Exclusive Interview with P&G

Interview with:

  • Elizabeth Kinney, Senior Communications Manager, Procter & Gamble
  • Todd Cline, Section Head – North America Fabric Care R&D, Procter & Gamble

Smithers: What are the biggest challenges we are currently facing in the realm of sustainability and cleaning products?  

Todd: One of the biggest challenges we face is a misunderstanding with consumers about what really drives sustainability, particularly in fabric care products.  There is a lot of belief that the key driver of sustainability is the chemicals or ingredients that go into the product, and that there are several products that are positioned as being more sustainable because they have less “stuff” in them.  In reality, having high product performance is very, very important on enabling sustainability.

Here at P&G we measure total carbon footprint from beginning to end by measuring the life cycle of the product.  The number one driver of life cycle assessment in laundry is the energy it takes to heat water.  And as people use lower performing products, they end up incorporating a lot of compensating behaviors to get their clothes clean.  One of the first responses to low performing products is that they turn up the water temperature to get their laundry clean.  So while the consumers believe that they’re doing something good by buying a product that’s positioned around sustainability, the product doesn’t clean very well, so they may turn up the temperature and use a lot more energy or they even have to re-wash things and in turn, they’re doubling the energy and the water usage.  I think one of the big challenges we have (with consumers) is a misunderstanding about what practicing sustainability means.  The best things you can do from a sustainability practice in laundry is to use a good performing product, and to turn the washer to cold.


Smithers: How are you getting the “best practices of sustainability in laundry” message across to consumers?

Elizabeth: We often talk to consumers through partnerships and through our own brand voice.  For example, there was a program that was in WalMart stores nationwide around the savings you can get from turning to “quick and cold.”  The consumer can realize quite a bit of savings on their energy bill by washing with a quicker cycle and cooler cycle.  The energy savings, the time savings and the money savings are all important for the consumer to realize.

Depending on the consumers motivation, if their motivation is to save money on their energy bill,  and that’s going to make them a more sustainable behavior – that works.  Considering all of the various benefits in addition to the environmental benefits are key.


Smithers: Todd: You helped to develop the Tire Purclean product and will tell us more about that journey at the event this year.  Can you touch on what will be covered during your presentation?

Todd: We are going to tackle a few things during our presentation.  1) What are the overall sustainability drivers for fabric care and life cycle assessments? 2) We’ll share how we think about the circular economy and how we design our products for circularity and we’ll use Purclean as an example of something that we designed for a specific consumer who is looking to make more natural and sustainable choices.   I think what will be enlightening but most people don’t think of right away, is there are a lot of ways you can impact sustainability with the design of detergent.  A lot of people know about cold water washing and the impact that can have, particularly people working in the industry.  But we’ll share information about how the design of the products we use can also have big sustainability improvements like minimizing the amount of water the washer uses, we can impact that with the detergent design.  But also, we can actually impact how long clothes last!  And when we talk about life cycle assessment and having a big impact, if we can get people to use clothes for 1, 2 to 10+ wears longer, and reduce the environmental impact of what it takes to make and dispose of clothing, we could have a huge impact from a sustainability standpoint!

Smithers: Elizabeth: What was the biggest challenge marketing a plant-based laundry detergent to consumers?  How were you able to find success?   What was the biggest surprise?

That’s been a journey for us.  Todd’s point around a lot of misunderstanding around what sustainability really means in this space has led to a variety of different communications and messages that we’ve shared.  Right now, the product is doing well in the market, and although plant-based products are a smaller market, we are driving a lot of the market by all of the various propositions we have in that space.  I know we’re talking about Purclean right now, but we actually have a full portfolio of plant based products that actually mirror all of the base products in our portfolio.  We have a plant based version of Gain called Gain Botannicals.  If you’re familiar with Gain, you know it’s created for the scent-lover who look for an irresistible scent in their laundry – so we now have a plant based detergent that incorporates the irresistible scents, but inspired by nature.  We have a plant based version of Dreft, which is our detergent for babies, and a recently launched plant based Downy (Downy Nature Blends) which is our liquid fabric conditioner. 

We’re trying to help consumers understand that they don’t have to trade off the benefits of what they love about the products they use just because they want a plant based product. There’s a lot of hesitation and this idea of “Gosh I’d really love to use a plant based product, but I’ve heard they don’t clean” or “they don’t work” or “they’re expensive” and so we’re trying to create a product that doesn’t have any trade-offs when we move into this space.


Smithers: Tell me more about the plant based products, how are they different than the ‘traditional’ products…

Todd: When we started the journey on Tide Purclean, we set a very clear criteria for ourselves.  Whatever we developed, needed to be plant based, but still had to perform exactly how Tide in the orange bottle consumers are used to.  We started with a hypothesis that we still believe, there are a lot of consumers that are looking to make more natural, sustainable product choices – for example, if you look at organic foods, and what they’re doing in beauty segments – but consumers haven’t been willing to accept the trade off in cleaning products so the segment has stayed smaller there.  We know there’s the consumer desire, but they haven’t made that leap.  So we set a criteria that whatever we design, has to perform just like our traditional products.

The main difference between what we have with our plant based products like Tide Purclean versus our traditional Tide is that we’ve been able to search out and find materials that have feedstock that are made out of plants.  So substituting the oils that can come from plants to feed cleaning materials versus using petroleum.


Smithers: There is a lot of talk about sustainability in the fashion industry.  They are making the connection that the current use of fabrics is not sustainable. This will have implications for cleaning products – for example, how to design a product that helps preserve the fabrics for longer.  How are you responding to this challenge?

Elizabeth: The best thing we can do is understand the role that we can play.  As a manufacturer of detergents, fabric conditioners, our biggest role can really be around extending the life of clothing and helping people to keep the clothes that they love looking newer longer, so that the clothes spend more time in closets and on bodies than in landfill.  If we recognize that as the problem, and understand that people purchase clothes that they like and they want to keep those clothes, so when clothes fall apart, rip, fade or pill, and the consumer isn’t able to bring (the clothes) back to the way that they were  - overall there is a feeling of frustration and loss of value.  Whether we’re talking to a consumer who is concerned about the impact that their clothing is having on the environment, or they’re a consumer who’s very value-conscious and they don’t want to have to keep going out and purchasing the same clothing items over and over again that are failing from a garment stand point.  Overall, that’s where we think we can have the biggest impact – from helping the consumer care for their clothes in a way that extends the life of that clothing.  

Todd: For helping to maintain the fabric life of the products, one of the best things that helps protect clothes from aging is to wash on cold.  We’ve designed all of our detergents to wash on cold from a sustainability point on energy, it is a help on fabric longevity.  We’ve also built a lot of other pieces into our product to help maintain.

If you’re on municipal water in the US, there is chlorine in the water and that’s to keep the water safe.  But chlorine is also what’s in bleach.  So you get very low doses of something that makes clothes fade that comes in with the water.  We know that in chlorine is savaging to our products so it binds the chlorine and can help prevent fading.  So in multi-cycles, where you see a dark shirt start to fade when you’re using our products because we’ve built in the savaging – we can help reduce that a ton.

We also have materials that keep dirt from depositing back on the clothes.  For example if you are doing a load of whites in a high efficiency machine, it uses a lot less water.  The great thing about these machines is that they use less electricity and less water.  But if you’ve got a dirty load of laundry, when the detergent pulls the dirt off, you’ve then created a very dirty slug of water.  We have materials in our products that keeps the dirt from depositing back on the clothing.  If you ever notice a white tshirt, after multiple washings, has what we call a “grey dinge” and it’s actually dirt from the laundry redepositing back on the shirt.  We have materials that protect the fabric so that it doesn’t redeposit during the wash process.  So it keeps your clothes looking newer, longer. 

With our fabric conditioners, it’s just like hair conditioner.  It actually coats the fibers and it protects them in the wash and dry process so you don’t get the pilling that can lead to the clothes staring to look old.  We really focus on preventing fading, preventing the fuzz, and also preventing the dinge build up.  With all of those, we can extend the fabric life significantly.


Smithers: Looking towards the future of cleaning products, what are you most excited about?

Todd: I’m really excited about the mainstreaming of green chemistry given my role and what my team is working on.  Three years ago, there were a lot fewer people working on new ideas for materials and innovation that leverage green chemistry principals.  I’m excited about the number of people in the space that are working on ways that we can solve the problems with green chemistry and it’s evolving problem.  Green used to mean putting “less stuff in there” and accepting poorer performance whereas now we have something that works as well or better, at equal or lower cost.  Just as we get into that space, it’s really going to explode that part of the market.

Elizabeth: With green chemistry enabling this discussion, for me it’s about shifting the consumer mindset and seeing more people experience high performance plant based products, and getting satisfaction out of that.  Understanding that they don’t have to trade off compromises to use a plant based product.  I’m looking forward to watching this market grow, and watching people experience really high performing plant based products.


Smithers: Why is this event important to the cleaning products industry?

Elizabeth: Looking at the high quality speakers and attendees going to this event, you can begin to picture the different points of view and I most look forward to the dialogue.  All the different backgrounds and ways of thinking will make for a great exchange of ideas, innovations, conversations and ideas in a very open forum.  Only good things end up coming from that.

Todd: I am always inspired when learning what other people are doing in the industry, and I’m glad that we (P&G) get to share a bit of what we’re working on so we can help others. One of the great things when you share in a space like this is that people come to you afterwards with builds and ideas on how we can improve and shift our thinking so we can act on that.  I love being a part of the collaboration and hearing what people have to give us in terms of feedback and ideas.


Smithers: What does P&G hope to achieve and what can we see happening over the next few years with regards to the future development of cleaning products?

Todd: From a green chemistry standpoint, we’re always looking for new ways to delight the consumer, so that’s where we start.  From a sustainability standpoint, some of the things that P&G and the whole industry are working towards is thinking beyond impacting consumer behavior.  For example, design our products and packages to influence people to turn to cold water washing, recycle and keep their clothes longer. The other things we will tackle are, how do you still deliver the same level of performance, but with less total “stuff” in the product?  Because that’s the next way we can begin to impact the life cycle assessment.  Reducing the total amount of chemistry needed for that performance.

I think the other concern that the whole industry is going to work through is the challenge with the amount of plastics and how we deal with that, and build in more circular thinking.  As a company we’re committed to being part of the solution on it, and the whole industry is as well. 


Smithers: How does sustainability drive surfactant selection at P&G?

Todd: Our starting criteria for surfactants is always about cleaning performance.  Tide stands for being the best cleaning product on the market, so when we’re evaluating surfactants, we’re looking at how well does it clean in terms of what we’ve designed it to clean -  tracy soils, particulates and things like that.  So the number one driver of the product lifecycle assessment in the laundry process is the energy it takes to heat the water in the wash cycle.  So as we focus relentlessly on the best cleaning performance, that’s an enabler of always allowing the individual to wash on cold water.


Smithers: What are your criteria?

It starts with performance as the number one criteria: building it in and assessing the performance of the product.  Beyond that, we’ve gotten into our plant based work so one of the criteria is also what does the sustainability footprint look like for the feedstocks?  For example, any of the plant based surfactants come from palm oil.  As a company, we are a member of the round table for sustainable palm (RFPO). What we’re using for our feedstocks for our plant based products are all RFPO certified and as a company we work towards improving the sustainability of the farming and production of feed sources to get these oils.  So as a starting point, we’re always looking at performance, but then we look at cost as a driver because if it’s significantly more expensive that becomes a challenge, and finally – what does the sourcing profile look like from a material standpoint?


Smithers: How have they changed in recent years?

The last 2-3 years we’ve focused on creating plant based products and we have gone much deeper into what’s the sourcing of material?  Determining where is this material coming from and what does the sustainability profile look like on the growing and harvesting of it to get to the materials.  We are looking at a lot more natural based materials that we did in the past.  Maybe before Tide or Gain, we wouldn’t of looked at because they cost more, they can’t be done at the same scale that we need for Tide and Gain, but for the plant based business, the cost might be something that we can work into the product. We don’t have the same scale yet for that business, so we’ll look at some different alternatives to bring in innovative, natural surfactants.


Smithers: Regarding sustainability profiles, what more needs to be done by surfactant suppliers to make their materials more sustainable?

The number one thing we could do – and this all starts with don’t change the performance –is reduce the overall amount of chemistry per dose in detergent.  For all the chemistry that’s in the detergent, you have the energy to make these raw materials, and you have the energy to pull these materials out of the waste water systems.  The energy for us to actually mix the products and make the final product in the lifecycle assessment is very low. But thinking about the chemicals that go in, and the disposal of them are significant drivers of the lifecycle assessment. Making the surfactants even more efficient so you can put less of it in there means that there is a reduction of overall life cycle assessment. 

The others are as we develop more natural, renewable sources of surfactants, making sure that we can develop those at a scale that can supply major business, like the size of the Tide business – and also be cost competitive.