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Unilever: Consumer Behavior Remains the Elusive Key to Sustainability

Image credit: Unilever

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 13th article in the series.

How do you influence consumers to think it’s cool to care about sustainability? Jonathan Atwood of Unilever North America hasn’t found the answer yet, but he does know it’s the key to a successful sustainability program.

“How do you make it cool to say that taking a five- or six-minute shower – or maybe even turning down the temperature – is actually the good thing to do, the right thing to do?” said Atwood, VP of sustainable business and communications at the Netherlands-based consumer goods company. “We continue to struggle with how to do this. Will it take a regulatory change where we mandate that all new homes must have low-flow shower heads? How do we create a movement of people that say, ‘I get it. I want to be part of the change’?”

It’s not a new problem, Atwood said.

“We’ve been at this for six years. The one place that has confounded us for all these years has been consumer behavior change,” he said. “We undertook the Sustainable Living Plan and found that 70–75 percent of the overall impact within our supply chain is in consumer behavior, and we’re not making progress. We know what the issue is. We just can’t find the unlock.”

Atwood, along with Tracy Shepard Rashkin, a sustainable communities brand manager for Unilever Foods North America, recently talked to News Deeply about the company’s efforts and the challenges of implementing a successful sustainability program.

What’s new with your sustainability program that people may not know about?

Atwood: We’ve recently made a commitment that 100 percent of our packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. We’re not all that close right now, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. But we acknowledge that packaging that ends up in oceans is an issue, and packaging that goes straight to the landfill is not appropriate, nor is it sustainable.

Also, we’ve developed a technology solution to address sachet waste, which is the smaller, flexible packaging that some raw products are in. It’s not recyclable at all right now and it’s very difficult to pick up because they’re so small. We’re piloting a solution at a plant in Indonesia, and we think it has the potential to be a big solve for these issues. We plan to open source it so that other companies can use it.

Shepard Rashkin: From a foods perspective, this year we’ve really crystallized our strategy, which is bringing the overarching goals of the Sustainable Living Plan around the environmental impact of our products, and improving health and well-being for people. We have defined what that means for foods – which is promoting and creating food that tastes good, does good and doesn’t cost the earth. “Taste good” is table stakes, obviously; “doesn't cost the earth” relates to our sustainable sourcing; and “does good” is all about nutrition and making a positive impact in the societies that we serve.

What have you learned through consumer research?

Atwood: We conducted research last year in five countries to get consumers’ views and track their opinions against their purchasing behavior. One of the fascinating things we found is a third of those people are really interested in sustainable products, and another 20-25 percent would do it if they had a little more information. There’s a desire to do this – to buy sustainably, and to buy from companies that are being authentic, that are providing sustainable products and have purpose.

There’s an opportunity here, because as we’ve said all along, what we’re doing now is not all the way there. There’s a gap between what people say they will do and what they do – you might say you want to buy sustainably, and then you don’t.

This say-do gap is something we’ve been looking at and trying to address. How do we break through so that sustainable products become more mainstream, as opposed to being reserved for a few people, or that can only be bought in certain places?

You mentioned that the tough thing with your supply chain is not your production – it’s getting consumers to change their behavior. How is Unilever addressing the consumer gap in behavior?

Atwood: We’re taking responsibility for consumer behavior, particularly in showering and shower behavior – the heating of hot water, the greenhouse gases related to that, the water usage itself. How do we bring those into line in a way that people can change their behavior and stay changed? We’ve done a number of things that have proven to be quite productive for a short period of time, but the people don’t stay changed.

Rashkin: Our “Growing Roots” initiative is a bright spot where we have actually proven behavior change. We have a program that’s all about improving access to fresh food in underserved urban communities and education around nutritious cooking. It started in New York, partnering with the mayor’s office, the New York Community Housing Authority and an NGO called Green City Force, which hires public housing residents aged 18–25 to build and maintain urban farms in community housing projects.

It creates a vibrant green space for the community and provides vegetables free of charge to folks who previously didn’t have affordable access to vegetables. They live in food swamp areas where a grocery store selling fresh vegetables may be 10 blocks away, but between them and that grocery store are 10 blocks of stores selling chips and soda.

We’re trying to make fresh food the convenient and affordable option, then pair that with community cooking classes with recipes that are affordable, culturally relevant, easy to make. This gives people the tools to turn that access into an adoptable behavior that can actually change routines. We did door-to-door research before the intervention and afterward, and we saw a statistically significant increase in purchase behavior of vegetables, consumption of vegetables and at-home cooking occasions versus eating fast food.

Families want to feed their kids nutritious meals. It’s helping them overcome the barriers they experience in doing that – that’s kind of the easier side of behavior change in many ways. It’s about providing them with those tools.

The Sustainable Living Plan has three objectives: Help a billion people take steps to improve their health and wellbeing; halve the environmental impact of your products; and enhance the livelihood of millions. How are you doing with each of those?

Atwood: I think 538 million, out of the billion, is what we reported on health and wellbeing. We’re doing well on the environmental front in our own operations – we continue to see a reduction in greenhouse gases, energy usage and water usage – but consumer behavior is an ongoing issue.

Our sourcing story continues to be good. We’re at 51 percent and we said we’d be 100 percent by 2020. There’s been a small reduction because we’ve moved away from GreenPalm certificates for palm oil, and we’ve moved into a physically traceable 2019 target. I would say we’re making strong progress.


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