Sustainability the Unilever Way

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Kathrin Jansen

In November 2010, the British/Dutch company Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan (SLP) with much media attention and four simultaneous live debates in London, Rotterdam, New Delhi and New York around the question: Can consumption become sustainable?

Several sustainability experts, newspapers and blogs, such as TriplePundit, covered the launch and agreed that this is a “bold” and “courageous” 10-year plan. Unilever’s CEO Paul Poleman explains the company’s new vision as “to double the size of the business while reducing the company’s environmental impact”. That is indeed a bold goal. More precisely by 2020 the company wants to

1)   Help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being,
2)   Halve the environmental impact of its products
3)   Source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably

I wanted to know how the SLP helps Unilever to achieve its sustainability goals. But after analyzing the SLP I feel a bit like Don Draper: “I’m enjoying the story so far, but I have a feeling it’s not going to end well.”

Since the 1990s, Unilever has worked towards sustainability and has achieved some success with it, like a 44% reduction of CO2 by its factories from 1995 to 2010, or a 10% sustainable sourcing of its raw materials.

So it only makes sense that SLP takes the various sustainability initiatives under one umbrella and helps Unilever to enter the next sustainability stage.

And though the SLP changes Unilever’s green approach, it is not clear if the SLP is a step forward or backward. The SLP adds Unilever’s customers and suppliers to the equation. Bringing in two of the main stakeholders makes sense from a sustainability perspective, but the approach Unilever thereby takes is interesting: “The sourcing of raw materials and the use of our products by the consumer at home have a far larger footprint.”

SLP’s website offers information and data on the footprint of both customers and suppliers. The “Product Analyzer” on the website claims to assess the environmental impact of 1600 of Unilever’s products across its life cycle in the three categories GHG emissions, water, and waste.

I wanted to find out the water “footprint” of one dose of shampoo in the U.S. and the answer is: I’m responsible for 99.9% of the water use of the shampoo. Why? “A substantial part of the total water impact of our shampoos comes from the water consumers need to wash their hair.” Though this might be true, I’m wondering what Unilever is trying to say. Does the company assume that if it convinces me to shower less or shorter it fulfills their environmental responsibility?

The SLP website is full of such examples and suggests that we should enjoy Magnum ice cream to support cocoa farmers: “Through the small act of buying an ice cream that has ingredients which are sustainably sourced, consumers can enjoy small moments of pleasure for themselves while helping to protect the environment and making others happy as well.” And though eating ice cream to protect the environment sounds tempting it is pure marketing.

Recommending to people in the developing world to use Lifebouy’s soap five times a day to protect their children from diarrhea is marketing. A global company such as Unilever has to do better. A holistic approach towards sustainability that includes all stakeholders is laudable, but the SLP is lacking some serious strategic elements. Unilever has about 400 brands that it needs to convince to work on sustainability to achieve its goals by 2020. But despite a few sentences on brand ownership and identifying key priorities the SLP is not a roadmap for the company to become a sustainable global corporation.

Nothing is wrong with Unilever using marketing or using sustainability metrics, such as sustainable sourcing, to market its products. But Unilever should not call the SLP a plan to become “a sustainable business in every sense of the word,” when the plan is a tool to convince customers to use Unilever’s products and act sustainable. Unilever’s approach of mixing marketing and sustainability efforts together doesn’t work.

I tried to contact Unilever to ask the company why it launched the SLP and what distinguishes it from its general sustainability efforts. After filling out a contact form with my questions on the website, I received an email stating that all relevant information can be found on the website. I decided to send a tweet asking for a contact at Unilever and used @unilever_press. The next day a Unilever representative tweeted back and asked me to send my questions to her email address. The person forwarded my questions to the relevant parties (on April 7th) who will hopefully respond soon.