they really have to put themselves into our shoes and ask: what are their big business challenges and how can we help address environmental and social challenges while keeping in mind these business challenges?

Is it easy for a company like L’Oréal to work with NGOs?

It is never easy to work with anybody! Corporations, NGOs — we all have to try and work together on the basis of trust, with a constructive ambition and without a preconceived opinion.

You previously worked for NGOs, including Amnesty International. Does this experience help you in your current role?

It does help, because I know how NGOs function and what they expect from corporations. So it's perhaps easier to respond to their needs.

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About the author

  • Elodie vialle profile

    Elodie Vialle

    Elodie Vialle is a French journalist with online, TV, radio and print experience focused on the themes of social innovation and humanitarian issues. She also teaches web journalism at leading French journalism graduate schools and in other countries, including Haiti. She advises media on their digital strategies and is frequently called upon by top French institutions to share her expertise in the field of sustainable development.