It was 2006, and Phil Cumming was about to take on an opportunity that would ultimately earn his career a metaphoric gold medal: develop, manage and deliver the sustainability strategy for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. At the time, it was described as the UK’s largest peacetime logistical exercise (although the UK COVID-19 vaccination program likely holds this title now). Cumming and his team worked to set goals based on climate science before this was “a thing” and established a third-party sustainability standard for the events and hospitality sector. In the end, London 2012 was widely regarded as the most sustainable Games in modern Olympic history, influencing the International Olympic Committee’s approach to Games in years to come.
Cumming has spent 22 years in the sustainability field, beginning in international environmental consultancy before moving in-house to support well-known brands such as home improvement retailer Kingfisher plc (B&Q and Screwfix in the UK) and Marks and Spencer plc. For the last two years, he’s been focused on helping Walgreens Boots Alliance, its customers and communities make a positive impact on the world.
WBA Magazine caught up with Cumming to learn more about his role as global head of sustainability for No7 Beauty Company, leading WBA’s consumer packaged goods business – including No7, Liz Earle, Soap & Glory, Botanics and Sleek MakeUP brands – as well as WBA Global Sourcing, which brings a wide range of health and beauty products to life for our retail partners and brands, and WBA Consumer Healthcare Futures, our global consumer healthcare innovation function.
What do you and your team do on a daily basis?
WBA progressively embedding sustainability more securely into our business and brands so it feels less “bolted-on” and more “how we do things.” As a specialized team, our job is to help enable this transition. Where there are skill or knowledge gaps, we step in to help, but otherwise our role is to shepherd the business and set it up for success. We do this by identifying future trends, risks and opportunities; keeping tabs on how we’re progressing; building relationships with key internal and external stakeholders; promoting and driving key initiatives; as well as continually challenging and steering the business and brands through the growing breadth and complexities of the agenda.
I once heard a team like ours described as an “internal change management consultancy,” which is a good description. Sustainability is essentially a huge change management program. It's changing every aspect of how we do business – how we develop brands and source products; how we attract, retain and reward our team members; and how we interact with customers. We will only become more sustainable by helping people change, whether that’s team members, suppliers or customers.
We have established a set of global minimum product sustainability requirements that apply to all our products and packaging and provide the foundation for this to happen. In parallel, we seek opportunities to deliver substantial progress in a short amount of time. Eliminating more than 400 tons of single-use plastic gift packaging from our owned brand gifting range for Christmas 2020 was one such project, and has now become our default approach for all seasonal gifting.
We’re on a sustainability journey, and I believe most customers understand this – granted we also have a collective responsibility to pick up the pace.
Has COVID-19 impacted your agenda?
Our world is changing fast. The 2020s were already set up to be a decade of great change and disruption, even before COVID-19. The United Nations has marked the end of this decade as the goalpost year for achieving its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which offer a shared 2030 vision to end poverty, rescue the planet and build a peaceful world – all against an backdrop of political uncertainty, social inequity, a technological revolution and environmental degradation.
Transparency was already a big priority for many sectors – food and apparel, for instance – but COVID-19 has made it a key priority for the beauty sector, too. The pandemic has underscored the need to have a good understanding of our value chain, and the need to be resilient and more agile. As we come out of the pandemic, transparency will be a prerequisite to mitigating risk and reacting to future crises as well as responding to consumer demand for brands that adopt more sustainable sourcing practices. Recent research carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit for WWF found there has been a surge in consumer demand for more sustainable products, including a 71 percent rise in popularity of searches over the last five years, with continued growth during the pandemic.
You may have heard of the “build back better“ mantra – it was a recent U.S. presidential slogan – but beyond what some might consider hyperbole, I do believe there has never been a better moment to press the “reset” button and start on a trajectory toward a more sustainable future. Beauty has a critical role to play in this regard, through brand and product management, its relationship with consumers, and adopting a more radically inclusive and “one planet” mindset.
How do you see No7 Beauty Company’s sustainability strategy evolving?
We’re on a journey to make our business and brands more sustainable, but we certainly don’t have all the answers as this agenda is continually evolving. We believe a successful business must also be environmentally and socially sustainable, but this belief isn’t new. Protecting our planet and communities is in our Boots heritage. Still, the environmental and social challenges of the 2020s call for more urgent action and a broader strategy. To guide us, we’ve developed a sustainability roadmap through 2030.
What sustainability achievement are you most proud of?
As clichéd as it sounds, there are too many to choose from. London 2012 was potentially career-defining – having the opportunity to not only raise the sustainability bar for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but to set exemplary sustainability standards on a global stage was amazing. Last month the International Olympic Committee published a piece titled, “London 2012: A legacy that keeps giving.” Nearly 10 years later, it’s proof that if you embed sustainability from the outset, you can create lasting positive impacts.
More recently, we’re seeing a slew of amazing achievements in our business, too: plastic-free seasonal gift packaging, Aromatherapy Associates achieving B Corp status (the gold standard for sustainable business), Botanics achieving Leaping Bunny status (and other brands on this trajectory), and No7 and Liz Earle tackling single-use plastics in core product lines.
Sustainability is first and foremost about people in my view. It’s a change agenda that goes to hearts and minds. My role is to agitate, support and steer – things I’m proudest of, though, is when my team can take a step back and see others really take ownership and make things a reality.
I once heard a former colleague say the biggest impact is delivered behind the scenes. This very much sums up sustainability roles.