How the stuff we buy can become a climate solution

Decades ago, plastics were considered the future. Now there’s too much of it. Ann Tracy, chief sustainability officer of Colgate-Palmolive Company, explains how the world’s biggest maker of toothpaste tubes is redefining the future of plastics.

How the stuff we buy can become a climate solution
The author(s)
  • Kate MacArthur Managing Editor of What the Future
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There’s a great line in the 1967 film “The Graduate” where a businessman says, “There’s a great future in plastic.” Fast forward to today and the world seems to be drowning in the stuff. Ann Tracy,

Kate MacArthur: Is that line from “The Graduate” still true?

Ann Tracy: I think you have to throw the word “circularity” in there. Plastics aren't going to go away in their entirety, but we have to slow down the pace of introducing new plastic. To get to the circular economy, we need to reduce as much as we can first. And then we have to figure out how to reuse and recycle what’s left.

MacArthur: Can you give an example?

Tracy: We've talked in the past about the recyclable tube, and that was big for us because we are the world's biggest producer of toothpaste tubes. And most of our bottles of Palmolive dish soap in the U.S. are made with 100% recycled plastic. We've come out with a new toothbrush that reduces the amount of plastic by 80% compared to similarly sized Colgate toothbrushes. It’s called Colgate Keep. You keep the metal handle and just change the head, so that's drastically reducing the amount of plastic.

MacArthur: Who is responsible for solving this climate challenge: individuals, companies or government?

Tracy: The answer is “yes, and.” This to me is an inflection point where businesses and governments need to start to work together because one can't do it without the other.

MacArthur: Is the motivation for sustainability oriented more toward consumer expectations or is it the right thing for companies to do?

Consumers don't want to compromise on quality, price or experience, but they also want products that are good for them and good for the planet. So, the companies that can find or develop the right products that deliver on all fronts are the companies that are going to win.

MacArthur: What about protecting and preserving natural resources. How does that work with sustainability?

Tracy: Nature-based solutions are the direction companies are going. A really cool awareness campaign that we're just launching now is called “Smiling Planet.” It basically shows wonderful examples of natural smiles, whether it's in a wave or a cloud. We say, “When we smile at the planet, the planet smiles back.”

MacArthur: How does that affect how brands communicate those messages?

Tracy: There's a huge role for marketing to play. We have lots of data around what we call the say-do gap, where people say they're going to do one thing, but then when it comes to actually doing it, they don't. That to me epitomizes what marketing's job is — to close the say-do gap.

MacArthur: Can you talk that through that with the recyclable tube campaign? 

Tracy: There are approximately 20 billion tubes of toothpaste sold every year. We just launched a U.S. campaign advertising some of our recyclable tubes with “Recycle Me” language, so that consumers can easily identify which of Colgate’s tubes are recyclable. One thing to know is that some facilities may not yet accept the tubes for recycling, so consumers should check locally. Here, we have a big opportunity to communicate with people to drive awareness through our campaigns and help them lead a more sustainable lifestyle. We educate consumers with messaging on every tube and carton. And that's a great example of where we're trying to use our brand power to help people do things more sustainably at home.

MacArthur: What kind of promise is there for zero-waste packaging?

Tracy: I hope there's promise. It makes a lot of sense to take the water out of the product and ship less water. Well, that's a big change for a consumer. It's more convenient and easier for people to just grab [a product] off the shelf, take it home and use it, as opposed to taking a few steps to make their product themselves essentially. The trick here is, will people do it? And how do you create something cool?

A great example is the Tesla. People don't buy it because it's a sustainable car. They buy it because it's a cool car. We have to make the Tesla toothpaste. So how do you make it such a superior experience that people don't think about the sustainability aspect of it, but they want to use the new product in a new way? That’s what Colgate is trying to do across all our products.

The author(s)
  • Kate MacArthur Managing Editor of What the Future