Keith Sutter holds an Earthwards-approved product from the Neutrogena Naturals line. (Photo courtesy of Johnson & Johnson) 

People are sitting around a large table. Coffee and donuts are in place nearby. A Web-conferencing system is up and running, with participants dialing in from as far away as Brazil. It’s a morning meeting at the global headquarters of health-care products giant Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., and the topic of discussion is one of the highest-profile products in the J&J portfolio—the decorated Band-Aid line of adhesive bandages. Members of the decorated Band-Aid product team seem a little nervous, but they have charts, graphs, and a year’s worth of research at the ready. As the meeting progresses, they field a volley of questions: “Did you do the math on that?” “What did the previous version look like?” “How does it reduce packaging?”

Then, out of the blue, comes a question that stumps the team: “Isn’t eucalyptus an invasive species to South America?”

That exchange, which occurred in late 2011, is like dozens of such exchanges that have played out in recent years at the quarterly board meeting for Earthwards, an initiative that J&J launched in 2009 to promote environmental sustainability across its $67 billion line of products.

Earthwards functions as an umbrella brand that spans all three of J&J’s product sectors—consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, and medical supplies—and the Earthwards board of directors has the power to bring both new and existing products under that umbrella. To date, 44 products have earned the Earthwards designation. Among them are consumer items like Neutrogena Naturals, a line of facial products; medical devices like Surgicel, an absorbable hemostat; and pharmaceutical brands such as Zytiga, a drug used to treat prostate cancer. J&J aims to increase the roster of Earthwards products to 60 by 2015.

Companies all around the world are looking for practical ways to turn the ideal of “sustainability” into a reality. For large multinationals like J&J, the work of reengineering long-established product lines and deeply entrenched supply chains is no simple matter. With Earthwards, J&J is pursuing an approach that combines corporate-wide reach with a process that unfolds at the product-team level. Drawing on the concept of product stewardship, the initiative aims to foster “life-cycle thinking,” as J&J leaders call it. J&J scientists and product developers analyze the environmental impact of a product at each stage of production and consumption—from the acquisition of raw materials to post-use recycling—and strive to increase the product’s cradle-to-grave sustainability. At the center of the initiative is a series of tools designed for ease of employee use: a simple scorecard, a board review process, and an external audit.

Although Earthwards is a brand, complete with its own registered trademark, J&J leaders so far have managed the Earthwards effort in a relatively under-the-radar way. “Earthwards is not an eco-logo that we want to put on the side of a product,” says Keith Sutter, senior product director for Earthwards. “It was [born] out of a desire to take a lot of great efforts that were going on with product stewardship and give them one home.”

Step By Step

J&J leaders, fearing accusations of “green-washing,” have often been gun-shy about touting environmental claims for their products. Al Iannuzzi, who spearheaded the launch of Earthwards, warns that any J&J sustainability project must avoid a “marketers gone wild” scenario in which the company ends up making unsubstantiated claims that hurt its credibility.

In recent years, though, many of J&J’s large retail clients—including Wal-Mart Stores, its largest customer of all—have expressed a strong interest in stocking greener products. “In my mind, the best thing that ever happened to enable us to make more green products was when Wal-Mart started asking for them,” says Iannuzzi, senior director of product stewardship and green marketing.

Earthwards, therefore, has emerged in part to serve as a vehicle for reassuring retailers that a given product has reduced its environmental footprint. “We didn’t put Earthwards on the product, because then you build another brand that might compete with the equity of the existing brand,” says Coleman Bigelow, marketing director for global sustainability. “But we were able to build this whole suite of claims that our marketers and sales teams could take to our retail partners.”

The Earthwards process differs in crucial ways from J&J’s previous sustainability efforts. “We decided we needed to make it easier to use,” Iannuzzi says. In designing the program, he and his team aimed to give J&J employees “a clearer line of sight” into “how to make their products greener,” he explains. Instead of creating a highly technical process, they developed a simple scorecard tool. “The scorecard is a way to document how the product has been made greener, and that we indeed have a legitimate green marketing claim,” Iannuzzi says.

To gain Earthwards recognition, a product team must go through four steps.

  • Satisfy prerequisites. Team members show a basic understanding of their product’s level of sustainability by answering questions about product ingredients, applicable regulations, and so on.
  • Undergo screening. Team members analyze the environmental impact of their product at each stage of its life cycle.
  • Identify improvements. This is where the scorecard comes in. To earn the Earthwards designation, a product must achieve significant improvement in at least three of seven areas: materials, packaging, energy, waste, water, social responsibility, and innovation. In most of those areas, the product team must show a margin of improvement that is 10 percent or greater.
  • Submit for review. Team members submit their scorecard, along with supporting data, to the Earthwards board. Fifteen people sit on the panel, including three external members: a carbon expert from the World Wildlife Fund; a chemistry and materials consultant from Practice Greenhealth, a consulting group that focuses on environmental sustainability; and a professor from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

Earthwards also features an auditing component in which UL Environment, a paid third-party service, verifies whether product teams have met the requirements of the program. Not all applicants for Earthwards designation pass muster. In some cases, the board instructs a product team to redo its work and to resubmit its application.

The Earthwards process isn’t mandatory; each product team decides whether to pursue it. So Iannuzzi and his colleagues work actively to market the program internally. But the key to ensuring adoption of the initiative, according to Iannuzzi and Bigelow, has been its simplicity. Their goal in structuring Earthwards, Iannuzzi says half-jokingly, was to make it “so easy that a marketer could understand it.”

Beyond Greenwashing?

Back at the meeting with the decorated Band-Aid product team, Earthwards board members were wrestling with the question about eucalyptus. “It provided a good five minutes of ‘I can’t believe someone knew eucalyptus was an invasive species to South America’ conversation,” Sutter says.

The retail boxes for the decorated Band-Aid product line now use wood pulp from the eucalyptus tree—a fast-growing resource whose use has the approval of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests. By using FSC-certified paper, the decorated Band-Aid team was able to meet the Earthwards standard for packaging. In addition, the team had reduced energy use in its manufacturing process, and it had met the criterion for social responsibility by acquiring eucalyptus paper from a cooperative in Brazil. Scoring high in those three areas (packaging, energy, and social responsibility) enabled the team to win official Earthwards recognition for their product line.

Those in charge of Earthwards have high aspirations for the initiative. Future plans, according to Sutter, call for embedding the Earthwards process in all new product development and for widening the scope of J&J’s green marketing efforts. Bigelow hopes that Earthwards will evolve into a vehicle for inspiring as well as capturing innovation. “That’s the ideal, because then your customers get excited,” he says. “The world gets excited because you’re bringing forward new solutions, not just incremental improvements.”

Despite the laudable goals of Earthwards leaders, some environmental activists cast a skeptical eye on the initiative. Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, concedes that J&J’s willingness to focus on a product’s life cycle is impressive. But he contends that the claims made for Earthwards products are a kind of “sustainababble,” and that the changes made to those products amount to small tweaks. “When you have to qualify in only three of those seven metrics, the bar is set so low that these are basically ‘slightly less bad’ products,” he says.

J&J is a corporate “cultural power,” Assadourian argues, and it’s therefore in a position to do more than simply reduce the size of the packaging for Surgicel, for example. J&J could make both the product and its packaging completely compostable, he suggests: “They have the opportunity to do something much more powerful than what this Earthwards process is doing.”

But Lara Sutherland, director of business membership for Practice Greenhealth and a member of the Earthwards board, counters that J&J is one of the few companies that have created a successful process for shrinking their environmental footprint. “There are eight zillion environmental things that you can do, so a lot of companies feel overwhelmed by all of the options,” she says. “J&J went in and really focused on ‘This is what we mean when we say we want a greener product.’” Earthwards, Sutherland argues, stands out for the way that it motivates employees and helps them focus on achieving specific goals.

J&J leaders, for their part, suggest that a defining feature of Earthwards is its focus on continuous improvement. “There’s no such thing as a green product,” Iannuzzi likes to say. “There’s only a greener product.”

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