Colgate-Palmolive strives to become a leader in sustainable building practices around the world.
WRITTEN BY Mary Grauerholz

Amid the lush beauty and natural wonders of Vietnam is a surprising level of pollution. A booming population, rapid industrialization, water pollution, and choking urban traffic—combined with the effects of climate change and other factors—have left the country and its 91 million people with significant health and environmental issues.


The good news in Vietnam, and other countries facing similar challenges, is that any positive effort can make a difference. Colgate-Palmolive, a global company that began in 1806 as a soap and candle business founded by William Colgate in New York City, is showing how progress can be made when it comes to building green, anywhere in the world.


A company action plan, called the 2015 to 2020 Sustainability Strategy, includes a “Commitment to Sustainable Buildings,” which outlines an ambitious goal: to achieve U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for all of its new buildings around the world. In the process, Colgate is establishing some impressive “firsts.” In Vietnam, a Colgate factory located outside of Ho Chi Minh City is the first LEED-certified building in the country, helping to push Vietnam toward a more sustainable future. A new LEED Gold plant in India that manufactures oral care products is the company’s first LEED-certified building in that country.

Cover: Interior of Colgate offices. Above: Vance Merolla, Colgate-Palmolive’s director of environmental sustainability. Photos: Neil Landino

Lori Michelin, Colgate’s vice president of global sustainability and environmental, occupational health, and safety. Photos: Neil Landino

Although the last six years have seen a 40 percent growth in LEED-certified industrial facilities, the growth is slower than in other LEED sectors. But the potential for positive change is huge.


“It’s a little newer, a little harder to do,” says Vance Merolla, Colgate-Palmolive’s director of environmental sustainability. “But the impact can be enormous.” Colgate has more than 50 manufacturing and research facilities and employs more than 37,000 people worldwide. Merolla directs Colgate’s global initiatives on energy, climate change, and water and waste reduction, and is responsible for Colgate’s commitment for all new global manufacturing facilities to become LEED certified.


By definition, industrial facilities use a great deal of water and energy, as Merolla points out, making them the perfect space type for strategies aimed at reducing use of natural resources and containing emissions. Colgate currently has 10 LEED-certified facilities and 11 more LEED projects underway. “It’s a way to show that it can be done, and done cost effectively,” says Merolla, of making sustainable buildings the rule rather than the exception. It also has the potential to change the culture of construction. As Merolla says, “It helps to educate and inform the industry.”


The company’s commitment applies to both existing and new construction. “In existing sites around the world, we’re continuing to look for ways to save water and energy,” Merolla says. “For a new facility, relating to LEED, it means ensuring we’re building with conservation in mind; ensuring that when we design it, we set water and energy performance goals.” One such goal the company has set its sights on is to reduce manufacturing water intensity by half, compared to its usage in 2002. The amount of water (and related energy) saved as a result translates to one metric ton of product.


Colgate’s efforts to certify industrial facilities began in 2007 with a pilot project in Morristown, Tennessee, says Mike Corbo, Colgate’s chief supply chain officer. “It worked,” Corbo says, “and it worked so well that we made a global commitment that every factory, technology center, warehouse, or office building that we construct, will be LEED-certified.” Corbo oversees the company’s global end-to-end supply chain activities in its efforts toward sustainable practices and sustainable, LEED-certified buildings and plants.

Colgate’s Ho Chi Minh City plant, which manufactures toothbrushes, earned LEED Silver for new construction.

Colgate’s sustainable intentions are woven throughout their 2015 to 2020 Sustainability Strategy, which is built on three pillars: people, performance, and planet. Each has measurable goals that align with Colgate’s overall business objectives, including targets to conserve water and reduce Colgate’s impact on climate and the environment. Among the many goals, the company pledges to:


  • Reduce manufacturing water intensity to half of its 2002 use levels
  • Replenish water withdrawn in highly stressed regions
  • Increase supplier participation in the company’s water stewardship program
  • Partner with local and global organizations to bring clean water to underserved areas of the world
  • Promote water conservation awareness to all the company’s global consumers
  • Responsibly source forest commodities to reach zero net deforestation
  • Promote use of renewable energy and reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing by 25 percent, compared to 2002 use levels
  • Reduce manufacturing energy intensity by one-third of its 2002 use levels
  • Cut manufacturing waste (measured in per ton of product) sent to landfills in half, compared to 2010 levels, working toward a goal of “zero waste”
  • Partner with key suppliers, customers, and consumers to reduce energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste


“Today, countries like Vietnam and China are rightly asserting their role as ‘the world’s factory,’” notes USGBC CEO and founding chair Rick Fedrizzi. “But it’s also here that exponential growth is disproportionately contributing to climate change, so it’s not surprising that Colgate is deploying some of its most innovative sustainable building techniques here.”


The plant in Ho Chi Minh City, which manufactures toothbrushes, earned LEED Silver for New Construction. Highlights include a 50 percent reduction in potable water landscape use and a 20 percent reduction in baseline indoor water use. The building’s indoor environmental quality was also well ranked, with 90 percent of occupied space having quality/daylight views.


“The benefits of a LEED building extend beyond just the company and the employees inside,” Corbo says. “Companies embracing LEED practices can help influence an entire industry and establish local green building capabilities. Our manufacturing facility in Vietnam, the first LEED-certified building in the country, was good for the greater community, because it developed skills in sustainable building construction for everyone who worked on that site. These are skills they could then take to other projects in the country.”


The company’s commitment to LEED construction is engaging thousands of employees in sustainability, Corbo says. Colgate’s portfolio of LEED-certified manufacturing sites to date have been designed to reduce energy use by 17 to 24 percent, carbon emissions by 16 to 27 percent, and water usage by an average of 44 percent.


Lori Michelin, Colgate’s vice president of global sustainability and EOHS (environmental, occupational health, and safety), says the company began valuing thoughtful business practices long before the 21st century.


“Sustainability is more than just a project or initiative at Colgate—it’s an integral part of everything we do,” Michelin says. “Long before sustainability and social responsibility practices became a basic cost-of-entry for companies, Colgate recognized that how we do business is just as important as what we do.” Improving operational efficiency has been a focus for decades, she says.


When indoor air quality is poor, health suffers. “Our commitment to LEED buildings is a big part of that, as it provides healthy, well-lit, comfortable working environments for our people,” Michelin says.


Employees have been a big part of the effort, Michelin says. “The 2015 to 2020 Sustainability Strategy was a cross-functional, cross-divisional effort, with people all over the Colgate world coming together to look at the current and future landscape—to look at what we were doing and where we wanted to go—and to [make] commitments to take us to the next level.”


One important way the company is implementing its strategy is through its Product Sustainability Scorecard. The scorecard program, begun in 2012, helps the company measure improvement across seven areas that impact the planet: responsible sourcing and raw materials, energy and greenhouse gases, waste, water, ingredient profile, packaging, and social impact. “The results are validated by a third party, so we can definitively say if a product is more sustainable than its predecessor,” Michelin says. “In 2015, 85 percent of our products had an improved sustainability profile, and we’re going to continue to focus on this through 2020.”


The stakes, of course, are high. “Operating in today’s world requires an enhanced focus on conserving finite resources and maintaining the well-being of our planet for generations to come,” Michelin says. “Given increased consumer and community expectations, a company really cannot prosper long term without a sustainable mindset.”


As a USGBC Platinum member, Colgate is leading by example in other ways too, such as sharing information. In 2012, Merolla and representatives of other multinational industrial companies, including Kohler, Intel, and Fiat-Chrysler, formed the USGBC LEED User Group: Industrial Facilities. “It’s a way to gather information, build a network, and engage more manufacturing companies,” Merolla says.


Colgate is reaping benefits for its commitment to sustainability and LEED construction. “Being committed to green manufacturing has enhanced our operational efficiencies and provided safe and healthy environments for our employees,” Corbo says. “It has also brought us significant cost savings, especially our reduction in energy and carbon over the years, in large part thanks to LEED, which has allowed us to make the products consumers rely on, with a smaller environmental footprint.”


“A lot of countries have building codes that only minimally address energy efficiency, water use, and waste generation,” Merolla adds. “By using LEED, we’re saying we’re going to exceed what the regulations require. We’re not necessarily waiting for governments to write building codes or standards for sustainability. It makes sense in terms of sustainability and in our business.”