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L’Oréal Paris' head on how to be a 'sustainability pioneer'

Delphine Viguier, the brand head, talks about the strategy to create a sustainable brand

Delphine Viguier became the cosmetics label’s first female president in 2019.
Delphine Viguier became the cosmetics label’s first female president in 2019. (Courtesy L’Oréal Paris)

Delphine Viguier is on an ambitious mission. The global brand president of L’Oréal Paris wants the world’s largest beauty company to become a “sustainability pioneer”—and she wants to reach the target quickly, in nine-and-a-half years, in accordance with the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

It’s not easy, especially if you are a 112-year-old company, catering to customers still largely unaware of how beauty products can damage the environment. But Viguier, a graduate from the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon, with a speciality in plant genetics, is determined. “There isn’t much time left. We have to shift… and play our part in this race against climate change. We need a 360-degree sustainable approach,” says Viguier, who became the cosmetics label’s first female president in 2019.

On Earth Day, 22 April, she unveiled the “L’Oréal For The Future, Because Our Planet Is Worth it” programme, explaining how the brand, with a brand value of over $29 billion (around 2.1 trillion) and double-digit growth, will reduce its carbon footprint by 50% per finished product by 2030.

Lounge spoke with Viguier about the role brands can play in making consumers more conscious of consumption. Edited excerpts:

What is sustainability to you?

Many of our raw materials are sourced from nature. So we do have a strong understanding of our planet’s fragility and the role we can play to preserve it. Any company’s economic success also depends on the contributions it makes to society. At present, the world is facing major environmental issues, whether it is pollution, loss of biodiversity or water scarcity, and women are the first victims of climate change.

As a leading beauty brand, we must be exemplary and innovate, both on the technological side and on the business model side. We have the ability to change the codes of beauty by employing sustainable practices across verticals. Sustainability is about addressing all environmental aspects at once: circular economy and sustainable sourcing.

And what about the supply chain?

We have piloted a tool that allows us to understand precisely where our principal carbon dioxide emissions come from. This data defined our clear action plan to reduce emissions across the supply chain by using recycled materials and reducing the weight of our packaging, working on the renewability of our ingredients, reducing water consumption, engaging our suppliers in reducing their carbon emissions, and having carbon-neutral factories. We are also improving the biodegradability of our formulas and reducing their water footprint.

We are not starting from scratch. Between 2005-20, our factories and distribution centres have already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 82%, water consumption by 44%, and waste generation by 35%. There is still much work to be done but we remain strong in our resolve.

Historically, consumers haven’t really been made aware of the toll beauty can take on the environment. Can cosmetic companies help change consumption patterns?

I want L’Oréal to be a sustainability pioneer but honestly it won’t be possible without the active participation of consumers. We have to educate and empower consumers to make better decisions by proposing alternatives to single-use packaging, supporting responsible product use, especially on water consumption, and educating consumers on recycling. And also, by developing a product using a labelling system that informs consumers of the environmental and social impact of their products. This environmental and social impact labelling system includes a score on a scale from A to E, with an “A” product considered as “best in class” in terms of its environmental impact.

We are positive on an increasing level of participation from the consumers even if it comes at an added cost monetarily, because we all are together in this and we need to save our planet with the impact that we aim to create together.

Perhaps the biggest culprit is packaging. How are you addressing it?

We are working on accelerating the shift to a circular economy, where materials are kept in use for as long as possible, by optimising their packaging recyclability. This includes using more recycled content in packaging. For example, the L’Oréal Paris hair-care range, Elvive, has undertaken a major transformation of its entire value chain by targeting 100% recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) for shampoo and conditioner bottles.

By 2025, 100% of L’Oréal Paris’ plastic packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable. And by 2030, 100% of the plastic will come from recycled or biobased materials.

A 10-step beauty routine is heralded as the answer to a flawless complexion, encouraging people to invest in more products. Do you think the skincare/cosmetic industry can really become sustainable?

Innovations can also be sustainable. At L’Oréal Paris, to reduce the CO2 footprint of our products, we have developed an internal tool that helps us compare the sustainability of each of our new products to the existing ones according to ingredients, production processes and packaging.

What have been your learnings during the pandemic?

The covid-19 crisis was a wake-up call for the world because people are now more concerned about their health. I think protecting the planet and product safety are two of those which will be even more important. I believe we can reconcile efficacy, safety, and sustainability.

When it comes to beauty products, creating appeal that is also environmentally responsible can be a challenge. Is this a big challenge for L’Oréal Paris?

Yes, it is a challenge, especially in areas where sustainability is not necessarily a key concern for our consumers. We can really change the codes of beauty, so that you don’t choose a product because it is sustainable, you choose it because it is performing, desirable, besides being sustainable.

What are the challenges for L’Oréal Paris in becoming 100% sustainable?

The most challenging part is to accelerate sustainability of our ingredients. Because it’s not only in our hands, regulations have to accelerate the certification and approval of new UV filters, new actives, etc. …sometimes it can take more than 10 years. But 10 years ago, 65% of our ingredients were based on petrochemicals, today 59% of our ingredients are derived from nature.

Another difficult challenge is to help accompany our consumers in a more responsible usage of our products at home. We have only 9.5 years for a monumental change.

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