For household appliance manufacturer Electrolux Group, it is true to say the consumer’s sustainability journey is only just beginning when they purchase a product.
The company has a framework called For the Better 2030, in which three pillars – better company, better solutions and better living – align. The first goal is to run resource-efficient and ethical operations, then create products and services that enable people to save resources while fostering a more circular economy, before finally tying it all together to inspire and empower people to make choices that will help them live more sustainably. The overall goal is to have climate neutrality through the company’s value chain by 2050.
The research backs this up: an in-house study in 2021 found globally 85% of total CO2 emissions in the lifecycle of white goods are produced during the use of the products. Yet the circular business solutions angle is an interesting one for appliances, as Sarah Schaefer, VP Sustainability Europe at Electrolux, explains.
While the concept of ‘pre-loved’ is common elsewhere, Schaefer relates an experience common to many: when a washing machine gives up the ghost, you will be advised to buy a new one because it would be cheaper. Appliances are almost always fixable, but it is not often the convenient path.
“What’s really important, increasingly, is understanding how we can create different business models,” Schaefer tells Sustainable Future News. “So ultimately, [it is about] helping consumers to understand when it is best to replace, when best to repair, and how we can make sure that we reduce our consumption path towards a more circular future.”
The ‘better living’ pillar takes this arguably a step further, encouraging consumers to make sustainable eating the preferred choice, and make clothes last twice as long. It’s one thing for a manufacturer to encourage using a washing machine at 30°C as opposed to 40°C, or to use particular settings on an oven; it’s quite another to try and change people’s eating habits.
Yet the company explains this angle succinctly. “As one of the global leaders in our industry, we are not just a company, but also a part of the society within which we operate,” Electrolux Group notes. “Wherever we are in the world, Electrolux inspires and empowers consumers to live better and more sustainable lives.”
It is difficult to argue with that. So how is Electrolux Group able to be an authoritative voice in regard to the consumer and post-purchase? A recent report from the House of Lords’ environment and climate change committee (pdf) argued that a third of the UK’s emissions reductions must come from behavioural change – so the focus is there. Schaefer, who has plenty of experience in the big brand space counting Mars and Unilever among her previous employers, notes that the world – herself included, humbly – is crying out for clarity.
“When you read the newspapers and headlines, I think there is a lot of untapped potential,” says Schaefer. “I think people want to make a change but it’s very unclear how to [do so]. Most of us know to fly less, maybe eat less meat, but a lot of it is quite difficult to understand. I include myself in this – and I’ve worked in senior sustainability roles for 13, 14 years.
“I think there’s probably quite a lot we can do, and behaviours we can nudge, by just bringing it to life,” she adds. “So that makes me very optimistic. Because why wouldn’t you, once you know?”
Key to the overall approach is having as much of the company DNA aligned with sustainability as possible. For a company which is more than 100 years old, and with the long-term climate neutrality goal, it is interesting to see how Electrolux Group does it. A quote from VP Group Sustainability Vanessa Butani – “sustainability isn’t an afterthought or an add-on, it’s an integral part of our business” – sums up the approach.
“Clearly a sustainability VP, or head of sustainability alone, is not going to achieve anything, because all of us work in very big businesses with very well-established processes,” explains Schaefer. “Ultimately, what is really important is for your leadership team, or your CEO, to believe in it. That has to be linked to remuneration and the rest of it, but unless it’s embedded successfully through KPIs, through processes, and each function across the business on every level, it’s not going to work. That’s just common sense.
“It’s a bit of a cliché to say ‘you measure what you treasure’, but ultimately I think unless you have quite a robust KPI infrastructure, just as you have for any performance-related data, you need to have a sustainability-related KPI as well,” adds Schaefer. “In our case, that has to do with energy efficiency because that’s easy to measure, and we know that.
“That does not mean the sustainability KPI is more important than the other. But once it is on the table as part of a structured, very strategic business conversation, you can’t ignore it. And I think that’s the really, really important piece.”
With regard to next steps for Electrolux Group, Schaefer notes that with sustainability ‘the science tells us where we have to get to’. But when it comes to advice for those looking to get into the industry, there are many routes now open – but one thing stands out. “The key is, sustainability increasingly needs to be a business transformation role,” says Schaefer. “I think it’s much easier, somebody who knows how businesses work, who are well-established within a business, giving them sustainability-related training.
“What we need to get away from, which was very different when I first started my career, is that sustainability was this ivory tower. That’s just not going to work anymore. We don’t have time for that – we have to integrate. It should be a business transformation, one that holds the business to account. But unless you have that internal credibility, you’re just not going to make the difference at scale.”
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