How do you calculate a product’s environmental and social impact? Laurent Gilbert, Director of Sustainable Innovation at L’Oréal Research, explains how a cross-disciplinary team came up with SPOT. The tool, which is designed to monitor and optimise new Group products, is the only one of its kind in the consumer products industry.
A major advance in support of sustainable innovation
L’Oréal’s Sustainable Product Optimization Tool (SPOT) is designed to measure the environmental and social impacts of all Group products. While SPOT was deployed for the first time in 2017, its roots go back to 2013 and the launch of the Sharing Beauty With All programme. One of the programme’s banner commitments was to improve the environmental and social profile of all new products brought to market. By setting this goal, the Group needed to create new assessment tools. “To be sure of being able to meet this challenge and, even more importantly, to be in a position to show evidence of improvements, we needed a reliable tool that could provide comprehensive product assessments”, explains Laurent. An initial method, called the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Index, was put in place to allow research units and packaging teams to measure improvements in product formula and packaging projects. It was based on a lifecycle analysis approach covering every aspect from raw materials extraction to container recycling. In 2016, the method became comprehensive and integrated and was renamed SPOT in the process
Tapping into a network of experts
Given the scale of the task, L’Oréal set up a dedicated team and brought in recognised experts. “The mission was handled internally by a project leader, who acted as the bridge between tool development and three specialists in charge of packaging and social aspects. I took care of the formula side of things”, says Laurent. L’Oréal also called on 12 outside experts who were responsible for supporting and approving the SPOT methodology. “They included scientists specialising in lifecycle analysis, NGO representatives, and experts in sustainable consumption and social impacts.” They worked together for almost a year and a half to come up with the most appropriate and effective method to assess product sustainability.
A subtle and complex tool
1 product, 14 sustainability criteria
“You have to work a bit to understand our methodology, but it’s worth it”, laughs Laurent. Analysing the lifecycle of a cosmetic product and its social and environmental impacts is an extremely complex process involving many factors. The tool uses 14 sustainability criteria, which are applied across the entire product lifecycle, from production and recycling of packaging to consumer use. “We went far beyond the recent recommendations made by the European Commission, which suggests a minimum of three or four criteria in its Product Environmental Footprint project.”
Weighting the criteria with the planetary boundaries method
Once the criteria were determined, the next step was finding a way to aggregate them in order to get a consistent and usable overall score. This was tricky because each criterion is measured using a different unit: CO2 equivalent for climate change impacts, litres for water consumption, percentage of land cover change for biodiversity. A two-stage standardisation and aggregation process was followed. Standardising the data involved converting values into European consumer averages (which will be expanded to global averages in the near future). Aggregation entailed weighting the criteria by giving each one a defined profile so that they could be added up. “We used the method devised by Johan Rockström, a Swedish researcher, which is based on planetary boundaries, i.e. the limits that humanity must not exceed to be able to continue living in a sustainable ecosystem.” For example, the method says that climate warming should not exceed two degrees.
Click and score: simplifying the teams’ work
After precisely defining its methodology, L’Oréal developed the IT tool integrated within its development system, designing it to be simple and intuitive. By drawing on a Group and supplier database, SPOT allows teams to calculate the improvement in a product’s sustainability by tallying the scores for its formula, packaging, production and social impact. A few seconds is all it takes. The tool includes information on almost 10,000 ingredients, all packaging materials, suppliers and all aspects of product lifecycles. So any team member, whether in research or packaging engineering, development or marketing, can quickly see how their work has improved the end product’s environmental and social impact. The initial results are very encouraging: 76% of products renovated in 2017 bettered their SPOT scores compared with 2013.
SPOT makes CSR accessible to all L’Oréal development projects. “We have chosen to adopt a scientific and holistic method, harnessing sustainable innovation to significantly improve all our future products”, says Laurent, pointing out that the Group can now instil accountability and engage all its entities around sustainability. “SPOT makes it easy for us to select and implement improvement drivers for each product.”
SPOT is drawing interest from the European Commission
This initiative, the only one of its kind in the consumer products industry, is drawing interest from the European Commission (EC), since it represents the first tangible and large-scale application of the EC’s Product Environmental Footprint project. What about in France? “The Environment Minister has also shown keen interest in our work, which opens up new ways of thinking about CSR”, adds Laurent.
He says this in conclusion: “Today, we use SPOT within the organisation to assess and improve our products. Going forward, the challenge will be to make this information available to consumers so that they can make informed choices. The CSR team is working with brand marketing departments, including the Vichy department for example, to figure out how we take this next step.” The adventure is just getting started.