Unilever’s new sustainability plan is wide in its ambition and scope

Unilever’s new sustainability plan is wide in its ambition and scopeWe all, by now, know the problem. Mankind is consuming too much. Three times too much if we wish to maintain the planet’s already depleted renewable resources as they are, research suggests.

So what to do? Consumer giant Unilever has a plan, launched in a blaze of publicity in November, and it even has a name: Sustainable Living.

The intent is clear: 50 exacting social, environmental and economic targets over the next ten years. In scale and depth, the commitments are arguably unprecedented for a company the size of Unilever.

By 2020, for instance, the Anglo-Dutch multinational pledges to halve its products’ environmental footprint. On the supply side, 100% of its agricultural raw materials – “everything from green tea to purple carrots” – will be sustainably sourced. And, not to overlook the public health crisis, one billion people will be helped to improve their health and wellbeing.

Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, is not wrong to call the plan “ambitious and challenging”. Each target alone represents a huge undertaking. Put together, they are mammoth.

So is it worth the effort? Will such commitments really make a difference? Unilever obviously thinks so. If it remains true to its word, the next decade will see it plough millions of dollars into turning its plan into reality.

Scaling up

Naturally, much of the plan’s impact will rest on Unilever’s ability to deliver. And the odds are far from certain.

In its favour, Unilever has already made some big strides. Take its supply chains. European sales of the company’s Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips teabags, for example, are now entirely Rainforest Alliance certified.

But Unilever buys big, and by its own admission it needs to speed up progress ten-fold over the next decade to reach full sustainability.

There’s a knowledge gap too: it currently has no idea how to make at least one-fifth of its agricultural supply chain sustainable.

Likewise, challenges abound regarding its products. Some are technical, such as reducing the water requirement of washing liquids. Others depend on consumer choice, such as the general preference for sugary, fatty foods over healthier options.

As Jonathan Porritt, founder of UK environment group Forum for the Future, asked at the Unilever plan’s launch: “When will a Magnum ice-cream be the embodiment of sustainable gratification?” The inference: not for a while.

If we presume Unilever does hit all its targets by 2020, what then? Will the world be a better place? Again, Polman expresses confidence, and to an extent, he’s right. Already, 15 million people in India have safe drinking water thanks to the company’s PureIt purifier product. Any multiple of that figure marks a positive development.

But Polman himself admits that the Sustainable Living Plan would have “failed” if 2020 arrives and other companies have not got on board.

Systemic change ultimately lies not in single product solutions, but in alterations to the general infrastructure, argues John Elkington, co-founder of UK consultancy SustainAbility.

“It’s wonderful that Unilever is doing this,” he said, also speaking at the launch, “but what can we do to get the infrastructure required?”

Lobbying policymakers marks one crucial step and Unilever is not silent on that front. Later this year, for instance, it intends to call for a moratorium on deforestation in south-east Asia.

The list of other steps runs on, however: persuading industry laggards, convincing investor sceptics, cajoling reluctant consumers, getting buy-in from developing countries, increasing the understanding of regulators. All are needed to build structural solutions.

Ultimately, Unilever’s pledge points to a new model of doing business: one in which economic growth is “decoupled” from negative socio-economic costs. One company, however large, cannot shape the system. But it can but signal the way.

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