Is Unilever too ambitious? (Part II of II)
By John Elkington
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.
Within weeks Procter & Gamble arrived on our doorstep wanting to work with us, at Director level, over a number of years. Interestingly, because all of this was in the process of becoming competitive, they didn’t want us to work with any part of Unilever. That was then. Today by contrast, I find myself working with – of all companies – Nestle. There, too, Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and CEO Paul Bulke have woken up to the challenge and are focusing on three Big Issues: nutrition, rural development and, critically, water. Peter Brabeck notes unless they can get the water issue sorted, a company that has a 150-year history won’t make it to its 200th birthday. They now talk about the challenge of creating shared value.
Whether or not we like particular companies, we all have a shared interest in business getting all of this right, but there is again a clear, competitive dynamic at present. And as the trend builds, we see a growing number of leading brands – and the holding companies behind them – vying to demonstrate their green (and wider sustainability) credentials.
In launching the Unilever ‘Sustainable Living Plan,’ Unilever CEO Paul Polman stressed “growth at any cost is not viable,” insisting “we want to be a sustainable business in every sense of the word.” The aim is to increasingly decouple the company’s growth plans from related environmental footprints by:
- Cutting the amount of water used per ton of product by 65% in absolute terms, against 1995 baseline;
- Doubling internal use of renewable energy to 40%;
- Halving the environmental footprint of all new production plants; and,
- Helping some 1 billion people around the world to improve their wealth and well being—in part by getting clean water (through their Pureit technology) to 500 million people by 2020.
As Polman concluded, “ultimately we will only succeed if we inspire billions of people around the world to take the small, everyday actions that add up to a big difference— actions that will enable us all to live more sustainably.”
A brave initiative—and one on which I would be among the first to congratulate Unilever. To date the media coverage has been strongly – and deservedly – positive. But “the proof,” as the English tend to say, will be “in the pudding.” Unilever has gone for a 100% solution in one area, pledging itself to buy all of its raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020. Today it sources just 10% from sustainable, so the s-t-r-e-t-c-h is going to be considerable. Yet this is exactly the level of ambition the original Lever company’s founders would have embraced way back in the 1880s.
(End-note: It’s interesting to recall, however, that what brought soap-maker Lever and Dutch margarine-maker Margarine Unie together into a merged group in 1930 was a shared interest in palm oil, which they could then buy more efficiently. Palm oil has been one of the most sensitive sustainability challenges for the food sector in recent years.)
About John Elkington
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