Circular Economy: Building Demand for Recycled Plastic | In Practise

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Circular Economy: Building Demand for Recycled Plastic

Current Head of Sustainability at Danone, Brazil.

Why is this interview interesting?

  • As Head of Sustainability at a large CPG company, what strategies would you use to increase the demand for recycled plastic in the ecosystem?
  • What challenges exist for CPG companies to increase the percentage of recycled plastic in packaging?
  • How could CPG companies work with recyclers to ensure there is capacity to recycle materials?
  • As a policymaker, how could you incentivize brands and recyclers to increase the demand for recycled plastic in the ecosystem?

Executive Bio

Ligia Camargo

Current Head of Sustainability at Danone, Brazil.

Ligia Camargo started working in Sustainability at Unilever in 2010 when the area was first being developed within large CPG companies. She was part of a global team that launched Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan which, together with HR and the Sustainability Committee, aimed to educate at least 90% of the company on the role of sustainability. Ligia then worked with each brand within the group to build an adherence strategy to various sustainability metrics. She then moved to become Head of Sustainability at Danone in Brazil in 2017 where she is responsible for corporate communications and sustainability strategies for the region across all Danone brands. Read more

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Interview Transcript

Ligia, thank you very much for joining us today. Maybe if you could start with a short introduction to your experience, working at both Unilever and Danone?

I started working in sustainability in Unilever, in 2010, when the area first started. At that time, nobody knew what a sustainability manager would do. It covered, with the company, the strategy for Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010. Then I had the opportunity to talk about and to implement and to create a plan, together with the Sustainability Committee in the company.

First of all, I think the most important thing that I had to do was the strategy, to give meaning to the sustainability plan for the whole company. Here in Brazil, at that time, Unilever had 15,000 people employed and the management and the governance of sustainability was centralized in the Corporate Affairs area. But it was also managed by a Sustainability Committee, which was implemented some years ago, talking about all the corporate areas. When USLP, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan was implemented, the Committee started to work on and to look at this area too.

Together with HR, we made a plan, with a very clear goal to be achieved, which was to present the USLP to 90% of the company, in one year. This would be part of a three-year plan. The first year, we called the year of awareness; the second year would be the year of implementation; the third year, the integrity year. The first year, we worked on it together with the Sustainability Committee and we had 13 areas represented, together with supply chain, all the manufacturing, marketing, environmental and quality, customer development, even HR. A lot of areas had the same goal cascaded down. Everybody had to present the USLP to 90% of the areas.

First of all, we needed to establish a goal. Second, together with communication, develop some different materials to guarantee the adherence for different areas. For example, for the sales person, entirely in the field, we had a very short video of explanation about what USLP would be. For the integration of new employees, together with HR, we had a full presentation, a 30-minute presentation, for the new plan. For example, the suppliers, in the area of purchase, procurement. They had some roadshows during the year. We established 15-20-minute presentations, in meetings that had already been planned in the areas.

Then, for the second year, we started to do the implementation strategy. This implementation was based on, what would be the meaning of sustainability for each area? Of course, we had the help of the global teams, to help the understanding about what sustainability would be mean for customer development? Which kind of subjects they would approach? How to work with sustainability with our clients.

Educating them?

Exactly. Education on the subject. I think it’s very important to understand the level of adherence that you have to have on this subject. What is the main purpose of the brand? This would be the strategy for sustainability. For example, Dove, a very well-known brand, already had a purpose behind it, about self-esteem, about real beauty and it was based on the sustainability approach, together with the project.

Just in terms of that education process, what was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the brands, or the individual divisions within Unilever, for example, in actually implementing sustainability, within the decision-making process for the brand?

First of all, I think that all brands have to understand the needs of their consumers. For Unilever, it was obvious that the new consumer, would be very worried about some issues, related to sustainability. It could be an issue more related to the environment. For example, in 2015, here in Brazil, we had a period of scarcity, in terms of water. In the winter period, when there is no rain and less availability of water, the people were starting to worry about water. We need water to do our laundry. Of course, it would be very, very risky for the company to have a product that uses water on a daily basis. So the strategy, together with the marketing team, was to push the concentrated product, the possibility to have another SKU, that could help to do more laundry, with the same level of product. The effectiveness of the product was based on this period of lack of water.

You mentioned there was the USLP, I think you said. How were these organizations structured? I assume there was a sustainability team, within Unilever and Danone, for example? Does that team have a responsibility to enforce or make each brand or division adhere to the sustainability requirements? Or does each brand and each team have a sustainability director, for example?

In this company, and from the FMCG companies that I know, there is no sustainability area for each brand. There is a central team, in most cases. There is extra focus on sustainability that can provide the right messages and the right approach to each brand. Of course, it depends on the area. There is no main message to all the brands. It’s different, because the positioning is different and the needs of the consumer are different.

In your role, in leading sustainability teams, what do you find the biggest challenge in persuading leaders of brands or of different divisions, that they should really be putting sustainability first over, say, profitability, or just even on par with both of those variables?

There are a lot of challenges when we are running a sustainability area, in companies that are based on consumption. When we started to see sustainability at its conception, there were a lot of books, a lot of theories that talked about the need to review the way that we consume. Working in these companies that make a lot of investments in doing things the right way or reducing the footprint, or so on, I truly believe that sustainability has to do with the well-being of humanity.

I think it’s important to do a disclaimer here. We need to clarify that sustainability has nothing to do with the planet. Of course, in first place, we talk about the planet, we talk about saving the planet. But the planet is more than three billion years old and, independently, how we move forward, how we run the planet, the planet is fine, thanks.

What is really at risk, is humanity; the way that we live on the planet. It’s the life that is at risk, not the planet. Because of that, I talk about consumption and the way that we deal with consumption every single day. Working in fast moving consumer goods companies, I understand that consumption is part of our way of living. We need to consume. We need to eat; we need to drink. We need to buy clothes, to live in communities. We need to travel, we need to study, we need the internet. Consumption is part of our way of living. If we do not consume well, this is the chain that can promote more or less sustainability, in living on the planet.

Consumption is a very important part of the chain that can change the way that we propose this new behavior, on the way that the communities and the brands and the consumption are accessed. My learning, over this period, and my challenge, is to convince and to establish the conversation with brands, that the most important way, for people in urban - or sometimes not particularly urban - communities, is that the brands are very important to establish lifestyle. We live in groups. We have our groups of synergy. We like to talk within certain kinds of groups. These groups have a lot of similarities that are based on communication and that are based on the things that we buy, the things that we consume.

It’s status. It’s definitely crucial to stratify society, in a way. There is a view in the world that humans just consume too much today. Especially in the West and the Western World, we seem to overeat or overconsume or spend too much, which obviously has an impact on the sustainability of the planet and of humanity. How does that discussion go with a brand owner? They obviously have incentives to grow, because they have to meet shareholder demands. What is the challenge that you have, in really communicating the importance of sustainability, whereas the brand manager is balancing the growth in the business and consumption and meeting sustainability demands?

It changes a lot, in terms of importance of the brand to the company. I always see the opportunity coming from the spaces on both sides of the balance. When the brand is very strong and very big and it’s very important for the company, sometimes, the marketing team can make some small changes, where there is a big brand that can take the risk, with a very small part, with a new consumer, to get into a new niche. For example, in foods, how to position a brand variant with no salt or no sugar or which is plant-based, but only from part of a big brand.

On the other side, we have the brands that are not doing well and they need to take a risk to start a new approach with the consumer. It can happen within a variant of the product, where they need to refresh their positioning in their approach to the consumers. For example, in Vietnam, Unilever worked on a fabric conditioner, rinsing product, called Comfort, to reduce use from two boxes a quarter, to one box a quarter, to rinse the clothes. It started to make doing laundry easier and faster for the consumer. They made it easier for the consumer, the brand started to reduce the need for doing laundry, the time to do laundry, due to the efficiency of the product, for the consumer; it depends on some variations.

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Circular Economy: Building Demand for Recycled Plastic

November 21, 2019

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