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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

Unilever. Making sustainable living commonplace.

Updated: May 9, 2022

This is an excerpt from a chapter of the For Love & Money book by Carolyn Butler- Madden

Unilever is one of the world’s largest packaged goods companies. It produces food, beverages, cleaning and personal care products. Its business is a huge contributor to the environmental problem. Yet its purpose forces it to tackle the very problem that it contributes to.

If you are wondering whether your business can serve a purpose that tackles a problem it contributes to, look no further than Unilever for inspiration.

The company’s philosophy of doing well by doing good goes all the way back to its founder, William Lever. William launched Sunlight Soap in Victorian Britain, to help tackle infectious diseases. It’s a mindset that has continued ever since.

Unilever’s brands are used by 2 billion people every day worldwide. They include Dove, Lynx (known as Axe in some markets), Brut, Rexona, Persil, Omo, Surf, Sunsilk, Marmite, PG Tips, Vaseline, Impulse, Conti- nental, Ben & Jerry’s and Streets Ice Cream.

When it launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010, it set hundreds of targets and commitments that fell under three key goals:

  1. To help more than a billion people improve their health and wellbeing

  2. To halve the environmental impact of the making and use of our products

  3. To enhance the livelihoods of thousands of people in our supply chain.

These were incredibly ambitious goals. Unilever’s leadership recognised this and acknowledged that it was possible they would not achieve them. It didn’t stop them from trying, though.

Now, let’s fast forward to the end of 2020 and see some of their achievements.

  • Unilever has positively impacted the health and hygiene of 1.3 billion people.

  • 61 per cent of its food and beverage portfolio reached the highest nutritional standards.

  • It has achieved a 75 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and a 96 per cent reduction in total waste per tonne of production since 2008.

Not a bad scorecard, do you agree? It didn’t achieve all of the goals it set out to, but it has been transparent with this, publishing a report on its website. It believes the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan made it a better company for the long term; and that its leadership in sustainability acted as a magnet for talent, making them the number-one employer of choice in fifty-four out of seventy-five markets.

Listen to our podcast interview with Nicky Sparshott CEO of Unilever Australia & New Zealand On Purposeful Leadership

Recently, Unilever has launched its new long-term sustainable business strategy, the Unilever Compass.

Unilever’s purpose continues to exist at the heart of the business and its strategy. It is recognised as a source of huge inspiration to everyone at Unilever.

Unilever’s vision is to be the global leader in sustainable business:

We will demonstrate how our purpose-led, future-fit business model drives superior performance consistently delivering financial results in the top third of our industry.

In a recorded session laying out their strategy, Unilever’s leaders highlight their determination to end the debate on whether there is a trade-off between purpose and performance. They know there isn’t. They also know that this misperception is damaging to the progress the world needs to make. They acknowledge that being purpose-led alone will not lead to success. They have to be future-fit in many ways to be relevant to people’s needs.

The Unilever Compass defines five key pillars of strategic choices and actions, working to the benefit of all of their stakeholders – employees, consumers, customers, suppliers and business partners, society and the planet and shareholders. The key pillars are:

  1. Develop our portfolio into high-growth areas: hygiene, skin care, prestige beauty, functional nutrition and plant-based food.

  2. Win with our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation.

  3. Accelerate in USA, India, China and key growth markets.

  4. Lead in the channels of the future.

  5. Build a purpose-led future-fit organisation and growth culture.

For the purpose of this book, I’m going to share with you just some of the commitments that fall under strategic choice #2. That said, I do want to highlight that Unilever’s purpose runs through every single one of these pillars. I wish I could share more here, but it would dominate this book if I did. Much as I find Unilever a great source of inspiration, I want to share a lot of stories with you, so you can see the breadth of this movement. So let me instead attempt to give you a sense of what Unilever is out to achieve...

Win with our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation

Supporting this pillar are four key targets: 1. Improve the health of the planet 2. Improve people’s health, confidence and wellbeing

3. Contribute to a fairer, more socially inclusive world

4. Win with differentiated science and technology.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

Improve the health of the planet

Building on the work it has already done, Unilever has set some clear targets for the future under three goals:

  1. Climate action

  2. Protect and regenerate nature

  3. Build a waste-free world.

The targets it has defined are clear and bold, and they aren’t just about driving action in its own operations. It aims to have impact upstream and downstream across the entire value chain. The ‘climate action’ targets include having zero emissions in its operations by 2030, net-zero emissions from all products from sourcing to point of sale by 2039 (a decade earlier than the Paris Agreement) and sharing the carbon footprint of every product it sells.

Unilever is driving some truly innovative developments through what it calls its ‘Carbon Rainbow’, a novel approach to diversifying the carbon used in its product formulations. Non-renewable fossil sources of carbon (identified in the Carbon Rainbow as black carbon) will be replaced using captured carbon dioxide (purple carbon), plants and biological sources (green carbon), marine sources such as algae (blue carbon), and carbon recovered from waste materials (grey carbon).

Unilever’s ‘protect and regenerate nature’ targets include having a deforestation-free supply chain in palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa by 2023; 100 per cent sustainable sourcing of key agricultural crops; and a commitment that 100 per cent of its ingredients will be bio- degradable by 2030.

To support both the ‘climate action’ and ‘protect and regenerate nature’ targets, Unilever has committed to a €1 billion climate and nature fund.

When it comes to its targets around building a waste-free world, most of its efforts are aimed at plastic waste – a critical issue for its industry. Working to accelerate transition towards a circular economy, it has defined its 2025 targets, which include halving the use of virgin plastic, achieving 25 per cent recycled plastic; and collecting and processing more plastic than it sells. It aims to achieve 100 per cent reusable, recyc- lable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025.

Improve people’s health, confidence and wellbeing

Unilever’s ambition is to be a world-class force for good in food. Through technology, partnership and its brands, it is championing ‘positive nutrition’ – aiming to fix a broken food system for everyone everywhere.

Unilever’s Future Foods commitments include targets such as €1 billion of plant-based meat and dairy sales, halving the food waste in its operations and doubling the number of products delivering positive nutrition.

Its brands will be at the frontline, delivering on its Future Foods commitments:

  • Ben and Jerry’s is continuing the fight for social, economic and envi- ronmental justice.

  • Wall’s ice cream is establishing a human happiness movement.

  • Hellman’s is taking on food waste with its Make Taste Not Waste campaign.

  • Horlicks and Boost Energy are helping to solve India’s food tragedy, with beverages designed to support the nutritional needs of children and adults.

  • Knorr’s ‘Eat For Good’ campaign is helping people eat more healthily and sustainably. In its Beauty and Personal Care division, it is championing ‘positive beauty for people and planet’: improving the health and wellbeing and advancing equity and inclusion for billions of people. Some examples include:

  • Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, which empowers young girls to grow up with confidence and find their own voice. So far this program has touched the lives of 149 million people in over 50 countries.

  • Vaseline’s Healing Project, which is helping to heal the skin of people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world.

Unilever also wants to reach beyond the individual and into communities. Lifebuoy’s handwashing program is a strong example of this. Since 2010 it has reached more than 500 million people through on-ground programs. Partnerships with organisations such as Girl Guides have enabled it to have 150,000 guides as handwashing heroes in their communities.

Through these initiatives and many more, Unilever is challenging the so-called norms of society. In fact, it’s making it a commitment. It is saying no to ‘normal’ and yes to positive beauty. It has a rousing ad that I recommend you seek out by googling ‘Unilever positive beauty say no to normal’. Here are just some of the norms it’s saying no to:

  • Girls being weaker than boys

  • Guys being told how real men should behave

  • Children dying from preventative diseases

  • Testing on animals for safety

  • Telling people what beautiful looks like.

It’s removing the word ‘normal’ from its products and advertising to build a more inclusive vision of beauty. More than that, it won’t just do less harm; it’s committed to doing more good.

This means enhancing the lives of 1 billion people by taking action to improve health, hygiene and wellbeing.

It means building body confidence. Championing inclusion. Fighting for racial and gender equality. And protecting and regenerating more of the planet than it uses for its beauty products.

Unilever’s example demonstrates the enormous power that businesses and brands have in creating vital societal change and carving out new markets and opportunities as a result.

With clear and bold leadership, business has an opportunity to show just how much potential it has yet to fulfil.

Are you ready to join the movement yet?

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