Leading the ESG Space with Niki King of Clorox

April 25, 2024

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Niki King is the VP and Head of Sustainability for The Clorox Company, where she oversees the company’s integrated IGNITE ESG efforts including driving strategies and roadmaps to achieve the company’s ambitious ESG goals and implementing the company’s ESG governance structure.  She is also responsible for engaging a broad set of internal and external stakeholders to embed ESG throughout the organization and ensure Clorox continues as a leader in the ESG space. 

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so honored to have with us today, Niki King. She’s the VP and Head of Sustainability for the Clorox Company. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Niki.

Niki King: Thanks so much for having me, John.

John: It’s an honor to have you here today, representing such an iconic and important brand. And before we get talking about all the things in sustainability you’re doing with your colleagues at Clorox, I’d love you to share a little bit about your background. Niki, where you grow up, and how’d you get on this journey, and who inspired you along the way?

Niki: Absolutely. I currently live in New Jersey, but like many of my peers and sustainability professionals, I’ve really had quite the journey. If you would have asked me 25 years ago what I would be doing, it certainly wouldn’t be this, nor would I have imagined this roller coaster that my career has been. But I grew up in a tiny town in rural Alabama. We literally had one-stop life and a face in the courthouse window. So that’s a true story. You can Google it. It’s an interesting one. That’s the claim to fame. I had pretty humble beginnings. We lived very simply. We grew our own vegetables. That was so that we could have food to eat, not because it was sustainable in that sense. Although I was fascinated with farming and soil health in high school when I had the choice to take agriculture or home ec [?]. I took agriculture because I thought it was a lot more interesting. But back then I had never heard of sustainability and it certainly was not a typical profession. We all wanted to be doctors or lawyers or teachers or accountants. And personally, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people and make the world a better place. But sometimes life has other plans for you. So I pivoted and I moved to New Jersey a long time ago, back in my early 20s. And I became a paralegal. I worked at law firms doing infinite domain, land use, commercial litigation work. And it was a good career. But it often felt thankless. And I knew that I could make a bigger impact doing something else. In 2008, I joined Campbell Soup Company as a paralegal overseeing their open innovation platform. So if you don’t know what that is, it’s a platform so that anyone outside of the company could send an innovative idea to the company for consideration.

John: That’s cool.

Niki: It was kind of cool. But that’s really where it all changed for me. And not because of that innovation platform that I was leading. But for me, it was fate. The same day that I started work at Campbell, the company had hired their first head of corporate social responsibility. That’s what it was called back then. He and I sat right next to each other. In the legal department. And I started to ask him a ton of questions. I probably drove Dave Stangis crazy.

John: And by the way, just so you know, 10 or 11 years ago, Dave came on the show. He was on the show 10 or 11 years ago. So I know Dave. Dave’s a great guy.

Niki: How iconic.

John: Yeah. He’s awesome.

Niki: He is so amazing. And he is the one that introduced me to this wonderful, complex, evolving industry. And I think that’s what made him such an impactful career field. And so long story short, Dave really took me under his wings. He mentored me, he taught me, he gave me an opportunity. And he started testing me with some side projects because he was a team of one. He didn’t have any help. And so it wasn’t long before I realized that this is where I could have an impact and I could really make a positive impact on the world.

John: He was a smart man. He was mentoring. He was creating his own department. And you became his department. That’s awesome.

Niki: He was. And we were a team of two for a long period of time. If I have to tell you, the things that Dave taught me, if he taught me all the technical things, of course. But I think most importantly, he taught me about the soft skills that are essential for this career field. He taught me how to be persistently patient. Neither of us were patient people. But we were both persistent. So he taught me how to marry the two of those. He taught me about executive presence. How to influence. I think most importantly, he taught me how incredibly important it is to build relationships. And that’s how you’re going to be successful in this career field. So he and I worked together for almost ten years at Campbell. And I held various sustainability roles. Everything from communications to strategy. I ended my career there after I had stood up the company’s first responsible sourcing program. And then from there, I went to this wonderful little company called Brilliant Earth. They’re known for ethically sourced jewelry. And I had the opportunity to spend time helping them build their responsible sourcing programs and putting policies in place. And I got to spend time on the ground in India with suppliers. So that was such an amazing experience. And then from there, I dipped my toe in pharma and led sustainability in North America for Novo Nordisk for a little bit. But then I realized I truly love CPG. So then I pivoted and I went to Unilever. They’re a leader in sustainability and I had the opportunity to lead sustainability in North America for a while. And that was just such an incredible learning opportunity. And then a little over a year ago, Clorox came knocking. And although I was happy at Unilever, I was incredibly intrigued. I started doing my research. I was like, “Holy cow, this company has been doing amazing stuff in sustainability and nobody really knows it.” They really have been on this journey. So I knew it was the right next step for me. And hopefully, this will be home until I retire.

John: That’s awesome. And for our listeners and viewers that want to find Niki and her colleagues at Clorox, please go to thecloroxcompany.com. That website will be in our show notes as well. So talk a little bit about you joined Clorox. Now, did they already have a head of sustainability? Or were you one of the first heads of sustainability? What were you walking into when you came in a year ago or so?

Niki: Yeah. So Clorox, had never had a full-time head of sustainability, believe it or not. They had sustainability work integrated into what they were doing since I think 2008. They started producing an integrated report in 2012. They did all of this without having a head of sustainability. So they had teams of people working on it. For me, this was an amazing opportunity to come in and really build upon this amazing journey that had been happening.

John: So many of the people that I get to interview, and I’m so lucky to meet all of you. You’re what I call one of the greatest fraternities on the world. The fraternity of chief sustainability officers, chief impact officers, are walking in to the proverbial blank page. So how daunting but how exciting was it for you to come in? Because as you and I know, sustainability can be read narrowly. It could be read widely. Same thing with ESG. How daunting was it from you and did you have an idea of where you wanted to start? Or did they give you some parameters? Or was it a mixture of both?

Niki: I think it was a mixture of both. So they had an idea of where they wanted to go. They had been recognized in doing great work. And they had given me some parameters. Like let’s get this governance structure in place, do certain things. But they also gave me the ability to take a step back, look at it with fresh eyes, and provide my perspective. And that’s been really well received.

John: So it’s been well received. I assume part of sustainability at Clorox also has to do with ESG.

Niki: It does. So actually, we use the terms interchangeably at Clorox. My role is I oversee all of our ESG reporting, I oversee all of our climate work, I oversee responsible sourcing. What I do not directly oversee is DEI and social impact. So I oversee the rest of it.

John: And we’ve had your partner and your colleague, Morand [?] she talked a lot about all about the great things you’re doing in DEI, which were really impressive and really impactful stuff. So ESG and sustainability, as you say, go hand in hand. Can you share? First of all, Clorox is about $7 billion plus company, 9,000 plus employees. You represent much more than just that wonderful Clorox that we all grew up with in our laundry rooms. What different brands do you represent? And talk a little bit about the interrelationship of sustainability and ESG with regards to your portfolio brands.

Niki: We have an interesting set of brands. Most people don’t know this. And quite frankly, I didn’t know it until I started interviewing for the company. But we have some pretty cool brands. Obviously, our names say Clorox, but we have Burt’s Bees, Hidden Valley Rich, GLAAD, Kingsford, Fresh Step Kitty Litter. So we have quite a mixture of brands. The approach that we take at Clorox, we take an integrated approach to sustainability. So I talked a little bit about we do an integrated report, which means we report it on our key ESG metrics alongside our financial metrics every year in our annual report. We also take an integrated approach when it comes to our strategy. So ESG is integrated into the Ignite strategy. This also means that our business units, all 12 of them, are on the hook for achieving sustainability targets. Because I can’t do it with my tiny little team of subject matter experts. We need our business units to take ownership. So each of our business units, they’re given their set of sustainability targets, which is carved out from the corporate targets. They have to build roadmaps against those targets and figure out how they’re going to achieve their portion of them.

John: How does one go? You walk in, and you’re the leader. There’s 9,000 or so employees. How do you get people to become sustainability ESG advocates at Clorox? How do you get people to buy in?

Niki: A lot of people are already bought in. We have such an amazing employee population. People get it. They understand why we’re doing it. It’s important to them, right? But there are some people that we have to bring along. And this has been my entire career journey, has been about bringing people along. So for me, it’s really important to sit down and build relationships. With the people that I need to bring along. And I will tell you, when I was interviewing for this job, my boss said to me, she’s like, “Niki, this is a relationship-driven company.” I was like, “Yeah, I got it.” She’s like, “but do you really get it?” I said, “Yes I understand and that’s my superpower, to build relationships.” And she said to me about, it was about seven months into the role, and she’s like, “Niki, that is your superpower.” She’s like, I have never seen a leader come in and build relationships the way that you have. I relate to people, I help them understand how this is going to impact them. And if it’s a challenge or a hurdle that we need to overcome, we figure out how to do it together. I don’t want to ever toss a target over to someone and say, here, go figure it out. I listened, I spoke with every one of our general managers. I tried to get a sense of what was challenging for them. We had those tough conversations. They told me what they needed from me and I’m incorporating that. So we had to change some of the ways that we’re doing things, but we’ll be much stronger for them.

John: When it comes to choosing the original goals that you laid out, where did you start? A lot of companies are very concerned with zero waste. Others are being net zero or being decarbonized. Others are regenerative farming when it comes to sourcing the materials for their food-type products. You have a mixture of consumer goods. Some of them are edible, such as Hidden Valley Ranch. Some of them are just products we use in our homes on an everyday basis, such as Clorox or Glad Bags or Burt’s Bees is such a great product. So where do you start? And how do you track the progress of some of your key metrics and key goals?

Niki: Yeah, so we do have an aggressive set of goals. Like many of our peers, I think we have about 20-something goals right now. I will tell you, that will not be the way of the future. We’re looking at all of our goals right now. But we have signature goals, which are the most material goals to our business and to our stakeholders. And those really fall in two categories. One is climate We have a science-based target, a 2030 target, which we have met. We also have a net zero 2050 target that’s undergoing analysis by SBTI right now. So we hope to have that target validated sometime in May. But on our 2030 target, that was to reduce scope one and two emissions by 50 percent. And scope three by 25 percent. We achieved that target early. So we are tracking this annually and we are putting resources behind it. The other area is on plastics and other waste. So just like my peers, that is going to be critical for us to, one, achieve our climate targets. But it’s just critically important to our stakeholders. So we have pretty aggressive goals from a packaging perspective. We also have a zero waste to landfill goal. We track that progress annually in our annual report. And, for example, on plastics, we were at 88 percent of our 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable goal this year. So making progress. Some of them are easier than others to make progress against.

John: In terms of the industry, is that your biggest challenge? Is industry-specific challenges the plastic challenge? Or there are others that, I don’t want to say keep you up at night, but that you see as higher hurdles?

Niki: Yeah, of course. I think you talked about this profession being like fraternity. I will tell you, it is probably more like a therapy club. That’s how I think about it. I mean, we are all therapists to each other. It’s a daily basis, the texts that I have going back and forth with my peers. We’re all grappling with some of these same very tough issues that prevent us from achieving our goals. Whether it’s the inability to procure PCR, the cost of materials, very, very small budgets.

John: Niki, you’ve had a storied career, though. Campbell Soup and Dave Stangis, Brilliant Earth, Nova Nordisk, Unilever. You’ve really had a tremendous opportunity to get educated and become so expert across many different platforms. So when you look for inspiration and aspiration now, do you look in your industry, the CPG industry, or do you look out? Or is it a fun mixture of both?

Niki: It’s a fun mixture of both. Obviously, we are going to peer benchmark. We peer benchmark all the time to see what our peers are doing. But I think sometimes the biggest AHA [?] moments are when I look outside of my industry and I see what others are doing. Whether it’s pharma or automotive or any other industry. There’s some really innovative companies. I was at an event a couple of weeks ago that wasn’t just CPG. It was quite a few companies. I had some great takeaways from the electronics industry, for example. So I just constantly looking at what our peers are doing and trying to learn so that we can be better.

John: If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Niki King with us today. She’s the VP and head of sustainability for the Clorox Company. To find Niki and her colleagues and all the great work they’re doing in ESG and sustainability, please go to www.thecloroxcompany.com. Talk a little bit about the juggling act you do when you think about two things. Your retail customers and your external partners. One, retail customers seem to be voting with their pocketbook now more than ever in terms of supporting brands that really do care about the environment, the future, our great planet Earth, et cetera. And then also your external partners. You’ve got to bring them along on your vision of the Clorox sustainability ESG journey. Talk about how you split your time thinkin about both groups and individuals. How do you work with both in terms of messaging and marketing and getting them to buy into your vision, your goals at Clorox?

Niki: Yeah, it is a constant juggling act. So let’s start with retailers, right? Retailers obviously critical to us. I will say in each of these roles, I’ve worked with the different retailers. We all know which ones are leading from a sustainability perspective. But they put pressure on us. They put pressure on us to perform. They are asking us for our greenhouse gas data. They are asking us to make changes. They are asking us for more sustainable products. So it is critical for us to partner with our retailers. So we do. We integrate sustainability into our meetings with our retailers and we collaborate on ways to have some joint initiatives together. That will help us both achieve our goals. So that is obviously critical. Then for us, our biggest set of emissions, it’s our supply chain, right? Scope 3 is what we are really going to have to buckle down on and tackle. So our relationships with our vendor partners are going to be critical to this work. This is something we’ve been doing [inaudible] work. But this is the biggest opportunity that I’ve seen since I’ve been here and we’re currently in the process of developing a scope 3 supplier engagement program. So we’ll be rolling that out in the next few months. But we will have some pretty clear expectations in there of our suppliers. Just like our retailers asked us for information, we will be asking our suppliers to provide us with their greenhouse gas data. We’ll be asking them to submit targets and we’ll be asking them to make progress against those targets. Those things will become non-negotiable at some point.

John: Beyond the retailers, your retail customers, the man or woman on the street who is buying your great products. Obviously, as you said at the top of the show, Clorox is a much beloved brand. I grew up with it. You grew up with it. Most people grew up with Clorox brand products in their household. How much is the messaging evolving? So as you said, when you walked into Clorox, you didn’t really realize how much they were doing already as part of their DNA with regards to sustainability. Is that messaging to the retail customers around the United States and the world changing as well and evolving to educate the clients more, your customers, on what you’re really doing at Clorox?

Niki: I think there’s an opportunity for us and our retailers to educate the consumer a lot more than we do. However just a couple things. of The consumer doesn’t want to pay more for sustainability. They just expect it. If you look back five years ago, I can remember seeing studies that would say, “Oh, the consumer is willing to pay 10%, 20% more.” That is not true. The consumer just expects you to do the right thing. So as companies, we’re all trying to figure out what is the right balance, and we just have to integrate sustainability into everything that we do in a way that doesn’t cost the consumer. To me, that’s just the duty that we have as consumer goods companies.

John: Outside of this United States, how many other approximately, just roughly, we don’t need an exact answer, how many countries is Clorox products being sold in and where you have employees and executives around the world?

Niki: How many countries are they being sold in? I would probably say close to 100. I don’t know. [cross-talk] It’s a lot.

John: But in terms of manufacturing and production, though, are outside of the United States under you, does it roll up under you in terms of production, manufacturing, and of course, scope three around the world?

Niki: So it all rolls under me. So I am the global head of sustainability. We are primarily a domestic company, but we do have operations in other countries as well. And yes, I’m responsible for all of it.

John: Wow. Do you travel or do you just have counterparts there getting information to you so you can best keep track of it? How does that work or is it a happy mix of both?

Niki: I think it’s a happy mix of both. There are times when I need to go to our facilities and build those relationships because we’re not getting what we need. I just like being in our facilities and meeting with people and understanding what their challenges are from a sustainability perspective. So it’s a mixture of both.

John: Niki, you’ve been there a year now, share one or two of your favorite projects or initiatives you’ve been working on there, and then give one or two that you’re working on in the future that you’re allowed to share with our listeners and viewers today.

Niki: This may sound crazy to some people, my favorite project right now is working on the next version of our sustainability data. How do we get our data automated? We have great data, it’s solid data. It’s assured annually. But I need it to be in a system so I can free up my people to work on strategic things. So I would say that’s probably one of my…

John: It makes a lot of sense, by the way. It makes a lot of sense.

Niki: Yeah. And that’s what we need to do to meet regulatory requirements. So I would say that is pretty… I don’t know if it’s fun, but it’s fun to me because, at the end of the day, I will feel so much better about our data. The other cool thing that I did is we really implemented our governance structure in a very solid way. So we’ve always had some governance, but we have a very robust ESG governance structure. I created a playbook around it. Everyone should know how ESG is governed, and it works like a well-oiled machine. If I need the decision, I go to my ESG executive committee, and it happens. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a great ESG governance structure in my entire career.

John: That’s awesome. It’s one of the greatest challenges that both people like you and others, members of your great fraternity who sit in your seat at other amazing brands across the United States and actually the world are all the different rules. It’s a patchwork quilt when it comes to the SEC and then what’s happening in Europe and what’s proposed in Asia. It seems like that needs to be harmonized. Is that one of the greatest challenges that you face today in terms of different rules around the world?

Niki: It is this regulatory tsunami that we’re in, and it cannot end fast enough for me. Look, I’ve been doing this for a long period of time. We went from everything being fully voluntary, and we would have these frameworks that you didn’t have to follow or you loosely followed to now it’s regulated. It was exciting. Like, that was a historic moment to me. I sat through that painful SEC hearing. But it was so exciting. But I do think there’s some harmonization that’s needed and I think one of the things we grapple with now is EPR, or extended producer responsibility. So it’s not happening at the federal level, which would be so much easier. It’s happening at the state level. So it’s state by state. Everyone has their own idea of what it should look like, and it is confusing, it is complicated, and it is expensive.

John: Yeah, that is expensive. Those are the things that need to be really harmonized on a federal basis.

Niki: I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Every time you turn around, it’s like you’re dodging something. And so we’re pretty busy in that space.

John: Niki, I’ll give you the last word. So, share any final thoughts you have about sustainability or ESG and the road ahead for the Clorox company.

Niki: I think the road ahead for us, I would just say, it’s all about focus. Right? We’ve done great work, we have laid a great foundation, we still have a lot of work to do. But I think the future for us is really about focusing on what our most material issues are for us and our stakeholder and really doubling down on our efforts to achieve our targets. And that’s where we’re headed.

John: For our listeners and viewers that want to find Niki King and her colleagues at the Clorox company, please go to www.thecloroxcompany.com. Niki King, you’re a sustainability rock star. I’m so grateful for your time today. And I’m more grateful to you and your colleagues at the Clorox company for making the world a better and more sustainable place.

Niki: Thank you so much, John. It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people the planet and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and Electronics Asset Disposition Provider and cybersecurity-focused Hardware Destruction Company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on our ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic Hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.