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A “fully sustainable company” remains an aspirational goal for many organizations – yet the road to this ambitious endpoint is filled with challenges waiting for innovative solutions.

To get started, a company must assess its environmental impacts and consistently work to minimize them. But can a company ever become a “fully sustainable company” and, if so, what’s the right roadmap to getting there?

In last week’s post, Al Iannuzzi, Senior Director for Worldwide Environment Health and Safety at J&J wrote, “We believe in greener products.” He was instrumental in mapping out Johnson & Johnson’s EARTHWARDS process to improve product sustainability and its successful adoption across the business units.

Earthwards is a proprietary process that guides Johnson & Johnson teams to holistically identify, address and improve their products’ biggest environmental impacts across a broad range of areas. For Johnson & Johnson, this accounts for a major leap in its journey to becoming a more sustainable enterprise.

Earthwards & GAIA: The Need For Tools

While Earthwards is now the criteria used to assess the sustainability of Johnson & Johnson products, it also requires business specific tools to help make products greener. A key tool for the Consumer Products division is the Global Aquatic Ingredient Assessment, or GAIA for short.

Sharples_1v_copyI sat down with Ray Sharples, Manager of EHS & Product Stewardship for Johnson & Johnson’s  Consumer Division, to discuss the impetus for GAIA.

According to Sharples, there was a need to develop a tool to measure the environmental impacts of the products Johnson & Johnson puts into the marketplace. To address this need, in 2010, the Johnson & Johnson Consumer Product Stewardship team set out to create a new tool to quantify the impacts of various formulas.

“We needed a way to assess which materials were “better” among our ingredients so we could make improvements in the environmental attributes of our products,” Sharples said.

Interestingly, this technical and scientific process at Johnson & Johnson spurred opportunities for innovation and got employees engaged in the development of greener products. As part of the Earthwards lifecycle thinking, GAIA now plays a role in helping products achieve Earthwards recognition.

Johnson & Johnson started the GAIA scoring system in 2010.  GAIA rates the ingredients in a Johnson & Johnson product. GAIA scores are primarily based on scientific issues such as persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity along with other factors, which, in some cases, can reduce the score of an ingredient.

“The intent behind GAIA was to guide product developers around the world to choose environmentally preferred ingredients,” Sharples said.

“The use of ingredients that are readily biodegradable and have minimal environmental impact to the ecosystem allows us to reduce our global environmental footprint. By making this process more streamlined and quantifiable, we’re not only increasing our environmental successes, we’re making it a part of everyday life,” he explained.

Getting a Lift From Earthwards

GAIA was operating almost exclusively with R&D because it was a science-based tool with specific emphasis on measuring downstream ecosystem impacts, but Earthwards changed that.

“Incorporating GAIA as one of the tools within the lifecycle thinking of Earthwards has been really important in mainstreaming GAIA across Johnson & Johnson Consumer group,” Sharples said, pointing to the much broader implementation of Earthwards across the company’s various business units and divisions.

“GAIA soon took off in the Consumer group, as brand teams tried to obtain Earthwards recognition.  We’re now using GAIA as a way of educating and engaging our employees on key considerations for
sustainable product development,” he added.

Under the GAIA tool, a product with a score between 80 and 100 is considered environmentally preferred, which means the product consists primarily of biodegradable ingredients that minimize its impact on the ecosystem. “Sixty-five percent of our new formulations today achieve a GAIA score of 80 or higher. Our goal is to ensure that 80 percent of all new Johnson & Johnson consumer products score between 80 and 100 by 2017,” said Sharples.

Why stop at 80 percent?

“One-hundred percent is just very, very difficult to reach. Even reaching 80 percent will be challenging because of the complexity involved in our formulations,” Sharples explained.

GAIA: Hidden Opportunity?

GAIA offers obvious benefits and some less obvious ones. The tool, for example, has often led formulators and R&D teams to find opportunities that they would have previously missed. And making product improvements first through GAIA can help a product development team uncover other lifecycle improvements towards an Earthwards recognition.

Examples of products that first went through the GAIA process and then advanced to achieve Earthwards recognition include Johnson & Johnson’s Baby First Touch Zinksalva (Nappy Cream) and Baby First Touch Shampoo, both marketed under the Natusan brand in Europe.

Creating Change

Sharples’ comments reminded me of a keynote speech by Jeff Swartz, Timberland’s former CEO:

“Sometimes you have to stop wanting the consumer to dictate market trends, innovations and movements. Sometimes you have to take a stand and lead the market.”

But not all issues are as easy to remedy.

For example, zinc oxide is a “red” ingredient under GAIA and therefore, one that Johnson & Johnson  aims to
avoid. But when it comes to sunscreen, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration [FDA] has approved zinc oxide as an active ingredient in these products and alternative sunscreen active ingredients have other potential environmental concerns.

So how does the company choose its next step?

Challenge the FDA? Continue with the status quo? Change its product formulation? And who takes on the cost burden of changing the formulation of a successfully tested product? The company? The government? The hospitals and health care institutions? Consumers?

These questions are complicated and require equally complicated solutions.

Like Johnson & Johnson, there are numerous companies aspiring to produce sustainable products, using renewable energy, pursuing zero waste and achieving other targets to ensure their impact on the planet and society is a net positive.

So far, their responses have been piecemeal with Johnson & Johnson’s Earthwards serving as an excellent example of the holistic approach needed in the marketplace. But is there a truly “fully sustainable company” that has figured it all out? If you know one, drop me an email.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on February 27, 2013 and part of a series on Earthwards, a Johnson & Johnson program.