This past weekend, the things for which I gave thanks included the example now being set by one of the world’s largest conglomerates. I’m referring to Unilever’s newly announced 10-year commitment to sustainability, making it perhaps the first mega-corporation to actually initiate such a groundbreaking effort. The company’s comprehensive plan encompasses 50 specific goals in seven categories: health and hygiene, nutrition, greenhouse gases, water, waste, sustainable sourcing, and better livelihoods.
While many enterprises are in the process of developing sustainability programs, the idea of a multinational on the scale of Unilever taking on something so ambitious in scope is especially noteworthy. So, too, is the direct involvement of its CEO, Paul Polman, who did a breakout presentation that was seen across the world. What made this all the more significant was that sustainability programs typically are not driven by CEOs — but when they are, they have a way of almost magically becoming reality. In Unilever’s case, that could mean realizing some big and audacious goals indeed, like helping promote the health and well-being of no less than a billion people, halving the environmental footprint of Unilever’s products, and using materials only from100 percent sustainable sources in manufacturing them. This is truly bold — the sort of campaign I have been hoping for years to see a large company launch — and worthy of applause from all quarters. And what better time to hear such encouraging and gratifying news than over Thanksgiving Weekend!
An idea of what the company has in mind can be gleaned from the opening statement on its “Sustainable Living” home page, which reads: “We have to develop new ways of doing business which will increase the social benefits from Unilever’s activities while at the same time reducing our environmental impacts. That is why we created the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan”
I have always thought that a major corporation would lead the way in getting such initiatives off the ground and provide the momentum to move them forward, and the announcement of this plan sounds like exactly the sort of thing I envisioned. Now what I’m hoping is that Unilever will inspire other multinationals, such as Nestle, to emulate it. In fact, Paul Polman (whom I met back when he was with Nestle) gave voice to that very prospect by noting that “this is not a project to celebrate, but a business model to implement. The consumer wants [action on sustainability], the retailer wants it, and it often results in innovation and in lower costs. But we don’t have all the answers. We will all have to work together—Pepsi will have to work with Coke, the U.S. will have to work with China and Greenpeace will have to work with WWF.” Such an appeal for collaboration between companies, countries and environmentalists is precedent-setting for a large multinational company, and just what was needed at this time to jump-start the ethic of sustainability (and just when I was starting to think it had lost its effectiveness).
When all the multinationals come together to tackle such issues as greenhouse gases, water and energy conservation, and waste elimination, that will be a dream come true. So thank you Unilever and Paul Polman. And thanks also to the two other individuals helping to lead this effort, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed and Marc Mathieu, the company’s highly talented new senior vice president of marketing who has been working on getting sustainability into the DNA of Unilever brands since he arrived.
Please check out www.sustainable-living.unilever.com and let Unilever know how much you appreciate this bold new initiative so that others may follow.