One might easily write off Len Sauers, vice president of sustainability at Procter & Gamble Co., Cincinnati, as a corporate mouthpiece, someone paid to sing pitch-perfectly from the company’s hymnal. But it’s fairly certain that that’s not the case. Sauers not only believes deeply in his company and its sustainability mission, he cares deeply about it, too. He is part of a small corps of committed souls not often heralded in the world of corporate sustainability.

In 2010, P&G, the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world, announced a set of 2020 sustainability goals, an update to the goals the company set in 2007. The 2010 goals made four broad commitments: to power P&G plants with 100% renewable energy, use 100% renewable or recycled materials in all products and packaging, have zero consumer and manufacturing waste go to landfills, and design and sell products “that delight consumers, while maximizing the conservation of resources.”

As part of P&G’s first sustainability goals, in 2007, there was the goal of achieving at least $50 billion in sales of “sustainable innovation products”—those that have an improved environmental profile. To meet that threshold, the products must have a 10% reduction in one or more of the following indicators without negatively impacting the overall sustainability profile of the product: energy, water, transportation, amount of material used in packaging or products, and substitution of nonrenewable energy or materials with renewable sources.

In its 2012 sustainability report, the company said it had exceeded that goal, with cumulative sales of $52 billion.

The third leg of P&G’s sustainability stool is decidedly social. In 2007, it committed more than five years to “prevent 160 million days of disease from unclean water and save 20,000 lives by delivering 4 billion liters of clean water through our P&G Children’s Safe Drinking Water program.” Last year, P&G upped the ante, pledging by 2020 to “save one life every hour by delivering 2 billion liters of clean water every year.”

Sauers’ role in all of this was enhanced recently during a company reorganization that gave him the responsibility of accounting for global product stewardship, not “just” global sustainability. Sauers, a nearly 25-year veteran of P&G, says the move was intended to simplify the company’s management structure by putting various parts of the sustainability value chain within a single organization. That means everything—from materials science for products and packaging, to sustainable sourcing of raw materials, to increased use of renewable energy for facilities, to less-wasteful plant operation, to the dozens of social marketing programs tied to specific P&G products—all live within Sauers’ domain.

“As with all types of internal mergings like this, it eliminates a lot of transactions costs and allows us to bring scale to some of these programs,” Sauers says.

But Sauers has discovered that even a company of the size of P&G, with sales in 2012 at $84 billion, and the company boasting 25 billion-dollar brands, can affect only so much. “I think we’re beginning to realize now that there’s just so much a single company can do,” he says. “I’ve got 700 people, including 200 Ph.D.s, at our disposal to work on this stuff, so we have huge amounts of resources, yet the issues that we’re facing are really big to the point that in order to make meaningful advances going forward, we’re going to have to do it with partnerships.”

P&G, like many other consumer-goods companies, is engaging in dozens of partnerships around the world, with environmental groups, trade associations, government entities, universities and others.

For example, earlier this year, the company joined forces with Coca-Cola Co., Ford Motor Co., H.J. Heinz Co. and Nike Inc. on a new Plant PET Technology Collaborative to accelerate the development and deployment of sustainable plant-based plastics. The new plastic will be used to completely replace a common packaging plastic made from fossil fuels. In another example, Sauers says he has just returned from China, where he formalized a partnership with the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences to collaborate on a host of challenges.