Colgate’s Chief Sustainability Officer on the Keys to Driving Progress

By Meghan Hall, Scott Kirsner |  February 22, 2023

As part of our latest research report, Benchmarking Innovation Impact 2023, we interviewed Ann Tracy, Colgate-Palmolive’s first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer.

Tracy has been with Colgate-Palmolive, which is headquartered in New York, New York, for over 32 years. The company has annual revenue of nearly $18 billion.

We chatted with Tracy about how Colgate developed its strategic plan for sustainability; identifying what matters most to the organization; and how external partnerships can help advance sustainability progress.

Highlights from the December 2022 conversation are below. The company regularly publishes reports on its sustainability and social impact activities.

Developing a strategic plan. I’ve been with Colgate for almost 32 years. I grew up in the supply chain… across all of our business units, geographical divisions, and categories. 

Ann Tracy, Chief Sustainability Officer, Colgate-Palmolive

If you look at the whole ESG space, and how quickly it is evolving and growing in the eyes of many stakeholders — including investors —it was apparent that I needed to focus on sustainability. I became the first Chief Sustainability Officer for Colgate. I’ve been in this role since the beginning of 2020. 

The best place to start with sustainability is to go through a very comprehensive materiality assessment. When we developed our 2025 strategy, Colgate had actually not done one properly before… We ended up doing it on our own, but we’re going to repeat it in 2023, and we probably are going to get some outside help. I think that’s the right starting point, so that you understand what is in that upper right hand corner — what is most important. 

For us, right now we’re focused on plastic, and bringing oral health and hygiene to underserved kids around the world. And we’re leaning into climate now, as well… Those are our top areas of focus — including diversity, equity, and inclusion.

…Right now we’re focused on plastic, and bringing oral health and hygiene to underserved kids around the world.

‘Swords and shields.’ We like to use the analogy of swords and shields… Our strategy has 11 big actions with over 50 targets, ranging from environmental actions to social actions, to product-specific actions. And by ‘sword,’ we mean, what are the actions where we want to really lead and be known for it? The actions which are the ‘shields’ are [what] we have to do because [there’s] barrier to entry or reputational risk if we don’t do it. Those areas where we want to lead… we believe can be communicated in the right way to our brands to help [them] grow. 

Putting it into practice. One of our key actions is [eliminating] plastic waste. We consider plastic an existential issue for Colgate as a consumer goods company, because all of our products are packaged in plastic today… So we set targets consistent with that commitment, and one of them is to have our plastics be recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025, so we’ve been on a journey. We developed the first recognized recyclable toothpaste tube. We started working on the technology behind that in 2015… and we didn’t do it in a vacuum. We were transparent and worked alongside the Association of Plastic Recyclers in the US to make sure we were complying with… thought leaders on what is or isn’t recyclable. Once we got it to pass our standards in terms of quality and durability, we shared the technology with other companies, with over 50 different customers because we wanted it to be recyclable in practice and at scale. We knew if only [Colgate] was moving forward, we would never get there. 

Defining the most pressing goals. What we’ve done is we’ve developed what I would call a roadmap for each of those 11 acts. So we have a roadmap to get us to 100% recyclable packaging by 2025; we have a roadmap to get us to our production targets; we have a roadmap to reach two billion kids in underserved communities with oral health. 

Some [goals] are very quantitative, and depending on what it is, it could be more qualitative in nature. Some of the social areas are probably more qualitative. The well-being of our employees is one of our social targets, and it has to do with ensuring that our own employees have not only good physical health, but mental and financial [health] as well… So it just varies by action, but overall, we’ve developed roadmaps. 

I think we’re at a juncture where we need to take the R&D element of designing more sustainable products to the next level…

Using external partnerships to bolster development. External partnerships are absolutely critical in [the sustainability] space, be they consortiums, trade associations, or even our peers — even our competitors. We are active with a group called Plug and Play, which is a startup consortium, and they have different work streams. One is focused on sustainability and startups. Another group that we’re part of is called the 100+ Accelerator, which was started by AB InBev, and they invited several other companies to join them in this journey. So Coca-Cola, Unilever, Colgate, and ABInBev are all part of the accelerator, and we’re on our fourth cohort of startups. We’re always looking for startup technology. It’s a bit of a needle in a haystack, but we do consider that an important part of the journey. 

My team works closely with R&D. I think we’re at a juncture where we need to take the R&D element of designing more sustainable products to the next level, so I’m very excited. We have a brand-new Head of Technology, so I’m co-locating my office with his now so that we can work even more closely together. 

Featured image courtesy of Colgate-Palmolive.