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L’Oréal’s Alexandra Palt Talks Sustainability, COVID-19 and Priorities

The executive steers the group’s corporate social responsibility, sustainability and philanthropic programs.

Alexandra Palt’s passions became her profession.

At L’Oréal, she wears two overlapping hats. As the executive vice president — chief corporate responsibility officer, she’s launched sustainability programs that have reshaped operations at the world’s largest beauty company that now serves as an industry benchmark.

Palt studied law in Austria, but felt drawn to issues centered on women’s rights and asylum rights, and started working with different NGOs. While taking part in the Preparing Young Women to Lead program, Palt was mentored by the then chief of Amnesty International in Germany. She moved to France, where she started focusing on human rights and corporations, with environmental matters sometimes mixed in.

“I started to be involved in the issue of corporate responsibility,” said Palt, who then signed on with a business-driven membership organization focused on CSR. She became executive vice president for equal opportunity at France’s equivalent of the Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission, then was an independent consultant on CSR issues.

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Palt joined L’Oréal in February 2012 as its first chief sustainability officer, and launched the Sharing Beauty With All sustainability program and its Zero Deforestation policy. In September 2017, she was named chief corporate responsibility officer and also executive president of the Fondation L’Oréal. Palt now sits on the group’s executive committee.

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Here, she talked with WWD Beauty Inc about sustainability, the COVID-19 crisis and what makes her tick.

What was your first job?

A.P.: I worked during my studies — I really recommend this experience, because it keeps your life down to earth. I worked in a café in Vienna.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

A.P.: I would have liked to have better known what is my issue and what is other people’s issue — my problem, your problem, his problem. It took me quite a long time to understand that some issues are definitely not mine.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact L’Oréal’s sustainability strategy going forward?

A.P.: For the world, it has to be an accelerator for sustainability. We know that COVID-19 is related to biodiversity loss, that [crises will be repeated] if we do not tackle climate change issues, environmental issues for the future. If governments, politicians or even companies try to go back to an old system, the civil society is not going to accept it — especially young people.

What I see at L’Oréal is that our ceo’s leadership is even reinforced on sustainability issues [and] completely aware that this is the only way forward. COVID-19 is going to confirm and accelerate our transformation just as we planned it, because we are really on a complete transformation of our business model. To us, this is the way forward.

What parts of the sustainability plan assume increased importance and which parts potentially may have to be back-burnered?

A.P.: We can’t put anything on the back burner, because our new commitments are very oriented around the limits of the planet, as identified and validated by scientists. There is a [move toward] revaluing science that is very interesting and probably will help us go faster as societies on environmental issues. Something else we’ve learned through the crisis is that we will definitely have to be involved socially even more.

What are among priorities for the year ahead?

A.P.: To live up to the unexpected challenges that we will be confronted with related to the coronavirus and its consequences. For the world, there is the sanitary crisis that we will have to manage and then there is the social crisis. But that cannot lead to a neglect of the climate-change issue and the biodiversity loss.

L’Oréal’s sustainable transformation is aligned with a 1.5 scenario of degree of global warming. We know that the world is not going to achieve that…but we still have to align our climate targets with the most ambitious scenario. The most important thing for us is to move from a perspective of how can we reduce our environmental footprint to how can we do what the world and the planet need to see from us.

How has the crisis impacted how consumers think about sustainability?

A.P.: I think it’s much too early to talk about consumer behavior. It would be pretentious to say I have an idea about how the crisis is impacting that. But what we can say without any risk is that sustainability will just get more important for consumers, because it was already on a fast track before the crisis. It had become so important for our consumers everywhere. [The pandemic] can just accelerate this movement.

What’s the toughest assignment you’ve ever been given and how did you navigate it?

A.P.: When I worked at the Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission, perhaps because I spent a lot of time in the United States, my perspective was very diversity-driven and not just an equality-driven vision. In 2006, for me the commission was very much on a conservative interpretation of equality and equal opportunities. I did not agree.

I found that when you work in an environment where the thinking is not open enough to hear disruptive ideas, you can be the best professional, but you will not succeed. It confirms Victor Hugo’s saying: “Rien n’est plus fort qu’une idée dont l’heure est venue” [or “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come”].

When I arrived at L’Oréal what was very interesting was I felt the right time had come for it to lead this transformation. That was very easy to do, because the leadership was there.

What’s your favorite 
question to ask when you’re interviewing someone?

A.P.: Very often, my favorite question to ask people in general is what book they have read recently. I am somebody who believes a lot in intuition. I do not ask the question to find out something about them, because I have already a feeling when I meet people, or even over the phone. I’m just interested in what they have read.

What’s your quick fix when 
you need to destress?

A.P.: I do sports every day. It depends on my humor whether it’s boxing or yoga. At the moment, it’s basketball with my kids.

What motivates you?

A.P.: What makes me get up in the morning, apart from my children, is that I want to make this a better place for people — with less injustice, more equality, more opportunities and less human suffering.