When it comes to making FMCG more sustainable “there are no shortage of challenges”, says Jos Harrison, global head of brand experience and design at Reckitt.
“I’d probably start by saying that the industry as a whole – FMCG, CPG – bears quite a heavy responsibility for the way that we currently live our lives; it’s one of the founding industries of a consumption mindset, let’s say.
“We as a business, and our peers in the industry, already recognise a significant weight of responsibility to build a different way”, he adds.
From an industry “that probably uses the most packaging of all” and has a significant carbon impact from transport, he says that Reckitt and other FMCG companies have “made enormous progress over the last 10 years”.
“Both carbon emissions and things like immediate water impact around the manufacture sites, and social sustainability – the way that we work, the way that we employ people, the way we look after those people and their families, immediate communities.”
But he says the biggest impact yet to be made is “in transitioning businesses like ours away from solely consumables – I think we have to acknowledge as an industry that FMCG has to move to a blended model”.
“It’s absolutely critical for designers to play a role in the business strategy”
For much of the 30 years of his career, Harrison says challenges to sustainability “ultimately always come down to the margin […] but I think as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) concerns have become more front-of-mind for business leaders, we find they’re more ready to listen”.
But “figuring out how to get there, particularly when it requires business transformation”, he says, requires more than good visualisation. He explains that his team at Reckitt has built a balance of skillsets “specifically to be able to articulate these ideas as business models as well”.
“The role of designers […] is to help the business on that journey, to hold the hand of our business leaders and help them understand what that future entails”, he says.
“All designers effectively live in the future. They’re always establishing a clarity on what that future looks like and trying to bring it forward to the present day”. This is particularly important for FMCG, he says, as its products “have to be planned and then produced years in advance of actually being used”.
Designers are also well-suited to tackle “the sheer complexity” of the parts that need to be considered, argues Harrison, who first trained as an industrial and product designer.
“I think particularly industrial designers and design strategists tend to have that mindset of managing complexity […] combining lots of contextually relevant inputs and synthesizing that information into a way forward. We find that super useful in effectively designing new businesses.”
Suppliers should be challenged by new design standards
There are benefits to Reckitt’s scale, Harrison says. “you’re able to impose certain working standards on suppliers, for example”.
But for the wider industry, he suggests that Reckitt’s example, can “[open] doors for smaller competitors or similar businesses, I think that’s part of the responsibility that we feel”.
In terms of competition, meanwhile, he says that while Reckitt “would like to maintain a certain degree of competitive advantage in in activating these business models”, he adds, “we’d love to think that there are ways that, for example, packaging formats could be shared across our peers across the industry and to enable greater scale for the people that produce the more sustainable packaging.”
Creative partnerships: accountability beyond in-house
While its own in-house team is multidisciplinary, Harrison says that there are significant benefits to be had from looking to the “frankly amazing breadth of skillsets that exist in the creative industry”. He explains Reckitt has long-term relationships with a number of rostered partner agencies.
“Probably for the last ten years, Reckitt has been thinking about creative business partners as partnerships rather than suppliers”, and I think that was the seminal shift for us”.
In sharing more in-depth information about long-term objectives with agencies Reckitt works with, we “enable them or empower them to hold us to task in making the right decision”, he says.
He adds that in the last five years, “we’ve actively tried to build and curate what we call our creative community”. Although “held to account via very rigorous assessment process that we run twice yearly”, he says, “they understand that they’re not going to be disrupted by the whims of our business”.
The goal of ensuring all its products do no harm is “the very least”, Harrison says. “Ideally we’re trying to move towards formulae that have a positive net effect”, such as toilet care products “that actually leave behind beneficial bacteria, which break down waste to ensure that more rudimentary sewage systems in small communities are able to function more efficiently and in a more hygienic way”.
But his team’s longer-term goal is “transforming the business into entirely circular.
He explains that scope one and 2 carbon emissions – those the business tends to have more direct control over – are easier challenges than scope 3 emissions, such as what happens when the product is in use and after use, which is where the role of design is particularly important.
Earlier forms of circularity seen across the industry, he says, “still tend to be a circular version of the existing product paradigm, let’s say, refillable products that enable you to keep the primary packaging and refill”. Instead, Reckitt is looking at “how do we change to service business models”, which entails “providing a solution to people’s problems without necessarily selling them an individual thing.”
It is a case of “building partner businesses, networks of service providers”, he says. “The services could be for sanitising your home, or your school, or your hospital, and providing large volume-appropriate products for them to conduct that business with the endorsement of our brands”.
“The brand itself provides its credibility to that service provider, so the end user believes that the service provided is of the same standard or better than they would currently do themselves”.
Information as a service
Harrison says the barriers to consumers adopting more sustainable habits are economic, media-based, and general lifestyle – “things that people either don’t understand or require quite a bit of education to get people on board”, he explains.
With Lysol (a US equivalent to Dettol), Harrison explains, “what we’ve begun to do over the last few years is to provide information as a service alongside the traditional products that you would buy”.
Lysol provides regional and city-wide “Germ-Casts” across North America and Canada that “give parents the opportunity to tap into live and forecasted information for cold and flu outbreaks”.
Schools, in partnership with the parent community, can “take certain steps”, such as changing the frequency of contract cleaning”, while the Germ-Cast also can serve the cleaning companies, “so they’re able to forecast their ability to provide certain services to schools and so on”.
For Reckitt, hyper-targeting drives the adoption of these circular product solutions, achieving a scale in order to “sell into larger retail partners”, he adds.
Information is provided through a Lysol website, while Reckitt’s “connected pack” uses QR codes on packaging to point customers to “the most relevant information”. Reckitt also launched the Lysol Alexa Skill – and is looking to other home assistants – to provide that information through a spoken interface.
There’s never been a bigger opportunity to make a significant shift in the way we think about sustainability”, he says. “Talking openly about the state of the world and the measures that we could be using to apply to ourselves, appropriately and impactfully – the whole industry has to grasp that opportunity.
A question that needs to be asked, Harrison says, is “are we targeting the right things, are we directing all of the enormous brain power across the FMCG and connected industries to the right things, the things that are genuinely going to make a difference in the shortest possible time – because we’re running out of time”.
“The momentum is in the right direction, but is the weight behind it enough? No, definitely not. While we’re doing a lot as an industry and as a business, making some significant steps forward, they’re still not enough”.
“We need our creative partner businesses to help us on that journey to push us and help us accelerate”. And for the FMCG industry, “we’ve got to openly invite that contribution”.