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Earlier this year, the 2013 Sustainable Brands conference convened in San Diego, California, and to highlight some of the ideas and initiatives represented at the conference, we asked some of the leading business executives in attendance to share with us how their organizations think about and practice sustainability across the board. Read the full series here.
In the late nineteenth century William Hesketh Lever, founder of one of the businesses that would eventually become Unilever, wrote down his purpose for Sunlight Soap – a revolutionary product that helped popularize cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England – ‘to make cleanliness commonplace.’ He believed that businesses could act as agents for social change and that it was necessary to balance profit with responsible behavior. Two centuries later a lot has happened in the world, including economic booms, depressions, world wars and advances in technology. New challenges face society; however, the commitment to be a responsible business remains at Unilever’s core with our company purpose ‘to make sustainable living commonplace.’
Today’s challenges – increased resource scarcity, climate change, civil unrest, inequality and poverty – are in danger of overwhelming our world. At Unilever, we believe that business must be part of the solution. This resonates deeply for me, as North America Vice President of Sustainable Living and Corporate Communications at Unilever and importantly as a father to an eight-year-old son.
Unilever is focused on growing our business in line with the needs of the communities we serve, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the only way to guarantee long-term prosperity. Growth and sustainability are not in conflict; in fact, we’ve seen that sustainability drives growth through opportunities for innovation and cost and risk management. A huge opportunity exists for businesses that embrace this new model of responsible capitalism, but we must be willing to change our approach and abandon outdated business models. We believe that businesses must view themselves as part of society and focus on the long term, and the needs of citizens and communities must carry the same weight as shareholders.
We started to move toward this approach by giving ourselves the space to operate in the best long-term interests of all of our stakeholders. We abandoned providing financial guidance, changed our compensation system for the long term and moved away from quarterly profit reporting. Then, in 2010, having aligned our own employees, we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – calling for a doubling of the size of the company, while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact.
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is our response to the need for real and radical change. It encompasses all brands, categories and countries, taking co-responsibility for the total value chain. The Plan has three big goals by 2020: (1) to help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being (2) to halve the environmental impact of our products (3) to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably, protecting the livelihoods of more than 500,000 smallholder farmers. The business case for sustainable growth is clear – there is no alternative.
We are now two years into the 10-year plan. Our business is growing and we’re starting to see how putting sustainable living at the heart of our business model is contributing to our success. It’s helping us reduce costs and risks, and the Unilever brands that have made sustainable living central to their product innovation and brand purpose are increasing sales. Some great examples of how our brands are embedding sustainable living here in the U.S. are: Dove, which is driving female self esteem through the Campaign for Real Beauty; Ben & Jerry’s, which is promoting social causes around peace and social justice, Hellmann’s, which is improving nutrition through its Real Food program and Knorr, which is driving sustainable agriculture through its Sustainability Partnership with vegetable suppliers.
We are making good progress in manufacturing eco-efficiency, sourcing our raw materials sustainably and rolling out sustainable product and packaging innovation. As well as reducing our costs, our manufacturing eco-efficiency program has reduced our environmental impacts faster than ever. In April of this year, we achieved 100% zero waste-to-landfill in North America for all of our manufacturing and non-manufacturing facilities, including our New Jersey headquarters and our Research & Development facility in Connecticut. We have also reduced risks to our business. Around half of our raw materials come from agriculture. By sourcing more from sustainable sources we can continue to grow our business with more secure sources of supply.
Although we are proud of the progress we’ve made, we continue to face considerable challenges in scaling up health and hygiene behavior programs, reducing environmental impacts across the value chain, and encouraging consumers to use less water and energy at home when they wash and clean with our products.
The issues we face are too big for Unilever to address without collaboration. We are working with others to drive change in sustainable forestry and agriculture, improve smallholder farmers’ livelihoods, provide safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene to more people, and to encourage sustainable consumption.
At Unilever, we have challenged ourselves to form and engage in partnerships and alliances to affect impactful change and have created new models and different ways of thinking. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Every generation needs a new revolution.” It is our hope that others will join us in building sustainable businesses and promoting responsible capitalism.
Jonathan is Unilever’s Vice President of Sustainable Living and Corporate Communications, North America.