While questions of sustainable lifestyles and ecological footprints have risen to prominence only recently, its history dates back to the 1950s. P&G was at the forefront then, doing sustainable innovation, social and environmental responsibility long before these terms were coined. This long history guarantees that, before any P&G products go to market, they will have passed successfully through a stringent environmental assessment process. Consumers no longer need to choose between safety, sustainability and their desire for performance and value. At present, P&G’s environmental initiatives are supported by more than 500 professional scientists worldwide, dedicated to the same goal of ensuring that every product is safe for consumers and the environment, worldwide.

The journey to this point has been one of many pioneering moments for P&G. In the 1950s and 1960s, after a rapid growth in poorly biodegradable surfactants, P&G started to develop new environmental safety testing procedures. In the 1970s, P&G formed their Environmental Safety Department and pioneered biodegradability tests that became industry standards named after P&G scientists. The 80s and 90s brought a new way of thinking about the environment with sustainable innovations, stakeholder dialogue and transparency. P&G was one of the first companies to annually publish sustainability reports. In the last decade, public engagement motivated P&G to develop sustainable innovations that addressed great societal challenges like climate change and water scarcity.

  • 1950s-1960s: The development of new environmental safety testing procedures

    During the late 1950s and 60s detergents began to present visible environmental issues: an unprecedented growth of the detergent and wash machine markets, combined with the poor biodegradability of the first generation “synthetic” surfactants and poor or non-existent wastewater treatment facilities led to cases of excessive foaming in rivers and streams – attracting widespread attention to the environmental impact of detergents. The use of synthetic surfactants expanded significantly in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1953, the sales of detergents surpassed the sales of oleo chemical soap for the first time.

    During the post-war period of technological advancement, performance and costs were the key drivers for the industry in the development and manufacture of detergents, with a low awareness of the environmental impact of products among consumers, industry and authorities. Thus, the environmental properties of surfactants did not meet the quality criteria that are now the norm in the modern world. In this period, surfactant concentrations in sewage effluents increased and reached levels that started to disrupt the operation of sewage treatment plants and the discharged untreated surfactants caused excessive foaming in rivers and streams. It was this phenomenon that placed detergents in the spotlight of the public attention and prompted the industry and the regulators to scrutinize the environmental properties of the products.

    During this period, the detergent and cleaning products industry and authorities in major regions such as Europe, North America and Japan addressed this problem by introducing new safety and testing processes that led to the development of surfactants with an improved biodegradation profile. P&G’s first environmental research laboratory, the “Environmental Water Quality Laboratory” (EWQL), was established in 1964 to research the effects of cleaning agents and phosphates from detergents in lakes and rivers. The EWQL developed new methods to support the emerging science of environmental safety assessment. Toxicity testing of algae, small aquatic animals (such as Daphnids) and fish and new methods to identify the biodegradability of chemicals had their earliest roots in this department.

  • 1970s: Pioneering biodegradability tests from P&G’s Environmental Safety Department

    Scientific experts from P&G and other major detergent manufacturers collaborated with leading governmental and academic scientists to develop an array of fate (biodegradation), toxicity and physical-chemical test methods, such as the OECD series (OECD, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). For example, the so-called OECD 301B modified Sturm test for “ready biodegradability” was named after Robert (Bob) Sturm, a P&G researcher who developed the original protocol of the test method in P&G’s EWQL laboratory. The “Sturm Test” was published by P&G in 1973, and was the forerunner of the 1982 OECD Ready Biodegradability Test. The original version was improved by several others such as Robert (Bob) Larson of P&G and subsequent modifications were published by OECD as well as ISO (1990, 1999).

    Organizationally, the creation in 1971 of P&G’s Corporate Environmental Safety Department combined with dedicated “safety and regulatory departments” for the each R&D organization, was a pivotal point since these groups supported the product and process development work while they were organizationally independent. A dedicated European environmental research organization was created in 1977. Already in 1975, algal toxicity tests were incorporated into P&G’s internal safety assessments for down-the-drain chemicals. In 1981, the first ever procedures to estimate environmental concentrations of down-the-drain consumer product ingredients were published by P&G’s William (Bill) Holman. In 1983, P&G published its 100th peer reviewed environmental publication on the fate, effects and safety of down-the-drain detergent chemicals.

    In many regions, the 1970s and early 1980s were characterized by intense debates, and even occasional “conflicts”, around the safety and properties of detergent ingredients. There was not yet a general agreement on how to evaluate the environmental profile of ingredients and their potential alternatives. For example, there was no consensus on the risk assessment methodologies, on the type and amount of data required and on how to interpret more complex field or stream studies.

    In the 70s and 80s, the detergent and cleaning products industry made great progress in terms of laboratory testing and environmental safety procedures as well as in developing reliable environmental monitoring processes. The improvements in these research tools were important to gather the data to address many of the concerns the public and stakeholder organizations were beginning to have on the environmental properties of detergents and their ingredients, such as skin allergies, biocides, phosphates, enzymes, surfactant biodegradability…

  • 1980s-1990s: Life Cycle Assessments, sustainable innovations, stakeholder dialogue and transparency

    The period of the 1980s marked the early days of sustainable product innovation and stakeholder dialogue. It can be said that the detergent industry was one of the first industries to engage constructively with stakeholders over the sustainability and public acceptance of their products. While it seems commonplace today, it is due to stakeholder dialogue inroads made by the detergent industry in the 1980s and 90s that we are able to engage more openly on issues of environmental and consumer safety as well as sustainable development today.

    P&G took a leadership role in the 1980s and 1990s in developing field monitoring, experimental stream research models, predictive environmental exposure models and various other assessment tools as well as in pioneering Life Cycle Assessment models that have since become industry standards. P&G has a long history of sustainable innovation, spanning the development of products, packaging, and raw materials.

    For example, P&G began to operate its Experimental Stream Facility (ESF) in 1987 (until 2001) to test the impact of detergents ingredients on aquatic ecosystems. The facility provided an excellent balance between the controlled conditions of the laboratory and the variability of the natural environment that is required to sustain natural communities. The biological communities in the ESF were very complex, and included sensitive organisms such as diatoms, mayflies and stoneflies. The research programmes allowed P&G to better understand the interaction between stream organisms and consumer product chemicals, to assess the relative sensitivity of acute, chronic and mesocosm studies for determining the toxicity of consumer product chemicals in the environment, and finally to assess the ability of laboratory fate tests to predict the fate in surface waters. Throughout its operation, P&G involved its own researchers as well as over 50 scientists from academic, consultancy and government research institutes to collaborate on stream studies designed to understand the fate and effects of consumer product chemicals.

    The 1990s also saw the beginning of systematic environmental and sustainability communication efforts:

    • 1990 - P&G articulates a company-wide environmental quality policy
    • 1993 - P&G publishes its first annual Global Environmental Report
    • 1999 - P&G releases its first annual Sustainability Report

  • 2000s: Achievements in confronting great societal challenges with sustainable innovations

    Wider communication with the public accelerated in the 2000s when P&G made its research publicly available on Science-in-the-box, tailoring a variety of themes to diverse audiences ranging from the general public to stakeholders such as academics, authorities and NGOs.

    The new millennium also brought in a greater public demand for more sustainable products. P&G’s sustainable innovations, like Ariel Excel Gel or Fairy Active Burst dishwasher tablets, have made significant reductions in energy and water consumption, waste, transport and storage as well as lowering CO2 emissions in production and household use phases.

    Over the last five decades, P&G has taken additional initiatives in sustainability, social and environmental responsibility. The company has regularly come to the aid of wildlife rescue operations following oil spill accidents, has taken initiatives in funding children’s health and education programmes in developing countries and has been successful in providing safe drinking water where needed.

    P&G has been recognized for its sustainability efforts. P&G has been a member of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and FTSE4Good since their inception and has been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards around the globe, including the European Business Award for Corporate Sustainability, the Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership and the Chinese Government Philanthropy Award. In 2009, P&G was listed among the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations and in the Covalence Ethical Rankings.

  • References

    • “Retrospective Review of Surfactant Environmental Assessments”. Stalmans & Sabaliunas, SOFW Journal, 10, pp.28-40, Oct 2004.
    • P&G - A Heritage of Environmental Science Success. Protecting Earth’s Water, Air and Soil for More than Half a Century, P&G Leaflet. Mailing address: P.O. Box 599, Cincinnati, Ohio 45201, USA.
    • OECD Guideline for the Testing of Chemicals 301B: Ready Biodegradability- CO2 Evolution (Modified Sturm Test), (original version, adopted in May 1981). Paris, 1992.
    • R.N. Sturm, “Biodegradability of Nonionic surfactants: screening test for predicting rate and ultimate biodegradation”, J.A,.Oil Chem Soc., 50, pp. 159-167 (1973).
    • R.J. Larson, “Estimation of biodegradation potential of xenobiotic organic chemicals”, Appl Env. Microbiol., 38, pp. 1153-1161 (1979).
    • International Organization for Standardization, ISO Standard 9 439. Water Quality - Evaluation of ultimate aerobic biodegradability of organic compounds in aqueous medium - Carbon dioxide evolution Test (Sturm). Geneva, 1990 (Revised 1999)

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