3 companies talk about their failures on sustainability

Failure, as a part of life, is also a part of business, and especially if we are trying to make a shift to include a sustainable approach in businesses. That is why we can’t be afraid to talk about bad experiences. At Circularity 22 in Atlanta, GreenBiz co-founder Joel Makower challenged three high-profile businesses to walk us through their biggest mistakes.

The transformation to a sustainable and circular economy will be full of failures, even though many businesses will be shy to talk about them. But if your business plan looks exactly like your business past, then you aren’t aiming high enough.

During a keynote conversation, sustainability executives from L’Oreal, Levi Strauss and the business-to-business furniture supplier, Humanscale, discussed those failures, so others can learn from them.

The first one to share was Marissa McGowan, chief sustainability officer at L’Oréal of North America. She explained how the company has been working towards finding a post-consumer recycled plastic alternative for its beauty packaging that still conveys the correct and iconic color to consumers. 

Usually, establishing the collection process for recycling is the biggest challenge for brands, but L’Oreal found that it was just the start of the obstacles.

“We’ve been working for 10 years to take back the bottle and that’s great when it comes to consumer behavior change and keeping it out of landfill,” McGowan said. “But now we’re hitting that next point where we actually want to turn, at scale, that back into a bottle. We are finding it’s so challenging to make [the recycled plastic] food grade to be reintegrated.”

According to McGowan, L’Oreal is continuing to innovate and “fail forward” to address these new obstacles. 

Levi’s went all in on a “jean made from garbage” in 2013, a time when recycled polyester for fiber was just becoming economical. It launched the “wasteless” 511 jeans and a trucker jean jacket that was made from 20 percent recycled polyester mixed with cotton. It launched 30,000 products, and it went over great with consumers. But Levi’s quickly learned it had made a drastic sustainability error.

“We immediately realize that creating a cotton product mixed with polyester is a bad idea,” said Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer at Levi’s. “If you look at this from a systems perspective, we started getting questions like, ‘Are you going to take this back? How are you going to recycle it?’”

Cotton polyester blends are notoriously hard to separate and recycle at scale and so the “wasteless jean” was shelved for Levi’s new product, the “circular jean” that has 40 percent post-consumer chemically recycled cotton, instead.

Finally, Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer at Humanscale, relayed the difference between consumer intent and the realities of behaviors. Her company was getting questions about a takeback program for the officer furniture her company supplies. So she started one. But even when businesses were educated about the program during the sales process, over the past few years she has only gotten one call from someone taking her up on the service.

According to Abernethy, there was a big difference between the theoretical circular designed product and then what actions customers actually took. 

“What happened in reality was a very different situation”, she said. 

Abernethy realized that the failure wasn’t coming from a lack of intent, but more from the unique quirks of working with a durable good in a business-to-business model. By the time the chair is ready to be returned, her business may no longer be in contact with the customer. Or the person who they sold to may have changed roles or moved to another company and the information about the takeback program was not passed down.

“Durable goods really have a different set of considerations because things change so much over time,” she said.

Abernethy’s company thinks more holistically and helps businesses deal not just with the chair that Humanscale supplied, but with all materials during an office renovation or removal process.

Makower closed the session with these poignant words: “Failure is a delay, not a defeat.”

To build a more sustainable future for our children and the next generations, everyone’s participation is essential. That is why, at eSmart Recycling, we believe in partnerships between the public and private sector. We could not deliver equipment to at-risk kids and families in the same way if many players in the community were not involved; from our corporate partners, to our nonprofit partners.

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