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Profile of a Sustainable Brand Leader, Part Two: Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan

In November 2010, under the leadership of its new CEO Paul Polman, Unilever launched a bold 10-year plan to double its revenues, slash its environmental impact by half and improve the lives of one billion people around the world. In the years leading up to this announcement, the company first established a strategic vision that would embed sustainability entirely within its brands’ DNA through its Brand Imprint Initiative.

The company spelled out its goals publicly in its Sustainable Living Plan but acknowledged it had no clear roadmap for how it would achieve them. From the beginning, however, Unilever’s corporate leadership recognized that all brands under the Unilever umbrella are integral to the company’s new strategy to source more sustainable raw materials; reduce waste, water and energy consumption; and meaningfully improve the lives of its customers around the world. Unilever’s progress, two years after its announcement, proves that brands can be the catalyst behind a multinational company’s bid to improve the lives of people, heal the planet and boost profits. And internally this program has had a key role in engaging the company’s employees as well. In a recent phone interview, Unilever’s SVP Global Marketing, Marc Mathieu, explained that the plan’s results so far have inspired a greater sense of resourcefulness, creativity and empowerment within the company’s workforce.

After announcing the Sustainable Living Plan and its goals, Unilever faced daunting challenges during the initiative’s first several months. First, the company had to identify consumer behaviors that the brands needed to change, and then determine the most effective and sustainable options the company wanted those same consumers to embrace. To that end, a cross-functional team developed what it described as five levers that can modify consumer behaviors in ways that would both build brand loyalty and ameliorate those same products’ effects on the planet. First, these changes had to be understood and clear so that people would know what to do. Next, these steps not only had to be easy so that consumers would follow the path of least resistance, but also desirable. It was also critical that these new behaviors were so rewarding that in the end they would become habits Unilever’s consumers would embrace.

Unilever’s challenge starts with the massive volume of its products sold daily. Over two billion times each day, people consume Unilever products in almost every nation on earth. Whether consumers purchase them at “big box” stores in wealthy nations or buy small amounts in sachets at kiosks in poorer countries, the company’s collective environmental and social impacts are huge. But Unilever’s brand portfolio also offers opportunities for a deeper, more meaningful and positive impact on both people and the planet. Examples within the company now abound, including educating customers about ethical ingredients; certifying farmers so they grow crops sustainably; and teaching health habits that Unilever insists will save millions of lives in the long run.

For instance, Lipton has taken an aggressive path on the ethical certification of the farms from which the company procures tea. Even before the Sustainable Living Plan launched, Lipton sourced all tea for its Yellow Label tea sold in Western Europe from Rainforest Alliance-certified farms. Lipton’s main goal is to have all teabags earn that certification by 2015; currently the amount of the company’s tea purchased from such farms stands at 28 percent. To reach that goal, Lipton provides training to farmers on better agricultural practices so that they can double or triple their yields, which benefits their families and of course, Lipton. By the end of 2011, Lipton had trained over 300,000 smallholder farmers, an impressive logistical feat considering many of them grow tea on less than two hectares. According to Mathieu, the scale of Lipton’s certification program will have a ripple effect throughout the tea industry – proving that a brand can change an entire sector.

Other Unilever brands across the world are transforming how they source materials and interact with stakeholders. In North America, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream will include only fair trade-certified ingredients by the end of 2013, a boost for workers who cultivate the cacao and vanilla that for 30 years have contributed to the ice cream brand’s cult-like popularity. Animals benefit, too: Hellmann’s now only sources cage-free eggs for its light mayonnaise product. The transformation of Unilever’s brands will not only benefit workers throughout the company’s supply chain but have an impact on customers’ well-being, too.

Unilever’s personal care brands have launched an ambitious agenda on the public health front. Lifebuoy Soap is on the cusp of changing the behavior of over one billion people in developing countries by demonstrating the critical health benefits of the simple act of washing hands. As part of what Mathieu describes as Lifebuoy’s “purposeful mission,” on October 15, 250 million people participated in Global Hand-Washing Day, an event that Unilever co-sponsored with the United Nations. And on November 19, World Toilet Day, professionals who work within the company’s Domestos household cleaner brand began a “Toilet Academy” training program that will teach entrepreneurs in Vietnam how to source, sell and maintain toilets – one stop in addressing the challenge 2.5 billion people face daily who lack access to safe sanitation.

No matter how ambitious, responsible or empowering Unilever’s goals may be, the company’s progress must be quantified in order to show its stakeholders – with total clarity and transparency – metrics. With reporting focused on what had been done instead of what will be done, Unilever’s shares its progress across its entire value chain with updated reports on over 50 targets. The company groups these targets into three categories: health and well-being, environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods. Whether these goals involve improved nutrition, water stewardship or responsible supply chain sourcing, stakeholders can easily navigate through the company’s Sustainable Living portal. Each section articulates Unilever’s goals and offers a key that displays whether the target was achieved, is on target, off target, or was missed.

Programs specific to various markets in which Unilever operates have also made a difference in people’s lives worldwide. The distribution of heat retention cookers, which the curry powder brand Rajah spearheaded in South Africa, created 650 jobs and tripled the sale of one of the company’s product lines. One of Unilever’s oldest detergent brands, Sunlight, supported a solar water heater installation program that benefited 6,000 homes. Across the Indian Ocean, in India, the ability to buy single sachets of products has long boosted many brands’ sales while allowing poorer consumers an affordable option to buy products including detergent and soaps. But many of them had ended up in landfills, so the company launched a pilot project that could turn those empty sachets into fuel.

Two years in, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan demonstrates how a multinational company can leverage its brands and their relationships with consumers to instill sustainable thinking, develop healthier habits and improve the lives of people who work daily to grow the ingredients that end up in Unilever products. Mathieu explained that sustainability is now at the forefront of the company’s strategy as more consumers understand that Unilever’s brands can be good for them as well as the planet. Within the company, supply chain professionals, marketers and research and development staff now take into account sustainability and social impact as they continue to innovate, rethink sourcing methods and determine how their products can generate a wide social impact. The power of brands, integrated with a new commitment to sustainability, shows that profits and care for the planet do not have to be mutually exclusive.


Leon Kaye is founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. A consultant and business writer, he frequently writes about sustainability efforts in the Balkans, renewable energy, and water issues.

[Read more about Leon Kaye]


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