With COP26 failing to address the climate crisis with the urgent commitments it needs, is it time fashion looks to other industries for guidance? Livia Firth speaks to L’Oréal’s chief sustainability officer to find out.
Speaking to Alexandra Palt, executive vice president and chief corporate responsibility officer at L’Oréal, post COP26 is interesting. For us working in sustainability and knowing, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, that we are in “code red for humanity,” our hopes that at COP26 both businesses and the leaders of certain nation states would do anything truly concrete were slim. And so it was – their lack of ambition on behalf of the global population and future generations unfortunately stole the show once again. (And remember, in climate terms, ambition is defined as limiting global heating to 1.5C to avert total catastrophe, by allowing partial catastrophe). Sadly, a cadre of self-interested men with power can always be relied upon to preserve the status quo at all cost – our cost.
I am curious to know how Palt feels, not only because I am a strong believer that businesses have a huge part to play in driving change, but also because her reputation precedes her. “I have mixed feelings about COP26, because the pledges and the commitments show that there is more awareness, and everybody understands that we have to take this seriously. That’s the positive part,” she tells me. “The less positive part is certainly that there are missing concrete commitments for 2030. How are we going to make this happen?”
How do you measure success? Which metrics and data do you use to know that your commitments are bearing results and are not just a greenwashing exercise? “When we define sustainability targets, we know what the science tells us needs to be done,” Palt says. “And once we have defined that, our targets get aligned with that. I like ambitious targets. Sometimes it means you are not going to achieve every single thing. They are visionary targets – but then you must give yourself the means of achieving it. It takes leadership, courage, and transparency to manage transformation.”
By now you should all know that for me and everyone at Eco-Age, sustainability is as much about environmental justice as it is about social justice. I am used to hearing companies talk about the environmental impact of what they do – look at Kering Group, for example, with its groundbreaking environmental profit and loss reporting. But what about the social side? Palt agrees. “This sustainability transformation is going to happen in a just way only if we accompany it with more social measures, because as long as people are living in survival mode – without adequate food, schooling, or healthcare – they will not protect the environment.”
I’ve never heard much of this kind of reasoning, and Palt intrigues me. “I want to act for change,” she continues. “We can have philosophical discussions, but when you look at what needs to be done in the next 10 years, you have a much more realistic chance of turning the boat around if, instead of focusing on getting out of the economic system that we have, we work to transform it to a circular model. If you are going to tell people, ‘You need to drastically change your lifestyle,’ they won’t do it. You need to tell them, ‘Keep enjoying life, but you now buy this bottle made of recycled plastic or you have to refill this chargeable container.’ We need the consumer to start following us and adopting new practices.”
For me this has always been where the truth lies. Fast fashion companies use the excuse that it’s not up to them to stop producing tons of clothes, because the consumer keeps wanting to buy more. When I mention this to Palt, she pauses for a moment. “Consumers ask for more sustainability, but there is an incoherence between what they say and how they act. I think that’s normal when social change is happening. And I agree with you, some people use that as an excuse to keep doing business as usual. But the discrepancy between knowing and doing is getting smaller.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that unfortunately it is taking more time than we have. L’Oréal is doing a lot of different things to contribute to this awareness, and we also have a role to make responsibility aspirational. We have created a consortium to exchange information with the other big players in the industry to help create a level playing field with one common science-based methodology, and one way to talk to consumers so they can compare the environmental footprint of all products without getting confused. This is fundamental.”
Hearing this makes me realize once again how much fashion is lagging and losing momentum and opportunities to align and drive change. Why is fashion always so slow? I ask Palt – a woman and lawyer by training – what’s the biggest lesson she has learned working in this field. “Coming from the NGO sector, I never expected that L’Oréal would move so fast, so much. And what I learned in the beauty industry is the complexity of the mind of the consumer.
We invest so much time and money in, say, developing refillable makeup, and then the consumer says, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’ The human brain is complicated. My challenge now and the big question I have is, are we going to be able to deploy the speed and acceleration necessary to manage the big change we need?”
If I look at what happened at COP26, my answer is definitely no. But talking to Palt gives me hope that beauty, truly, lies in character. And if this is the character we need to bring about the transformation needed, let’s clone her and get the job done.
Originally published in the December 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia