I was hosting a panel last year on responsible business when a question from the audience intrigued me:
Would companies ever be receptive to the idea of embedding journalists in their organizations to test the theory of transparency and therefore influence change?
Many companies might bristle at that idea, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I wondered what company would be the first to invite a journalist inside for a closer look at how it was putting its commitment to responsible and sustainable business into practice.
To my surprise, I didn’t have to wait long before Johnson & Johnson reached out to me with an invitation. They wanted to discuss the possibility of going inside their organization to conduct an objective review of its sustainable product development process, which they call Earthwards.
As Keith Sutter, senior product director of sustainable brand marketing at Johnson & Johnson, explained last week in the first of six projected articles,the Earthwards process was developed as an internal tool in 2009 to assess the environmental impacts of products and help drive improvements to meet specific sustainability criteria. The invitation meant I would get an unvarnished view inside a company that has traditionally shied away from the publicity spotlight.
So I dived in.
Diving In: The Challenges of Meeting Sustainability Goals
My first exposure to the inner workings at Johnson & Johnson was an Earthwards quarterly board meeting.
“Early on some of our external reviewers advised us to establish an Earthwards board of directors and appoint people from our legal, marketing, and R&D groups, along with several subject matter experts from the outside,” explained Coleman Bigelow, a board member and global sustainability marketing director in the consumer division at Johnson & Johnson. “Assembling a diverse group of stakeholders has been an important piece of the puzzle.”
As the presentations started, I realized how challenging it could be to change the design, ingredients and packaging of existing products, built on years and years of research and testing. And at a health care company, the products must also meet the highest standards for consumer safety, patient usability, and efficacy.
Layering on sustainability considerations in the product development process added even more complexity.
Diving Deeper: How High Should We Set the Bar?
One product the board reviewed that day was Zytiga, a drug made by Janssen, Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceuticals group. It’s used in the treatment of metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. Janssen had recently acquired the rights to manufacture and distribute Zytiga, and the team saw an opportunity to improve the way the active pharmaceutical ingredient was produced, to decrease its environmental impact, using the Earthwards process to guide the improvement.
After the chief scientist for Zytiga walked the group through a formal presentation, the questions began.
Now, picture a room full of people representing different disciplines across the company – from product development to environment,health and safety – and several from outside it.
The range of questions was broad and impressive: Was the product in competition with another one? Did it have FDA approval yet? How would making the proposed changes to the design and production of the drug make it safer for the environment? What about the impact on plant workers? And how would it change the packaging?
Following the Zytiga presentation and discussion, the board took up the next item on its agenda: Should the company move ahead with adding its internally developed Global Aquatic Ingredient Assessment, GAIA for short, to the Earthwards framework? This would allow products in the consumer sector – Aveeno, for example – to receive credit for their improved GAIA score in the materials category of the Earthwards criteria.
The company developed GAIA to evaluate the effect of its product ingredients on water and identify any potential for toxicity, persistence, and bioaccumulation. Now the group questioned whether adding GAIA as an additional layer to the qualifications for Earthwards would raise the bar for other products competing for the recognition.
As with Zytiga, the questions were far-ranging and complex: Does GAIA consider only the environmental impact of product ingredients, or does the assessment also look at their impact on human health? How do we weigh toxicity? How does the consumer sector look at human health?
With suppliers changing, how do we streamline the process? Does this then become a “hazard assessment rather than a risk assessment”?
One example the board used to flesh out the pros and cons of GAIA was Natusan shampoo, which recently earned Earthwards recognition after overcoming a significant hurdle.
Scientists had to figure out how to reduce the number of ingredients from 13 to eight to be eligible for recognition. The team explained that while the 13 in the initial product were thoroughly reviewed for toxicology to ensure that the finished product was safe for human use, the GAIA tool focuses on reducing ecosystem impacts.
The board questioned whether the bar set by GAIA would be too high for some products. “We’re pushing for continual improvement while watching for signs of backsliding, and so far 60% of our products have continued to make further improvements,” was one sentiment. Another was, “We need to set the bar high, but not so high that it discourages product developers from going for it.”
Another board member – this time an external reviewer – commented that the allowable limits of “red” ingredients (those that Johnson & Johnson tries to avoid for environmental reasons) seemed fair, but cautioned that they might not seem fair to others.