Behind the sustainability promises made by large corporate groups stand the operations directors. Once the targets have been set, it is they who have to find ways to combine increased production with a reduced environmental impact.
Behind the sustainability promises made by large corporate groups stand the operations directors. Once the targets have been set, it is they who have to find ways to combine increased production with a reduced environmental impact. In this conversation, Fréderic Heinrich, L’Oréal’s Director of Operations, goes over the main stages that enabled the Group to cut its CO2 emissions by half in less than a decade.
“Back in 2005, we were facing a daunting task”
It is only now, with hindsight, that Heinrich can look back and talk about the technological solutions that the Group has developed to cut carbon emissions. But back in 2005, when Jean-Paul Agon set the target of halving emissions by 2015, he did not yet know how this might translate into operational measures: “There didn’t seem to be any obvious solutions in the industry. We knew we had to go out and look for answers”. Moreover, Heinrich knew there was no time to waste, since, as he points out, an operational project can be more than two years in the making before it is actually implemented. He was comforted by the general momentum in terms of building sustainability, which he sensed was already spreading into all of the company’s activities: “Sustainability was turning into a corporate project; something we could no longer do without”. It was time to get the thinking caps on.
“We started out by optimising what was already there”
He says the first stage got underway in 2005, when the Group’s facilities began drawing up a battle plan. Before embarking on large-scale projects, step one, according to Heinrich, was to cut CO2 emissions at source, so reducing the energy consumed in L’Oréal’s factories. Today, a full third of the 50% reduction in Group emissions can be attributed to measures to optimise energy consumption, in an example of efficiency driving progress. Heinrich says that people quickly got swept up in the effort and began exploring technologies that would allow them to go beyond this first stage in the reduction process.
With few or no sources of inspiration in the industrial sector, alternative solutions were found in other areas.
“We adapted alternative technologies to an industrial setting”
The solution, observes Heinrich, was to look for technologies that suited the local environment. This made all the more sense because the Group’s 43 plants, which span the entire globe, each had responsibility for meeting the targets. As a result, he says, “there is a regional side to every story”. Heinrich’s central team was in charge of gathering ideas and best practices and then applying or duplicating them.
He cites the Libramont facility in Belgium, which was the first Group plant to go “carbon neutral” – a generic term, he explains, to show that “the facility does not emit any greenhouse gases”. Biomethanation, a method used in the farming sector, was the approach selected by the facility, which is located in a rural zone. The next step was to find waste to use in the process. A local dairy cooperative was contacted and agreed to supply waste that would otherwise have been thrown away. “These are shared, virtuous projects”, notes Heinrich.
Other locations required other technologies. For the factory located in Rambouillet Forest, not far from Paris, he says that operational staff gravitated towards a biomass-based solution that harnessed waste from the neighbouring lumber industries. Solar power was the obvious route for the factory in Burgos, Spain: “Impossible in Belgium of course”, he jokes. In China, meanwhile, hydroelectricity was the solution of choice for the local L’Oréal facility, which is close to a small dam that is now a business partner.
Aside from technology, the other challenge that Heinrich had to contend with locally was a lack of uniform environmental regulations. The need to cooperate with local state entities arises sometimes. For example, if a facility begins to generate more electricity than it consumes, it has to return power to the grid. “If this type of outcome was unforeseen, the local authorities have to set up a regulatory framework from scratch”. Heinrich has found countries to be extremely receptive to these requests, describing the Chinese authorities as “particularly keen”. He sees this as another positive impact of the work by the Group, which is lobbying for the introduction of sustainable technologies worldwide.
“Getting the right fit between technologies and locations was a challenge. We have a pretty good handle on it now”. But for Heinrich, the real goal is to achieve firm-wide carbon neutral status: “this is our short- to mid-term target”.
One real goal: a carbon neutral industry
The industrial targets were merely a starting point for Heinrich: “the project has morphed completely over time”. Now that he is sure sustainability has been firmly established as a challenge throughout the Group, he is setting his sights even higher.
He mentions transportation, which would be a logical area in which to extend the initial carbon reduction targets: “We have to get beyond the industrial setting and reach out to suppliers”, he says, giving the example of the Rambouillet plant, which, by providing a home for suppliers of packaging for Elsève shampoos, takes 8,000 lorries off French roads every year. Heinrich envisages a Group-wide approach in which suppliers are based near production sites to create integrated industrial hubs: “To achieve this, we are trying to get our industrial locations to specialise. Our sustainable development project has turned into a whole new industrial project!”.
Is it too ambitious to try to make all the Group’s businesses carbon neutral? “To move forwards, we have to keep up the pressure and eschew “reasonable” targets, keeping in mind that what we are doing will take time and always holding onto a sense of humility. Our people see themselves in this project, which is a reflection of modern society”.
Like someone who climbs a hill only to see a mountain ahead, he concludes: “we have not chosen the easiest route, but the most sustainable one”.