Is Unilever too ambitious? (Part I of II)
By John Elkington
There are companies you like — and companies you don’t like. Unfortunately, the market performance of those you like doesn’t always match that of those you don’t. Interest declared: I have always liked Unilever and their genetic code in the sense that their founding values and activities made them something of a social enterprise of the day – and one that has cracked the overarching question for social entrepreneurs today, how to scale.
That said, Unilever’s shares are currently trading at a discount to those of some of their major competitors, something the financial media are not slow in pointing out. But in the sustainability stakes, Unilever is once again pushing the envelope – with a set of new targets for the coming decade that, I believe, jumps them into a clear leadership position.
Earlier in the week, I took part in a webcast panel session moderated by BBC presenter Jonathan Dimbleby, and featuring people like Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future. The aim: to launch Unilever’s “Sustainable Living Plan.”
When grilled on what I thought of it all, I could only reply, perhaps uncharitably: better late than never — and better 40-50% solutions than none. But we have no choice but to go for the full 100% – and Unilever, big though it is, is only one actor in a global economic system that is still profoundly unsustainable.
That said, I confess, I often have to pinch myself these days. Changes that in the late 1980s we expected to happen within a few years – and which then stalled for what at times seemed a lifetime – are now breaking loose all around. One reason: a new breed of CEOs and business leaders is picking up the green reins and announcing plans to drive sustainability right through their value chains, increasingly down to the level of the individual consumer.
Over 20 years ago with our million-selling book, The Green Consumer Guide, Julia Hailes and I tried to help consumers drive change in companies. Now it seems as if the process is going into reverse, with companies, rather than consumers, in the green driving seat.
So why is this happening now? There are many reasons, but a critical factor is that, like everyone else, leading CEOs are now seeing the evidence of environmental change with their own eyes. Issues like climate change, access to water and poverty alleviation are pushing their way onto the Board and C-suite agendas.
And there’s something else going on, too. In 1989, we followed up with The Green Consumer Supermarket Shopping Guide, recognizing the critical role of the retail sector in driving change — or, at that point in time, stalling it. Not long after, I visited one of the supermarket chains that had been pretty recalcitrant at the time, Marks & Spencer, and was shown a copy of our original 99-page questionnaire, which they were using as a checklist to determine their next steps.
No way do I claim responsibility for the brilliant M&S Plan A – let alone for Wal-Mart’s progressive greening, the latter tracking back to Hurricane Katrina, which sorely bruised the company and persuaded then-CEO Lee Scott that sustainability would have to be built into everything Wal-Mart does.
But all of this has building for a long time—indeed, we built on earlier work that had been done by people like Ralph Nader and groups like Friends of the Earth, the latter in areas like ozone depletion and tropical deforestation. It’s chastening to remember I had been working with the Chairman of Lever (part of the Unilever group) in Switzerland and Italy in the late 1980s, but that we had struggled to get the attention of the international Unilever Board. Then The Green Consumer Guide launched and, for a while, everything changed.
To be continued. In the second half of this two-part post, Elkington will discuss Unilever’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan and what it means for business.
About John Elkington
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