CINCINNATI - When Greenpeace protesters unfurled a 60-foot banner at the global headquarters of Procter & Gamble Co. Tuesday, a public relations executive from Chicago let slip a quiet cheer on a street in San Francisco.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Margie Kelly, a public relations manager for the Breast Cancer Fund. “I think it’s fantastic that they did that. I think it makes change happen.”
Kelly knows a thing or two about inspiring change at Procter & Gamble. She led a multi-year fight to convince P&G to stop using Triclosan and Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) in its personal care products. It quietly announced the change last September.
“They seem to be immune to consumer pressure,” said Kelly. “They very much don’t want to be seen as moveable by outside forces. However, they do move. So the message is, keep it up. When it’s a good idea and the right time, P&G will make the change.”
P&G is a frequent target of environmental groups, health advocates and animal rights activists for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks – because that’s where the money is. As the world’s largest consumer products company, affecting change at P&G can cause an entire industry to follow.
“They are an international multi-billion dollar company,” said Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of laboratory investigations at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Their reach is wide and they have engaged … in practices that are reprehensible. While we’ve seen huge improvement for example in their testing policies, we’re not there yet. When a company the size of P&G makes a change it reverberates throughout the corporate world.”
PETA has launched more than a half dozen protests at P&G annual meetings, with shareholder proposals that urged the company to halt cosmetic testing on animals and switch to in-home testing of pet food products as opposed to housing dogs and cats in laboratories.
While it has no plans for a proxy resolution this year, PETA continues to urge a boycott of P&G because it does business in China, where cosmetic testing on laboratory animals is required.
“Over the 25 years that I’ve been with PETA, I have seen them make substantial movement toward doing things better,” Guillermo said. “It’s not just public relations. They’re actual discussions about how to make things better. And with some companies, we don’t even see that.”
After the Greenpeace stunt, P&G spokesman Paul Fox said the company’s primary concern during the protest was the safety of P&G employees and the protesters themselves.
“We agree that deforestation is a significant issue which is why we are committed to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil,” Fox said. “We have already pledged to reach 100 percent sustainable sourcing of palm oil by 2015 and we will continue to drive to that goal with urgency.”
Greenpeace campaigner Joao Talocchi alleged P&G is encouraging rain forest destruction by sourcing its palm oil from Indonesian suppliers that cause forest fires and other environmental calamities.
In addition to Greenpeace, PETA and the Breast Cancer Fund, P&G was recently singled out by India’s Centre for Science and Environment as one of several companies that use the toxic chemical mercury in its skin-lightening product, Olay Natural White. And a Chicago grandmother launched an online petition at Change.org to get P&G to improve its safety packaging for Tide Pods.
Kelly’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics targeted retailers and consumer product companies for more than a decade before P&G quietly announced last September that it would stop using the chemicals by 2014. Triclosan has been linked to skin irritation and resistance to antibiotics, while phthalates are said to cause endocrine disruption.
“We found it by just by coming upon it on their website,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t that they sent out a press release to let the world know they were making this change.”
Kelly found it interesting that P&G declined to talk to national media about the issue.
“Talk to the hand is sort of the approach we get from Procter & Gamble,” she said. “You can talk with them and tell them to change and tell them why they should change and you get sort of a stone fortress out of them. But clearly internally they took it up on themselves to do the research and … ultimately they did the right thing.”